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Chinese professor discusses Judaism and Confucianism

Published: September 5, 2008
Section: Front Page


Traveling almost 8000 miles from Shandong, China to Brandeis for a two-week stay, Professor Fu Youde, Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies of Shandong University, opened up the first of his three events with a presentation entitled, “Judaism Through Chinese Speech.”

President Jehuda Reinharz, who introduced the speaker, set the tone for the evening with an introduction contrasting the Chinese and Jewish people.

“Chinese are a huge people of 1.5 billion people who struggle with issues of over population, and the Jews are a small people who struggle with diminishing numbers,” he said, prefacing the differences between the two groups. The President then rhetorically asked, “Why does someone at Shandong University teach about Maimonides?”

Reinharz, a former Professor of Modern Jewish History in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, then went into historical interactions between Chinese and Jews, including the spread of Jewish ideas in China on the Silk Road, willingness of China to take in Jewish refugees during World War II, and Jews moving to China during the Communist Revolution.

Professor Fu began his presentation with a brief introduction explaining how he became involved in Jewish studies. His story began in 1992 when he was invited to Oxford in order to translate Hebrew works with a group of Chinese scholars.

“In 1992 I gradually realized the importance of the Jewish culture, and the

Jewish people,” Fu said. “I thought it obligatory to introduce Judaism to the Chinese people.” Fu founded the Centre for Judaic and Inter Religious Studies in 2004. Fu titled his presentation “Comparing Confucianism and Judaism.” During his speech, he laid out five contrasting ideas in Judaism and Confucianism.

The first of Fu’s main points concerned anthropomorphism – ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human. Using evidence from the Bible and Confucius’s analects, Professor Fu concluded, “where Judaism embodies a significant pattern of anthropomorphism, Confucianism displays no clear-cut traces of this character.”

Next, Fu asserted, “While Judaism is a monotheistic religion, Confucianism embraces a polytheistic approach”

To describe the polytheistic approach in Confucianism, Fu alluded to a tradition in his hometown where he returns every year for to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The day before the New Year, it is tradition for people to visit the graves of ancestors.

“When we [visit the graves] the meaning is more than respect…it is some type of worship,” asserted Fu.

The next question Fu tackled concerned Confucius himself – was he a sage or prophet? Fu alleged that Judaism is a religion of prophets with many of the central figures of the old testaments receiving direct contact from God.

However, Fu considers Confucius a “semi-prophet “ or “prophet-philosopher in a sense that he received Dao and taught it to his students and he received the Dao by learning, rather than by divine revelation.” Fu compared Confucius to a great educator like Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, not a prophet like Moses. Switching gears, Fu described similarities between Confucianism and Judaism stating, “Both Judaism and Confucianism are ethical systems as well as religions…and have several common principles and norms.”The most well known ethical similarities between the two are “The Golden Rule” – cited both Hillel the Elder in Judaism and Confucius – good deeds in prudence with words, and love of man. Fu did contrast the love of man however saying, “The fulfillment of “love men” as in Judaism’s “love thy neighbor” is not limited to a family, a clan, a tribe, a city or a country; it is extended to all human beings. However, Confucius’s dispensation of love has priorities – one should love one’s parents first, then other family members, then one’s villagers, then countrymen, then others.”

Immediately following Professor Fu, Professor Emeritus of History John Schrecker offered his own views and critique of Fu’s presentation. As a man who considers himself a Jew and a follower of Confucius, Professor Schrecker argued that Confucianism should not be considered a religion, but more of an “ethics system” with a “socio-historical” element to it, citing that the Catholic Church also allows its followers to follow Confucius and be a member of the church.

Prof. John Samet (PHIL) followed Schrecker, offering that there’s a more complex view to Judaism than Fu initially presented in contrasting Judaism with Confucianism.

“Judaism is a tradition that has evolved in the Darwinian sense,” said Samet. “Its patterns of growth and change are not always predictable.”

Fu will speak twice more next week.