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November 27, 2003

Look the Yehudi - Lord on High - Part III

In my previous posts I introduced the use of Jews in 19th century Europe as an analogy for the assimilation of Muslims in the United States, and conversely the problems with any attempts to do this in Europe[1]. Basically, the Reform Jewish movement, and the secularization and "Christianization" (to some extent belief system and a great extent practice) of the Western Jewry, allows them to acculturate more easily and hopefully in the long term melt into the greater society.

On the latter point, some have objected that this idea, that Jews would assimilate and disappear, is pie-in-the-sky, and that it has been predicted for thousands of years. I believe that social circumstances are greatly alterted in the 21st century vs. the first 2 millennia after Christ-so this argument does not apply.

But, some perspective, the idea that Jews have never assimilated into host cultures is to some extent a myth. After all, many conversos in Spain eventually became orthodox Catholics, as did a great many Jews in medieval and modern Europe (the discovery of the Lemba connection to the Jewish people almost certainly is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to "lost" fragments of the House of Israel).

Recently, I read the book One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, by Rodney Stark[2], and one chapter is devoted to why the Jews have remained with us to this day after 2,000 years. One group of Jews that Stark focuses on are the Jews of China, who were centered around the northern city of Kaifeng. This Jewish community, unlike many in the West, disappeared not through persecution, but simply through intermarriage and assimilation into their Chinese surroundings. Here is a portion of the book that I found very interesting (page 198):

As it happened, Chinese Jews excelled at Confucian scholarship, and "beginnning in the fourteenth century a large number of Jews from Kaifeng did join the scholar-official class in increasing numbers as years went by" (Rhee, 1973:120). Thenceforth the community's "most brilliant and ambitious" young men spent long years in "Confucian indoctrination," to the detriment of their orthodoxy (Pollak, 1998:341). These were the young men from whose ranks rabbis would have come. Instead, their devotion to Confucian study resulted in their ignorance of Hebrew, and in their being very inclined to reinterpret Judaism according to Confucian concepts.

The similarity between the success of European Ashkenazi Jews in entering gentile professions after emancipation and the depiction of the Kaifeng Jews making use of the semi-meritocratic rules of admission into the Chinese bureaucracy struck me as fascinating (the Kaifeng Jews seem related to a branch of Jews that originated in Persia). Stark compares the Chinese community to the modern Reform Jewish tradition and the ancient Hellenistic Judaism of the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (some modern Reform thinkers explicitly make connections to the Hellenistic Jews-giving their tradition an ancient patina). Stark points out that Hellenistic Judaism disappeared, while the more exclusive and "backward" Talmudic Jewish tradition continued to the modern day without interruption. Additionally, like many scholars he asserts that it was the Hellenistic Jews who were the most enthusiastic converts to Christianity, which allowed them to keep their belief in God and respect their Jewish ancestry and abandon the practices that set them off from other peoples. Stark points out that while at the time of Constantine (330) Jews formed about 10% of the Roman Empire's population, by 1000 they were about 1% of Europe's population[3]. Obviously Jews have been converting to other faiths since the rise of the religion, though a core group has continued to be true to their ancestral God down to the modern age and keeps the perception up that the Jewish people are a permenant fixture of European life.

In any case, what is crucial about the Jews of China, the modern West and classical Europe, is that they attempted to preserve their own religious traditions, while absorbing and espousing non-Jewish ideas. In other words, the Chinese Jews became Jewish Chinese! Roman Jews became Jewish Romans. And of course, American Jews are becoming Jewish Americans. Once the core ideas become that of the host society the tendency to be a people set apart dissipates. There is no point in being a "light unto the nations" when the flame flickers in the same region of the spectrum. Some of my Jewish friends have a saying, "There is no such thing as third generation Reform." Of the eight grand-children of the great Jewish German philosopher Moses Mendelsohn, who encouraged secular learning, one was Jewish. His last Jewish descendent died in the late 1800s. The rabbis of the older tradition were right, secular learning is poisonous to the Jewish soul.

My point: Once Muslims accept the premises of the West, they will become an echo, not an alternative. Many people know about the Hui Muslims, who speak Chinese dialects and usually "look Chinese," but there were also many Muslims would became absorbed into Chinese society. Back when I was a college I remember reading a small article titled, "The ancestors don't eat pork," which surveyed a group of villages on the coast of Fujian that seemed to have been founded by Chinese Muslims, but today the only remnant of their Islamic past is that they do not offer pork to the grave-stones of their founding fathers. So there is hope, Muslims may yet one day eat halal pork and drink some whisky at the end of the day, though not during Ramadan of course!.

Next up: problems with the Jewish-Muslim analogy.

fn1. Importing an immigrant group that slots into a very low SES position in society, with mixed future prospects of advancement, is pretty dicey overall. That's why some of us at GNXP are worried about Mexican immigration into the United States, in the short term, great for the immigrants (work) and the upper-to-upper-middle-class natives (cheap labor), but a cost to the middle class and contributor to possible future structural inequalities. In Europe, the equivalent of Mexican Americans happen to have a very tight and ideological religious framework to channel their resentments with and dissents from their host culture.

fn2. Yes, I'm reading all of Stark's books, and will be writing a rather large essay reviewing his work. I think this is important for several reasons. First, Stark tends to give lots of interviews to the press. Second, his rational choice theory is a good stab at making the study of religion systematic. And third, some of his ideas can have practical implications in the examination and prediction of the interaction between Islam and Christianity that is occurring now.

fn3. Caveat, the 1% figure is for Europe, while the 10% figure is inclusive of the Africa and Middle Eastern provinces of Rome, so the disparity is somewhat understandable, though it is still great enough enough to warrant comment.

Posted by razib at 12:51 AM