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             A tale of the Chinese Jews 

(C) Edward Ordman 2002

       Have you ever been to a very orthodox synagogue for the Saturday morning service? It is a very long service, and non-Jews may easily miss some of the things that are happening. There are, as in many churches, two Bible readings. The 'First Lesson', to adapt a church term, is from the Torah, the first five books which reportedly were dictated by God to Moses on Mt, Sinai.  The 'Second Lesson' is from the rest of the Old Testament, usually from the prophets. The first reading is very long: the entire first five books are read through every year, with the holiday of Simchas Torah ("The Rejoicing of the Law"),  usually in October, marking the day that the last paragraphs of Deuteronomy are read and the scroll is rerolled to the other end to begin again with the first sentences of Genesis.
       When the Torah portion is read, it is read (sung) from a hand-written scroll. Nowadays it is usually read by a trained expert (Cantor or Rabbi) and those "called up" from the congregation for the reading have mainly an honorary role. But the effect of calling up people from the congregation, as well as having synagogue officers or others present on the platform, means that there is in reality a committee  supervising the reading. And that committee has a real purpose. It is their job to listen carefully to the reading, follow along in printed texts, and to make sure it is read correctly. They are supposed to stop the reader if he gets a word wrong, interchanges words, or mispronounces a word, and make him go back over it until he gets it right. And in many synagogues they actually do this. On very  rare occasions I've heard the reader have to repeat a sentence three or four times until the committee is satisfied.
        This has an interesting consequence: if the copy being read has a misprint in it, that misprint is identified very quickly and reliably.  The rule is that one misprint can be corrected; if a second misprint is found in the same copy, it must be rejected as a defective copy. (The people who copy these - yes, there really are old fashioned scribes still employed today - are slow careful, and command high prices.)
         And this sets the scene for a very odd bit of religious history. Let's back up eleven hundred years, to the early 900's, and transfer our scene of operations to the city Kai'feng, in central China. [I owe much of the following story to a book, Legends of  the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, by Professor Xu Xin of Nanjing University. Ktav Publishing, Hoboken, 1995].
        In the early 1900's a group of Jewish families traveled over the Silk Road from the Middle East to Kai'feng, the seat of the Emperor of the first Song Dynasty.  The merchants approached the emperor and explained that there was a war where they came from, it was not a safe place to raise families. They had been impressed with China on earlier visits; could they and their families settle in China?  The emperor listened to an explanation of who they were and their stories, and he consented, on two conditions. First, he didn't understand those funny names like Cohen and Levi. Pointing at them he said, "you are now Mr. Ai, you are Mr. Li, you are Mr. Zhang," and so on. And second, he had understood one lesson of the Jewish stay in Egypt. "You may keep your own beliefs and practices, but you may not prohibit your children from intermarriage."
      The Jews agreed and settled in Kai'feng. They build a synagogue there, and there is still a Jewish cemetery in Kai'feng, which has continuous Hebrew inscriptions on the gravestones for a period of one thousand years, from the early 900's to the early 1900's.
       Fast forward 700 years, to the early 1600's. Jesuit missionaries arrive in China. At the court in Beijing, they describe their God to the Chinese. And a court official replies, "Oh, yes, we have some Chinese who worship that God. They live farther west, in Kai'feng."
       And several competing groups of Christian missionaries -- I'm not sure which, Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans -- set off  to discover these Chinese Christians.  The missionaries are disputing how to translate Bible terms into Chinese, and each group hopes the Chinese Christians will take their side on these issues of translation.
       But when they get to Kai'feng, they don't discover Chinese Christians. They discover, much to their shock, Chinese Jews.
        Word gets back to Rome. And now we get involved in an entirely different issue. You may recall that there are places in the New Testament that appear to quote the Old Testament. And you may recall that some of those places don't seem to quote it correctly. How did that happen? In the 1600's, there was considerable dispute as to how accurate the Bible text was.  Had there been copying errors? Had the Jews perhaps changed the Old Testament text deliberately, to make the New Testament appear wrong?  Here were a group of Jews who had been completely out of touch with other Jews for 700 years. For 700 years they had recopied their Torah scroll by hand whenever it wore out. How accurate was their copy?  So the Pope sent out an expert on the Hebrew text, apparently even with instructions to pretend to be a Jew if necessary, to visit Kai'feng and compare the Torah of the Chinese Jews to the Torah currently used by the Jews of Europe.
        Well, after what I've said before, you won't be surprised by the answer. The copy was letter perfect. And no Jew would be surprised by that, although I gather it rather startled the Christian experts of the 1600's.  The New Testament problems have to be solved ion some other way than the idea of careless copying errors. And this may help you to understand those Jews who believe that the text we have is in fact an accurate copy of one that Moses wrote down himself as far back as the time of Mount Sinai.

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