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The perseverance of faith and the perils of assimilation

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain on the situation of Chinese Jews in a piece which was published in The Times.

Why did the Ten Lost Tribes get lost? And might it happen again to other religious groups in our own time? The term refers to the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (another two tribes formed the Southern Kingdom) who were taken into exile after the Assyrian conquest in 722 BC. They found themselves cut off from their religious heartland in Israel and intermingling with other subject nations; they assimilated away and were lost to history.

It meant that the Jewish story ever since has been two-twelfths of what it might have been otherwise. It also begs the question of how well faith can survive when it is separated from its roots — be they geographical or social.

In ancient times one’s God was associated with one’s country’s borders — which is why the naive prophet, Jonah, sought to escape God’s orders by leaving the land of Israel on a boat, only to find that God did not have territorial limits.

Once the idea was accepted that God was universal, faith became a portable homeland which could be taken abroad (as happened for
Jews during the Roman exile) or exported to other countries (as Christians and Muslims did very successfully).

However, the social situation still presents difficulties. When a faith group is a minority it is hard not to be influenced by the dominant culture. For instance, most Jews in Britain wear their wedding ring on the ring finger of the left hand, as is the Christian custom, rather than follow the Jewish tradition of the index finger of the right hand. They also send Christmas cards and have the incongruously named St John’s Wood Synagogue. Each example is trivial, but they are part of a wider trend of acculturisation, which over the decades can pave the way to assimilation unless there is a conscious effort to resist its lure.

This seems to be the fate of Chinese Jews. They can trace their lineage back to the 12th century, when their ancestors came from the land of Israel along the silk route via Persia and India to settle in Kaifeng. At that time, European society was riddled with Christian anti-Semitism. But China had no such bias and treated Jews as honoured strangers who were welcomed.

The result was the same as in the apocryphal story of the competition between the Sun and the wind as to who was more powerful. They decided to test it by seeing which one could make a man wearing a coat take it off. First, the wind howled around him ferociously, but he just hung on to it all the more tightly. Then the Sun came out and made him feel so warm that he took it off and carried it on his arm. A simple story, but with profound religious implications.

In China Jews responded to the warm welcome and gradually removed layers of identity. Although they initially kept up Jewish practices, they later blurred them into Chinese traditions, such as by honouring the biblical patriarchs through the Chinese ritual of ancestor worship.

Eventually they let Chinese lifestyle reshape their Jewishness entirely, redefining Jewish lineage as descending through the patrilineal line (the Chinese way) instead of through the matrilineal line (the Jewish way). The effect has been a slide into oblivion, with virtually no indigenous Chinese Jews remaining.

But if religious extinction is a danger for adherents of any faith in a minority, hiding away from one’s neighbours is equally undesirable. God is not best served by living without any contact with the rest of God’s world.

Finding a way to maintain one’s distinctive identity but also engage with the rest of society is not to be condemned as compromise with the ungodly, but praised for its embrace of humanity.

This is one of the great religious challenges in a world where people of different beliefs now live side by side rather than in separate lands: allowing faith room to breathe deeply, unafraid to both persevere with self-confidence, and interact positively with others.

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