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Dialogue on Rabbinic and Confucian Wisdom

As dean at Shandong University, I’ve hosted some cross-cultural dialogues on various themes. I plan to put them together in book form but the Covid crisis makes it difficult to invite speakers and continue to dialogues (for the moment?). So let me put online some of the dialogues we’ve had so far. This dialogue leads with Professor Samuel Fleischacker’s reflections on Rabbinic and Confucian Wisdom, followed by comments by Professor Fu Youde, perhaps China’s leading expert on Judaism, and Professor Viren Murthy, a leading expert on Chinese thought and Marxism. The dialogue is attached, and comments are more than welcome 🙂



Rabbinic Wisdom and Confucian Wisdom: Sayings of the Fathers and the Analects

Date: 14th May, 2018

Place: Shandong University (Qingdao Campus)


According to the order of appearance:

Chair:Daniel A. Bell, Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University.

Main speaker: Samuel Fleischacker, LAS Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago. Professor Fleischacker is the author of 9 books, including Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford University Press, 2011) and The Good and the Good Book (Oxford University Press, 2015). He also edited Heidegger’s Jewish Followers (Duquesne University Press, 2008).

Commentator:傅有德(Fu Youde, Director of the Center for Judaic and Inter-religious Studies, Chair professor of Shandong University and Changjiang Scholar Chair Professor on Judaism and comparative studies.

Commentator: Viren Murthy, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin at Madison. Professor Murthy is the author of The Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness (Leiden: Brill, 2011). He also has one monograph in progress: Pan-Asianism and the Conundrums of Postcolonial Modernity: History, Philosophy and Resistance (Advanced contract signed with University of Chicago Press)





Bell: 大家好 [Hello everybody!]。The talk today is in English. Maybe you could sit closer, so that we’d have a more intimate and harmonious group. So it’s a great honour to host three distinguished professors for today’s dialogue. It’s a very unique opportunity to have a discussion among experts on Judaism, Confucianism, and Marxism.. And I think it will be very rich and stimulating. The main speaker today is actually an old friend of mine; we met in 1994 at Princeton as we were both research fellows  for a year. And then I knew his son Benji, who is here and he now speaks very good Chinese. I knew when he was one year old and I haven’t seen him in the last twenty four years.. Sam is now he is a professor of philosophy, the LAS distinguished professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago. And he is a very prolific writer. And some of his works  have been translated in Chinese including this excellent book, A short history of distributive justice [add book title in Chinese]. His next book is called  Being me, being you: an essay on Adam Smith and empathy. And he wrote a book about religion with a strong Jewish component called The good and the good book.[1] Sam is very clear and erudite writer and I strongly recommend that you read his works. I also want to thank Sam because when I knew him at Princeton in those days, I just learned how to use a computer but I didn’t know how to use the internet. When I was applying for jobs in China including Hong Kong, he helped me to communicate with people in Hong Kong through the internet. And when I had my second job at University of Hong Kong I found out via Sam’s email because I didn’t have internet in those days. So thank you Sam for helping.

And we also have two very distinguished commentators. Professor Fu Youde is perhaps China’s most distinguished professor who works on Judaism. He is a Chang Jiang Xuezhe (Changjiang Scholar) and he is also, in English, director of Center for Judaic and Inter-Religious Studies (of Shandong University). He is a serious editor of translation masterpieces of Jewish history and philosophy. And he’s going to be our commentator. I first met professor Fu in Israel in Tel Aviv, many years ago for a conference on Confucianism and Judaism. I didn’t expect that we would be colleagues it’s a great honor to be here with professor Fu again.


And the third speaker commentator is Professor Viren Murthy, who also speaks beautiful Chinese. By the way he did his thesis and his first book on Zhang Taiyan who’s probably the most difficult Chinese writer of the early twentieth century. And if he could do a whole book on that, you can imagine how good his Chinese must be. So he’ll be happy to answer questions in Chinese, but I think he’ll speak more in English so that professor Fleischacker can engage. And his forthcoming book will be called  Pan-Asianism and the Conundrums of Post-colonial Modernity. And professor Murthy is also a great expert and maybe we can say fan of Karl Marx. (people laugh) So if you have any questions on Marxism, he will be the right person to ask as well.


So this talk will be recorded because we hope to have a series of cross cultural dialogues. We had a good one a few weeks ago with professor Wang Shaoguang and another professor Yves Sintomer about sortition, about 抽签. We will produce a series of these dialogues. Well anyway, feel free to say whatever you want. But let’s first welcome professor Fleischacker.





Professor Fleischacker:  I want first to thank Dean Bell, Professor Bell. It is absolutely delightful to see you again after so many years. We have seen each other once or twice in between, but it’s really wonderful to be here at your home university. And professor Fu whom I’ve just met– it’s really been a delight and a pleasure. Professor Murthy, who I must call Viren, was my colleague for last year – it’s great to be together with you again.

About twenty years ago I read Confucius Analects for the first time. I don’t know why I read it. (I read it in English – I don’t read Chinese. My son reads Chinese, but I don’t.) But I got interested in it as soon as I opened it up. I thought, “This looks like a Jewish book.” Which is not something I have thought about books of other religions. I did not think that when I read the Christian Gospels or the Koran or the Upanishads. They were interesting in various ways but didn’t remind me of Judaism, while the Analects did. And the Analects reminded me in particular of a Jewish book which I am going to be talking about tonight, which is known in Hebrew as Pirkei Avot – which means literally Chapters of the Fathers.  Or sometimes it’s called sayings of the fathers and it’s often informally known as Ethics of the Fathers. It is the only book from the [early] rabbinic period of Judaism, which I’ll explain a little bit in the moment, that is really just about ethics. It’s not about law. Much Jewish writing is about law. This is just about, largely about ethics. And I think it’s written in a similar style to the Analects. And I’m going to bring out some other similarities between the two books that I think are very interesting.


Let me start with a little bit of background. Judaism centers around what is called the Hebrew Bible in English and what Jews call the Tanakh. This is what I wanted the board for, mostly: it’s actually best if one capitalizes the word [, as follows:] TaNaKh. Because this is really an abbreviation for three books. There’s the Torah, which means teaching. And that is the central book in the entire Jewish tradition. It tells the story of creation and of Jews being enslaved in Egypt and coming out of Egypt. And then it has a very long law code about sacrifice, about justice, about the laws of what we can eat and not eat, etc. Marriage also is in there. The law code Torah was written … nobody knows exactly [when], somewhere between three thousand and two thousand and five hundred years ago maybe. It’s supposed to have been written by Moses. We say it was written by our prophet Moses. The laws in the Torah are not what Jews practice today. They’re related to it. Most of what Jews do comes from the Torah in some way but indirectly, and I’ll explain why in a minute. Now in addition to the Torah, there are the books of what are called the prophets, and in Hebrew “The Prophets” is Nevi’im. Navi means prophet. And this tells the stories of the kings of Judah and Israel and it tells about the prophets who rebuked them, criticized them for not behaving well at many various points and who also suggested that one day the world would be full of peace and justice. It contains actually many different books and was written over a long period of time. And then in addition to the prophets, there’s what’s called the Khetuvim, which I will write this way, [Prof. writes “Khetuvim” on blackboard]. So that you can see T, N, Kh and that’s where we get TaNaKh. Torah, Nevi’im, Khetuvim. And Khetuvim means writings. And the Writings include stories, a beautiful little story about the ancestress of King David, the grandmother of King David, woman named Ruth; a story about the prophet who supposedly lived in a whale for three days — the prophet Jonah; a story about evil, and why there is evil in the world, to which there is no very good answer: (12:11) the book of Job; a selection of lots of little sayings, ethical sayings, which is called the book of Proverbs; and one hundred and fifty poems: songs, religious poems on various different subjects. And they’re all in The Writings, the Khetuvim.

And indeed that [last] section of the Hebrew Bible, is called often by scholars today the ancient “wisdom literature” of the people of Israel and Judah: of the Jewish people. Wisdom literature: It’s not philosophy. It’s poetry, literature, stories and poems and sometimes there are (12:50) stories about [large subjects], [like the story] in the book of Job, [which] is about good and evil. So about big important topics for human life, [such as] why do bad things happen to good people? But it isn’t philosophy, the way Plato was philosophy or Aristotle was philosophy. It’s not what people in the West at least know as philosophy. It’s not philosophy like Buddhist philosophy or Hindu philosophy either. So those are the Writings. And together the Torah — the “teaching”, the law code — the Nevi’im (the prophets) and the writings, the Khetuvim make up the Hebrew Bible.

[0:13:25] And that is written over a period of almost a thousand years, ending roughly two hundred BCE. So it’s put together roughly two hundred years before the Common Era:  BCE. (Christians would say “Before Christ” [BC], but because Jews do not believe in Christ, we say “Before the Common Era” – BCE).

[And] around the time that the Bible is put together, the Hebrew Bible is put together, you start having a class of people who are scribes, whose job it is to write down these texts and pass them on from one generation to another. And they also teach what the texts mean. Those scribes are the ancestors of what are called the rabbis. So around two hundred BCE — could be a little earlier, a little bit later, some people say as early as three hundred or four hundred [BCE], but we don’t need to worry about the exact dates here — you start having a class of people who write about the Torah and the Nevi’im and the Khetuvim, write about the Torah, the prophets and the writings. But especially about the Torah.  Because that’s the law code and that’s how Jews live, that’s the basis of how Jews live.  [And these people] pass down the texts and also start suggesting what they mean and arguing with each other about them. Now the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible and especially the Torah, which is considered the most important part, is called the written law. Actually just the Torah is called the written law. But in any case this is all written. What these scribes pass down, they don’t write down. It’s called the oral Torah. So there’s a written Torah and there’s an oral Torah. And the oral Torah is what becomes the rabbinic tradition, the tradition of the rabbis.


And for a long time it was believed that the oral Torah, the oral law, shouldn’t be written down at all — that that would be wrong. But around two hundred C.E. — two hundred in the Common Era — the first part of the oral Torah was written down. And that’s called the Mishnah. It’s a code of Jewish law. And it’s supposed to settle what the law is. And it’s somewhat different from the Torah. It’s based on the Torah but it interprets the Torah and changes things. It changes some things because some things in the Torah are unclear. It adds things to the Torah that are not discussed, like details about what you do when two people have an argument about property. That’s not really in the Torah, so the rabbis add to that. And it also moralizes the Torah, makes it more moral. There are some sections of the Torah which are problematic. Like there’s one passage that says if you have a son who is stubborn and rebellious, who stands up against his parents, you should stone him to death. Well, the rabbis say that never happened, [that] it’s not really meant to happen. And they interpret it so that we don’t actually have to do that. So the rabbis adapt the law in a moral framework for Jews to live by. And in two hundred C.E. that’s finally written down in what’s called the Mishnah. But the Mishnah, which looks like it’s supposed to write down the whole law, actually contains a lot of contradictory opinions. One Rabbi says this; the other Rabbi says the opposite. So you have a code of law but it gives a lot of different opinions. So for the next at least three hundred years, Jews argued about what the Mishnah meant. First they had argued about what the Torah meant. Now they argued about what the Mishnah meant. The rabbis argued about what the Mishnah meant. And their discussions, which don’t always have a conclusion, is called the Gemara. That’s codified roughly around five hundred [CE]. (There are two of them actually. But the most important is codified around five hundred [CE]). And together this is called the Talmud.

And Jewish life to this day, at least Orthodox Jewish life, traditional Jewish life, centers around the TaNaKh and the Talmud. And indeed we read the TaNaKh, especially the Torah, through the eyes, through the lens of the Talmud. We use the rabbis to understand the Torah. We don’t just open the Torah and say, “what does it say?” We say that the rabbis interpret, and the rabbis give us the real meaning, of what the Torah says.

Is that clear, more or less?



Okay now here’s the crucial thing for tonight. The Mishnah contains one section that is just about ethics. And that is Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, the text I am talking about tonight.  The Mishnah is divided into six sections and one of them is about law, judgments, about law in court. What you do when two people have an argument, say. [It’s] called Nezikin. And in that section, you have the Sayings of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot.  So Pirkei Avot, which is the Saying of the Fathers, belongs to this section [of the Mishnah, called Nezikin].


So that’s the very rough history of Judaism in ten minutes.

And let me say something now about the contents of Pirkei Avot. And then I will start moving to comparisons with the Analects. As you’ll see on your hand out, I have given a little summary of the kinds of things you find in Pirkei Avot. (You all have this, right?) Saying of the Fathers has just five chapters. Pirkei Avot – I’ll keep saying [that name,] but you know by now [that] it’s Sayings of the Fathers — is something that Jews read over and over again today. And indeed [we read it] in this period of time — [we] read it in the summer. Every Saturday, we are supposed to read a chapter of it.  And we’ve added a sixth chapter. I’m not sure why. And we read it like three or four times during the summer. So it’s something that every traditional Jew knows. We constantly come back to it and read it and read it and reread it.

Here are the kinds of things that you find it. [These are] not the only things [in it,] and it’s a little mysterious sometimes exactly what’s in it.

But first of all, the first thing on here [I.1 on the handout that accompanied this talk], you have a history of the transmission of the Torah. The very first line in Pirkei Avot is “Moses received the Torah from Sinai”. That’s the tradition: that Moses the prophet received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai and gave it to Joshua (that’s the next leader). And Joshua gave it to Elders. The Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the men of the great assembly, and eventually this comes down to the rabbis, who were writing this text. This shows you how the rabbis inherit the tradition of the Torah. I just gave you one example here, but it goes on for several paragraphs, (21:26) saying “this person inherited, and that person …,” as you can see under I.1 [on the handout]. … You have a whole series of transmissions. This one from that one, this one from that one, down to the person who wrote Pirkei Avot, who is said to be Yehuda HaNasi, Judah the prince or one of his sons. (It’s not clear which.) And he was the leader of the rabbinic community who wrote the Mishnah. So basically the people, who wrote the Mishnah, were saying “we inherit the Torah from a one thousand year tradition of passing it down orally.” Ok? But each of those people had some advice and they give you the advice that each person in the transmission passed down.



So second, especially because, remember, Pirkei Avot is in the section of the Mishnah that’s about law courts — it’s about setting up courts, about setting up judges, about settling cases — it has a lot of advice for judges. Many rabbis were judges. That was one of the things that rabbis did. They taught the Torah and they also settled cases. So you have things like one point under section I.2 here: If you’re settling a case, it says, “when the litigants are before you” — that is, the people who come into the court, the two people who are fighting a case — “when they are in front of you, you should see both of them as evil.”  So you don’t trust them. When they are finished — “when they are excused from you” — “you should see both of them as good.” So the idea is, while they are fighting the case you don’t trust either of them. When the case is over, you say, “You’re both good people. I don’t care what you said in the court room. It’s settled now.”  Ok? So that’s a piece of advice for how a judge should treat the people who come before them.

And then you have from chapter four, number eight (IV.8), Rabbi Ishmael, who is a very important Rabbi, would say “don’t judge alone, for there’s no lone judge aside from one,” which is to say aside from God. Only God gets to judge alone. And it is indeed, to this day, very important Jewish practice that nobody settles a case by themselves. You’re supposed to have two or three judges, ideally three, to settle a case. Because we don’t trust one person. They might be arrogant. You are allowed to say “okay, [if] both people agree, we will trust one person.” You can do that. But you’re really not supposed to have anyone judge alone.

Third, this will be important later on, you have warnings about not getting too close to the government. So for instance, the example I have here, Shemayah says “Love work, hate lordship, and don’t become familiar with the government.” Don’t get close to the government. You should have nothing to do with the government. And then you have Nehunya ben ha-Kanah from chapter three, saying “Anyone who accepts the yoke of Torah, they take Torah as their burden on them. They lift from him … the yoke of government and the yoke of the way of the world. And anyone who casts away the yoke of Torah, they place upon him the yoke of government and the yoke of the way of the world”. The “way of the world” is a kind of expression for business. So the idea is, if you study the Torah, the holy book that’s supposed to come from God to Moses, then you don’t have to worry about politics. You can have nothing to do with politics. You don’t have to worry about business ;  you don’t have to worry about politics. If you don’t study the Torah, then you’re going to spend your life with politics. Which is a bad thing. The implication is, if you really want a good life, stay away from politics and just study Torah. Which is to say “do what the rabbis do, study the Torah”. But the rabbis also have nothing to do with the government.   I’ll come back to this, but clearly that’s something very different from Confucius. This is not one of the similarities [between Confucius and the rabbis].


Fourth, there is advice for how to teach people, because one of the things the rabbis did is teach. Rabbi simply means teacher. It means “my teacher.”  The rabbis were judges, but they were also teachers and they were mostly teachers. So there is, for instance, a warning here, this is from I.11 under four [on the handout][2], that sages should be careful about what they say, because “otherwise you might be exiled and the students who follow after you will drink and the name of heaven [will be] profaned.” It’s a little unclear, [but] what they mean is if you as a teacher say things that are misleading or wrong, your students will become corrupt as well. So a teacher has to be especially careful about having moral content in what they teach.

Then the second thing here is the very famous line among Jews, “excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both of them causes sin to be forgotten”. That is, you shouldn’t just study Torah,. You should also have a business, a job. You shouldn’t be obsessed with the job, but you should have the job as well. Because if you do both of them, study Torah and you have a job, then you won’t sin.  Then you’ll be too busy to sin, is what actually they are suggesting.

And then — this is actually a quite lovely one, IV.12, one that I think many teachers don’t fully live up to — “let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own”:  honor your student as much as you honor yourself.  But then it says, “[let] the honor of your fellow be like the reverence of your teacher”:  you should honor your friends like your teacher.  And “[let] the reverence of your teacher [be] like the reverence of heaven”. So, on the one hand, they are comparing [the honor of your student and the honor of your teacher]; on the other hand you’re supposed to honor your teacher as if your teacher were God, or at least you should not disrespect [your teacher]. Disrespecting your teacher is basically disrespecting God, because your teacher gives you Torah. Your teacher gives you God’s teaching, connects you to God’s teaching. There is another passage that’s not in Pirkei Avot — very famously also in the Jewish tradition — in which you are asked “if your father is drowning and your teacher drowning, whom do you save?” And the answer is you save your teacher. Because your father only gives you life in this world, your teacher gives you life in the other world as well. I don’t like that one so much, especially in front of my son. (laughter) But there is a very strong idea of honoring teachers.  But interestingly, here [there is also an idea of] honoring students.



And then section I.5 [on the handout]:  Throughout Pirkei Avot. there’s a lot of praise just for studying Torah. Whatever else they’re saying, they say you should study Torah. So for instance, you have this quote from Hillel, one of the most important rabbis, “Be of the disciples of Aharon, (who is said to have loved peace and pursued peace), to love human beings and bring them close to the Torah”. So on the one hand, there is love for humanity — [which] I think actually resonates very strongly with certain elements of the Confucian tradition. Confucius emphasizes humanity over and over again — ren or yen (I don’t know how to pronounce it right). But that your love for humanity ought to be primary — that’s here, too. But it’s, “Love humanity and bring human beings closer to the Torah.”

And then we have Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was a leader of the rabbinic community too, one of the founders of it, he says “If you have learned a lot of Torah, don’t credit yourself for it, because you were created to learn Torah.” So the purpose of your life is to learn Torah.



Number I.6 [on the handout] is general ethical reflections. This is what looks most like the Analects. You have things like “The evil eye and evil inclination and hatred of humanity remove a person from the world”. The evil eye is basically envy, being jealous of people. And once again, on the one hand if you’re envious of people, that takes you away from the world. On the other hand what you ought to have is love of humanity. Again there is this emphasis on loving other human beings.

III.9: remember this is a book that praises wisdom, praises Torah. And nevertheless it says “Anyone whose fear of sin proceeds his wisdom, his wisdom endures. Anyone whose wisdom proceeds his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure”. That is, if you are very learned, you study a lot, but you are actually an evil person, even your wisdom will disappear. While on the other hand, if you are a good person, that will enable you to become wise. So goodness is prior to wisdom. You become wise only if you’re good, and if you are evil you will lose your wisdom.

IV.3 is a very famous section also in the Jewish community. “Don’t despise or disparage any human being and don’t shun any thing, for every person has his hour and every thing has its place.” That’s something that I actually have thought of quite often, when I am tempted to think “Oh well, that person — who cares about that person?” Well, this is a good reminder, that every human being has a place. Every human being has some reason for being honored.

And then IV.18 has also been important to me personally, “Don’t assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger. Don’t console him when his dead lies before him.” That’s to say, when a person is at the pitch [of their anger] … You may want to calm people down, if they’re angry. But when they are really angry, you should say nothing. Wait until they are little calmer and then you can calm them down. And similarly when you want to comfort people who have lost a parent, say, or a close friend, but not when they are most upset, not at the beginning of their mourning. And actually again, in Jewish life this has real practical results. When somebody dies who’s close to you — a parent especially, or your spouse, or God forbid your child — there’s a period of seven days when the mourners sit on low chairs, don’t go out of the house, and other people come to visit them. But when you visit them, you’re not supposed to talk unless they talk to you. You don’t open a conversation. You let them talk to you. You also don’t tell them what they should be saying. You don’t say “oh it’ll be okay”. If it’s not okay, then it’s not okay. Later on — a month later, or a year later — you could say “You know it’s time to come back into the real world, to get over it”. But when they’re in the first moment of grief, you don’t tell them, “you should feel happier.”



And then, finally, there is something like philosophy in Pirkei Avot. But not a lot of it. You have this saying, I.14 — this is quoted probably more than anything else in all the rabbinic literature — [in which] Hillel again, the most famous of the early rabbis, says “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I think it means, and that’s what people generally say, “you should take care of yourself but you should care for others. And you should not wait, to care for yourself and to care for others. If you don’t do it now, when are you going to do it?” Is that deep philosophy? Not really, but it seems like good advice. If you look at the next section, III.15, another very famous Rabbi says “everything is foreseen and free will is given”. Well, as some of you may know, if you’ve taken philosophy classes, there’s supposed to be a conflict between having free will and having God know what you’re going to do in advance, everything being foreseen. And many philosophers have struggled about, “well, is everything foreseen or do we have free will? One or the other?” And this rabbi just says: both. God knows everything but you still have free will. Without any argument. And it’s almost as if he wants to say, “Don’t worry about it. The whole issue about free will, it’s not that important.”

I’m not sure that’s what he means to say. There are Jewish philosophers who try to make sense of this. But there’s a tendency in Pirkei Avot, and in other things, to say, “Big philosophical questions, metaphysical questions — they’re not very interesting. What’s interesting are ethical questions, daily questions of practice.”



And that comes out again in the other two things I have on the sheet. Let’s skip to the last one first: IV.15. Rabbi Yanai says “We don’t have the ability to explain why bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people, why the wicked are tranquil or the righteous suffer”. So that’s a big question, right? Why do bad things happen to good people? And why do good things happen to bad people. And this Rabbi says, “We don’t know”. That’s the extent of his philosophy on that.

And then if you back up, you see this other line here, which I think is very interesting “Rabbi Elazar Hisma says … ”— he takes two laws that are very obscure — “laws of bird offerings and about women’s menstruation: these are essential”. And then he says, “Astronomy and geometry:  they are not very important, they are peripheral to wisdom.” Both the word for “geometry” and the word for “peripheral” are Greek words: gematria from the Greek geometria; and parparot, which is just like “peripheral,” but literally means “dessert”.  So astronomy and geometry:  that’s dessert. What’s really important are the most obscure, most unreasonable laws in the Jewish tradition.

Why is he saying that? There is lots of speculation about this. I would suggest: In the Greek tradition, the Greek philosophical tradition, astronomy and geometry were extremely important. Plato says you have to study math before you can study philosophy. Math is what trains you to do philosophy. And to the extent that the rabbis knew Greek philosophy, they didn’t like it. And I think rabbi Elazar Hisma is saying “All that Greek stuff: that’s not very important. The parts of our tradition that don’t make rational sense: those are very important”. So he is praising the practice of the Jewish tradition over the abstract speculation of Greek philosophy. At least that’s how I understand it.




Okay, in what ways is this book like the Analects? (to the extent that it is.)

Well first of all, it struck me as similar to the Analects just in style. You have these little sayings — “We don’t have the ability to explain the tranquility of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. Greet everyone with humanity. Let the honor of your student be dear to you as your own” . And in the Analects too you have little sayings.  (Most of the time — sometimes you have a longer story.) The master says this or master Zeng says that.  And you get a little ethical reflection. And then you just get another ethical reflection.  And it’s not even clear sometimes what order you’re going in, whether the things are connected. Sometimes in the Analects, you’ll have two or three about humanity in a row. But then it will go to another subject. You’ll have a few comments about ritual and then you move to another subject. Similarly, in Pirkei Avot, you move from one subject to another. Sometimes they are loosely connected; they’re not very tightly connected. Yet there is some order to the chapters. They tend to have a theme. So for instance, the first chapter of Pirkei Avot emphasizes the transmission of the Torah — the first of the themes that I mentioned. That comes up especially in the first chapter, beginning of the second a bit. Chapter IV of Pirkei Avot has a series of criticisms of being angry, of being proud, of being lustful. Chapter V has lists of ten things that are of religious importance: ten miracles that were created before creation, ten trials that Abraham went through, etc. But not everything fits. In the Analects also, the chapters tend to have some kind of thematic unity. Chapter I for instance opens and closes with admonitions to be humble — to humility as very important. Chapter III emphasizes ritual ([Chinese:] li). Chapters IV and XII talk a lot about humanity. Chapters V and VI talk a lot about Confucius’ students. So there are various loose thematic subjects that unify the chapters somewhat and yet each [bit of] content is somewhat separate from the other. So they feel like similar kinds of books.


Secondly, and this is perhaps the most obvious, both Confucius and the rabbis of Pirkei Avot are looking back at earlier texts that are supposed to be really important. Confucius keeps telling people to study the Songs[3], to study the Documents[4] — the Songs especially — to study the I Jing. Confucius says in the beginning of chapter VII, “I invent nothing, I transmit.”  “I merely transmit, I am passing on a tradition.” And he is directing people to study earlier texts. And the rabbis are doing something very similar. They are not saying “We know, we have direct access to, God; we know what God wants.”  They are saying, “Go read the Torah. Go turn back to the Torah. Turn back to this holy text and work through it”. So rather than directly taking on their own authority, they direct people to another text earlier in the tradition, And indeed of course [the Analects and Pirkei Avot] are in that sense deeply conservative or deeply traditional texts.  They are texts that say, “Look back. Look at your past. Much that is important or maybe all that is important was given to you in your past”.



Third, there’s a respect for ritual. The passage that I spent some time on from Elazar Hisma, which emphasizes bird offerings and women’s menstruation — this is an emphasis on ritual. Confucius, of course, constantly emphasizes ritual. In one passage, which really jumped out at me when I first read it, one of his students, Zigong, with whom he has a complicated relationship, wants to get rid of the sheep sacrifice on the new moon ceremony. And Confucius says, “You love the sheep; I love the ceremony.” That sounds very much like a rabbi to this day, especially an Orthodox rabbi saying to a reform rabbi, “Don’t change the tradition. Keep the tradition in the way it is. Don’t get too worried about exactly what’s going on in the tradition.” It comes to you from your past (again, the past being so important) and you don’t necessarily have a right to just change it.”

Fourth, and this is I think something that actually people who have written about Confucianism and Judaism have stressed before: both the rabbis and Confucius are helping to set up a new kind of aristocracy. The gentleman or Junzi for Confucius is a learned person: a learned and virtuous person. The rabbis lived in a world in which the religious leaders were priests. And to be a priest you have to be the son of a priest. So it’s all men and it’s inherited from father to son. The rabbis could be anybody. At that time you couldn’t really be a woman. That has changed a little bit and there were women who were involved in it even at the time. But basically [being a rabbi] is a male thing. But it doesn’t depend on how rich you are, it doesn’t depend on who your parents are — it depends on scholarship. You want to study, and you want to be, especially, a decent human being and study: then you can be part of the rabbinic community. So in that sense the rabbinic community is much more egalitarian than the world that they came out of. Or let’s say, it’s not egalitarian — it’s meritocratic. To become part of the rabbinic community, you have to do something, you have to study and you have to become a good human being. To become part of the Confucian community, the kind of community that he is emphasizing, again doesn’t depend on birth and it certainly doesn’t depend on wealth. Many of his students are poor. (I believe he comes from a poor family, but I’m not sure.) What matters is study and decency, study and virtue. And in that sense both traditions — and this may be a key to the really deep affinities [between them] — emphasize a kind of aristocracy of merit, aristocracy of virtue, an aristocracy also of learnedness, of study, of studying texts and of studying with one another. That’s the other thing: they form a community of scholars. You study with other people. These rabbis are talking to one another, just as Confucius is talking to his students, and they are talking to each other. Nobody is studying on their own, they are not going off as a hermit and studying in a monastery. (Well, a monastery is a community.) But they are not studying by themselves, they are working together.

And then finally there are certain virtues that [the two texts] share. Both texts emphasize humanity, praise silence, and give priority to deeds over wisdom or deeds over learning Wisdom consists in taking what you study and putting it into practice.

[0:45:5] This is actually the very first line in the Analects and comes up over and over again in Pirkei Avot. I’m not going to go through the quotations on this. We can talk about it more if you want to, but I am getting a little bit late, so let me move on a little bit.


Besides these general similarities there are some more specific ones, some of the ones that made me think “Oh this looks like a Jewish text.” And in fact, in preparation for coming here, I studied the Analects with a few people in my Jewish community and they also thought some of these things look exactly like sections in the Pirkei Avot. So one of the most striking is 2.4, under II.2.a [on the handout], where the master says, “At fifteen, I set my mind up on learning, at thirty I took my stand, severing goes through various stages in life” and towards the end of Pirkei Avot, you have a list of ages, [noting] what is appropriate at each age:  “Five years old is the right age to start studying scripture” (that means Tonakh), “Ten to study Mishnah” (that’s the beginning of the Talmud), “Thirteen for observing commandments,” etc. And then up to seventy, and in fact all the way up to one hundred. These are not exactly the same. Confucius is talking about his stages in his own life; the rabbis are talking about stages in anyone’s life. But there is still the notion that in each age, there’s something specific that is appropriate for that [age]. And I think that goes with a great interest in what virtues are and what kinds of virtues you should have in different stages in life.


Second, [if you look] under II.2.b [on the handout], there’s a lot of commentary on one’s students. In this long excerpt, which I won’t go all the way through, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai talks about his different students — five of his students. He gives them each different virtues. If you skip down, Analects 11.3 has different virtues for different students of Confucius. Yan Hui is known for virtue, Zigong is known for eloquence, Ranqiu is known for administrative skills, etc. And then there is also a favorite student. And that’s very strongly emphasized. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai — if you go back again to the first quotation here — his favorite student is clearly Elazar ben Arakh. Twice he says “he’s the one who gets it right”. Confucius, his favorite student, famously, is Yan Hui, who died young. And he often talks about that. So, on the one hand there’s a lot of evaluation of one’s students. Both texts have that and actually I can’t think of anything like that in any other religious literature I know. And on the other hand, neither Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai nor Confucius is shy about saying who their favorite student is, and they’re willing to hold out their favorite student as a model to the rest of them.

What I have under II.2.c [on the handout] is in some ways the most interesting of the similarities. And I’ll just say it generally. [0:48:35] Famously, Confucius said that the single main guide to one’s life should be the principle “Do not do onto others what you would not have done on to you” — the negative version of the golden rule. Well, famously, in the Jewish tradition Hillel again — this great Rabbi, one of the major figures — also said exactly that: the negative version of the golden rule, “Do not do onto others, what you would not have done unto you”. What isn’t emphasized enough, I think, is who Confucius and Hillel are talking to.

[(The bell outside classroom was ringing.) Shall we wait for one more minute?]

So in the case of Hillel, as you can see in the story here, the occasion in which Hillel makes this remark is when a non-Jew comes up to him and his main rival, Shammai, and says “I will convert to becoming a Jew, if you tell me all of Judaism while I stand on one foot.” And if you try standing on one foot, unless you are very acrobatic, it doesn’t last very long, right?  So he’s obviously making fun of the rabbi[, Shammai]. And Shammai just pushes him away. And then he comes to Hillel and he also says “Hillel, Hillel! Convert me. I’ll convert if you can tell me all of the Torah while I stand on one foot.” And Hillel, who is known for being a gentle person while Shamai got angry easily, says “Do not do unto others, what you would not have them do on to you.” And then he adds “Go and study”.

But here is the thing. This guy who was telling people “convert me, tell me all about your religion while I stand on one foot!” — that’s not very nice, right? He is not doing to Hillel and Shammai what he would want done unto him. He is not a person who observes the rule.

[Now] if you look at who Confucius is talking to, it’s one of his students Zigong, a student with whom in some ways he had a close relationship. When [my son and I] went to Qufu, we saw that Zigong is supposed to have planted a tree in honor of Confucius after Confucius died. But on the other hand, [his relationship with Confucius was] complicated, Zigong says earlier in the Analects, “I would not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me” and Confucius says, “Oh you’ve not come that far yet”. And then at 14.29 — I think this is particularly important — it says, “Zigong was criticizing other people, [and] the master said, Zigong must have already reached perfection, which affords him a leisure I do not possess.” Zigong seems to have been … a little proud shall we say, vain — not someone who is always so kind to other people. And indeed when he’s criticizing other people he is not doing to others what he would want them to do unto him. So when he asks in 15.24, when he asks Confucius, “Is there a single word that could guide one’s entire life?” and Confucius says to him, “Do not do onto others what you would not want done onto you,” maybe the comment is especially directed to Zigong. And in fact Confucius is known for giving different answers to different disciples, depending upon what they are like. And that I think is a very strong similarity to Hillel. Both of them are telling somebody who is not that kind to others, “Why don’t you think a little bit about what it would be like for you, if people did that to you?”

And I think that’s actually quite useful. Because the general rule “Do not do unto others, what you would not have them do unto you”:  it sounds kind of boring. It seems obvious. But when it’s said to you in a context when you’re not doing that, then it’s less obvious. Then it suddenly becomes more interesting. (52:52) And again — and I think [this] actually fits with both rabbinic and Confucian teaching — the teaching of how to live, the teaching of virtue, always takes place in a context. It always has to do with what this person is doing, right now, to other people, right here. You don’t just say, “Be a good human being.” That’s boring — we all know that. The question is what should I do, given what I’m like and given what I’m doing right now. And both rabbinic teachers and Confucian teachers are urged to pay attention to the particular person in front of them.


A little bit more quickly; I’ll wrap up now.

Differences between the two texts. First of all, as I mentioned from the beginning, Pirkei Avot, as I say on the handout, is suspicious, even hostile, to politics. The Analects is really about how you run a state. It’s not only about that, but it is very centrally about how you run the state. Confucius seems to be very interested in telling people the kinds of virtues you need to run the state. Now it is Confucius’ idea, and I think this is extremely important, that you run a state not by using power, and not by being very clever, but by being a good human being. He says “If you act virtuously that’s all you need to do”. Still his point is, “This is how you run a state.” And the rabbis point is, “Don’t pay any attention to how you run states.”


Now one important difference historically is that the rabbis are living and writing, certainly by the time this is written, in a world in which they have no power. The Jewish state had been destroyed — it’s destroyed around 70 CE. Romans rule what was the state of Israel and Judea. [And the rabbis] have no power anywhere else. Actually, after this, some of the leaders began to have power. Right when they are writing this, they have no power at all. And they live under non-Jewish rule. So they live within their own little communities as Jews were to live for most of the past two thousand years. So there’s no point in worrying about politics. They’re not going to have any power anyway. Maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t have power. But in any case they don’t have a chance of it. While Confucius, although he is more or less always on the outside of power, it always looks like he could get in. Or some of his disciples could get in. And some of them do. So Confucius and his disciples are living at least on the margins of a world of power and the rabbis are living without any hope of power. That may explain the difference. But in any case there is a political slant to the Analects which is not present in Pirkei Avot.

And then the other main difference that I stress, though perhaps professor Fu and Murthy will bring out other things, is that the Analects tends to talk in terms of very general virtues, ritual reciprocity or shu (humanity), and Pirkei Avot talks in very much more specific terms: like “do not comfort someone in the hour of their mourning.” It’s very specifically talking about what to do with the person who is mourning right now. It doesn’t tend to talk in such general terms.

Alright, what is interesting about this comparison? (if anything … [but] I think there are a number of things are interesting). This is the final section of my handout here. And I am only exploring this. I have only just begun to talk about this kind of subject; this is the first time I’ve ever talked publicly about Confucius and the rabbis. But one thing I think is interesting is that it seems to me that both the Analects and Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers, belong really to wisdom literature. They are more similar to the third part of the Hebrew Bible, the Khetuvim, the Writings — the poems and the proverbs — [than to what we usually call “philosophy.”]. In fact Pirkei Avot is often compared to the Khetuvim, especially to the book of Proverbs. They give ethical advice; they don’t try to organize the ethical advice in a whole system; they don’t have an abstract theory of what it is to be a good human being, of what a good life is about, what a good state is about. It’s lots of different bits and pieces.

Now is that a bad thing? Western philosophers have often said, ever since Plato, that we need to bring everything together in a system and have an abstract view of what human life is about, what human nature is like, what we are living for and what kind of good state we should have. That is really the theory of philosophy, as it were, from Plato’s Republic onwards. That’s not what Jewish thinking looks like until very late, not until Maimonides — which is a thousand years later than Pirkei Avot. Not until then do you really have an attempt at a systematic Jewish philosophy. You have instead this kind of reflection that is linked to context and on very specific virtues. It’s not abstract, it doesn’t have general arguments.

Now on the one hand I think that may be a very good thing, as I indicate in the handout here. That is, most of our time in life, we do not think very abstractly. That’s my job, to think abstractly; that’s what I do as a philosopher. But most human beings, most of the time, have to deal with very practical situations that differ from one day to the next. And it’s not clear that a general theory of the good life is very useful for that.

On the other hand, it is general theories that allow one to come up with conceptions of liberty and corrections to bad conventions, to see that for instance your entire way of life is sexist or racist. So I think in some ways, certainly the Jewish tradition — I don’t want to say for the Confucian tradition — has lacked a lot of the critical resources that you get from philosophy; it doesn’t have the abstract theory that allows you to correct your conventions. On the other hand, it’s much more humane; it’s much more relevant to practical life. So on the one hand, the rabbinic tradition has a lot of wisdom; on the other hand, it lacks some of the kind of theory that can be useful.

That’s related to the second point that I have here, that neither tradition, at least as you see it in the Analects and Pirkei Avot (but Pirkei Avot is certainly representative of most Jewish thought until relatively recently) seems to be that interested in general principles.


The third point I have here, which I mentioned earlier, is that both traditions are interested in preserving traditions, handed down from the past, rather than inventing something new. Again, Confucius: “I invent nothing, I transmit the past.” And that’s certainly what the rabbis are doing; it’s all about transmission.

And finally — again a point I mentioned before — both traditions are about study and virtue, but study and virtue done in community. Not alone, not just thinking by yourself off in a room and coming up with your clever theory — which of course we philosophers like to do, and I do spend a lot of time sitting alone in a room, writing books and so forth. But that’s not the ideal in the Jewish tradition and certainly not the ideal that the rabbis present. I don’t think it’s the ideal in the Confucian tradition either. You are supposed to learn together, together with other people, and constantly be talking with others. And in that sense again, I think there is a deep affinity between the rabbinic tradition and the Confucian tradition. I think that’s brought out quite well in the similarities between these two texts. So I’m going to stop there and allow professors Fu and Murthy to tell me what I got wrong. Thank you.







Bell: Well thank you. That was fascinating. It also shows that being grounded in a tradition can make one more open and curious in a genuine way about learning from other traditions. That was always my impression  but anyway I don’t want to criticize others who aren’t grounded in traditions. Let’s have professor Fu first. speaking about ten minutes, please.



Prof. Fu

Thank you very much, Dean Bell. And thank you very much for Professor Fleischacker’s wonderful presentation and it is my honor to have this opportunity to do some comments on it. This is the book Professor Samuel Fleischacker talked about. 《阿伯特·犹太智慧书》, Avots, the Sayings of the Fathers, which is translated into Chinese and published in Beijing in 1996 by  Zhang Ping, who is now a professor in Tel Aviv University, Israel.  If you neet it, maybe you can buy it online. If you want to have some knowledge of this book,  just  read it.

First of all I would like to say that thank you very much and I agree at your description of the history of Judaism from the Bible to Rabbinic Judaism. Tonakh is composes of the three parts and the Talmudconsists of the Mishnah and the Gemarah. And I agree entirely that there are the similarities between Confucianism and the Judaism as Professor Fleischacker talked about. Both the Analects and the Avot are collections of aphorisms. And there is a lineage, from which we can know the relation between  the sages of earlier times and the historical connections. Also, both traditions have some similar patterns of virtue and  encourage and uphold diligent study, scholarship and respect of teachers, even more respect to teacher than to father. And Professor Fleischacker also  gave a very  vivid description of the principle of 忠恕, that is reciprocity.  (64:40) “Could you please tell me the essence of Judaism?” a would-be convert asked Shammai and Hillel separately,  “if you can tell me the essence of Judaism while I stand on one leg,I will convert to Judaism”. What a interesting story it is! There’s so many similarities and you have described. I agree. I also agree to the conclusion that both the Avot and the Analects belong in the category of wisdom literature and both the rabbis and the Confucius  and Confucian scholars have no much interest in philosophy. They don’t think  philosophy is  important to our daily life. This is not to say, in the Jewish tradition and Chinese tradition, philosophy is not so important as nowadays. Nowadays in China, we think we had philosophy in antiquity. Confucius was a philosopher. Mencius was a philosopher. We have a good number of  philosophers.  In Judaism, for many Jews, however, they don’t think that they had philosophy. The Bible is full of  divine words, the revelation from God. And in the Mishnah,  the oral tradition, laws were also  given by God. They don’t need philosophy. They say that “we do not need and do not have philosophy”. It is very different from many Chinese scholars today. And Professor Fleischacker also said at that both traditions preferred community of scholarship and collective life. I think it is right to historical facts


But if I always say “I agree” to you, Professor Sam Fleischacker, as a Jew, you must say “you are not a good scholar”, since in accordance with the Jewish tradition, you have to say something different to distinguish yourself. Regarding this point, as  a very well-known expression goes, “Two Jews, three opinions”. At least, this book, I mean the Analects, is very different from  MishnahMishnah, and  the whole body of Talmud,  is actually the collection of the arguments of the early Rabbis. This Avot is an exception  It is a collection of aphorisms which is very similar to the Analects of Confucius. But if you read Mishnah or Talmud, you can find that  full of arguments and different opinions in them. So as a student or a scholar of Judaism, I would not like to always say  “I agree with you.”

I agree with you basically and fundamentally, but I want to say something more, something maybe a little different. It seems to me, while we do comparison, we should not limit ourselves to  search similarities and differences, but ought to go further to find out the difference within similarities and the similarities within difference. In this way we may clearly define  the feature of each  tradition. And we also have to go further to make judgment, I mean to make some value judgments,  saying that Judaism in some way is good; Confucianism in some way is good, or  there are something negative in each tradition. Like  a referee in a game or like a judge in a court, we ought to  make  judgment on right or wrong, good or bad, in order to define each clearly and finally to reach mutual understanding, mutual respect and learning from each other. If we just say that this is something similar to that relation, that is something different from the other tradition, we cannot achieve the goal to learn from each other. So I would like to say something more about  the basic principles in Confucian ism and in Judaism.


First of all, about the lineage of the tradition, as you, Professor Fleischaker, just mentioned, the Jewish tradition originated form Sinai, that is , from Moses. Moses received Torah from Sinai, and delivered it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the man of the Great Synagogue. And all of the words you talked about are given, according to Jewish tradition, by the descendants of the member of the Great Synagogue. The Great Synagogue was earlier than the Mishnah period Confucianism has a e similar tradition that you didn’t mention. You have some consciousness, awareness but you didn’t spoke out  clearly. In fact, in Mencius the book, in the last chapter of it Jinxin[5](尽心), he gave a very clear list of the precedent sages, from which we can know the clear lineage of Confucian tradition from Yao through Shun, YuTang, King Wen, King Wu, Duke Zhou and Confucius(尧、舜、禹、汤、文、武、周公、孔子). And later in the Tang dynasty, Han Yu (韩愈),a scholar and a high rank official, wrote a book entitled Yuan Dao(《原道》). In the book he also summarized the lineage of sages, namely, the tradition from 尧、舜、禹、汤、文、武、周公、孔子、孟子. it is a little different from that in Mencius. It adds Mencius to the end of the list. Anyway, there is also a  clear lineage of the tradition in Confucianism, which is a little  different from the Jewish Tradition. In Judaism, the tradition from generation to generation is very clear. I’m talking about the lineage according to the text and not saying it historically.  According to the text, it is clear. Moses gave the oral torah to Joshua directly. Joshua delivered it to the elders, the judges. The Elders passes it on to the Prophets and afterwards to the members of the great assembly. It’s very clear that there is nointerruption between different generations. But in Confucian ism, the tradition was interrupted from time to time. 尧,舜,禹,there’s no discontinuation among the three sage kings. But later on from 禹 to 汤, which is very clear, the interval  is several hundred years. And later from 汤 to 文武周公,there was also a interruption. So there’s something similar and also some difference  in  the two lines of the lineage of tradition.


The second difference in the historical lineage is about the origins of the two traditions. Moses received Torah from God.  The divine revelation is the origin of Judaism. But no one says, or it’s rare to find a text to give evidence to say that it is Yao (尧) who received words from the Heaven. In Confucianism, the sages acknowledge the existence of the Heaven, but it is rare to find evidence to justify that Yao, Shun and Yu (尧舜禹) received the words directly from it. So the origins of the two traditions are different. There was no revelation in Confucianism as in Judaism. Well, some people would say that people also respect and worship the Heaven.  Confucius  says that “revere ghosts and spirits but keep distance from them.” He accepted the existence of the Heaven as  a deity and  ghosts and spirits as  deities, but he kept it from afar. So it is not like in Judaism that  makes the people  close to God by acknoedging that they are chosen people. God is the Deity  who is chose to them and granted  them the Torah. The Jewish people believe that when they  practice the Torah , they  become holy and close  to God.


Now let us talk about love. Yes! Both Judaism and Confucian ism uphold love, as you just mentioned, human love. Confucian says it by the term ren (仁) meaning “love of man”, He says that “Ren means to refraining oneself from doing wrong by returning to and practicing  the propriety)  And “don’t do to others  what you don’t want others to do to you”. These are  very similar to those in Judaism. But the most important love for Jewish people is to love God. As recorded in Deutronemy(76:37) “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God is One.  you should love your God with all heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” There are many expressions about love. Judaism  puts the love of God in the center of the laws. So love of God  is in priority in Judaism. However,  we Chinese don’t say that we love heaven. We may say we respect or worship Heaven. But there’s no  relation of love between heaven and men in Confucianism.  Love man  in Confucianism is hierarchy. We call it love with priority (爱有差等)  in Confucian ism, we firstly  love our  parents, which mean filial piety (孝). Confucians pay respect to  parents first and  then  love  family members—brothers and sisters. Then we extend our love to our neighbors and to the people in the same village, and then to those in the  same county,  same province and  same country. So this is a hierarchical love. In Judaism, it is similar. It is also a love in hierarchy. But the beginning of love is not love your parents but love God. In Judaism, in the Ten Commandments, we have the commandments “honor your father and your mother”. In which place is this commandment? In the fourth, not in the first. But in Confucianism, filial piety (孝) is the first virtue. So we can see the its  difference  from Judaism.

Another point is the difference between legalism and moralism. I mean, Confucian ism can be regarded as a very typical moralism while Judaism is legalist. Professor Fleischacker  talked about judgments. “The world stands on three stones”. One of them is right judgments, something like that. In the this book Avot, we learn that “you have to remember a seeing eye, a hearing ear. All you have done is recorded”. Someday in the future, you will be judged according to the records So it is  a very typical legal system. While in Confucian- ism, it is mainly a moral system. We are given many aphorism, mottoes, and some expressions encouraging us to be a righteous man, to be a true gentleman (君子). The propriety is mainly about how to be a moral person. It is different from Judaism.


The final point is about seeking distinction and argument.

I mentioned that in the beginning of my comment. This book is an exception, which is different from other books of the Mishnah. As a matter of fact, although in this book you can find some words about keep silent, don’t quarrel and something like that.  Generally speaking, however, Jewish people encourage people to raise different opinions and encourage arguments. Even in the Bible you can see a lot of the arguments. Abraham argues with God, Job argues with God and his friends. In Mishnah, the sages argue what time to reciteshemah. Some rabbis say when the priest returns home, some say in the first watch, another rabbi insisits on midnight or even on the time before dawn. From all the books of Talmud, you may find arguments. In contrast with Judaism, in traditional Confucian ism, we are tau ght to be prudent in words or keep silent in words.  巧言令色鲜矣仁 (“A person with a sweat tongue is rare to be a man of virtue”.)So this is a very important difference from Judaism.

I don’t have too much time to talk. I think it’s over time. So from these differences, the differences within similarities and some similarities within differences, we can learn from Judaism. And maybe the Jewish people can learn something positive from the comparison. Thank you very much.






Thank you professor Fu. One of the things about arguing is that we need a lot of time, right? And I heard that there’s a tradition in Judaism where you argue the whole night. But  we don’t have the whole night. Professor Murthy, your turn, please.



Professor Murthy:

Ok, I’m gonna try to keep this very short. Because we don’t have much time and professor Fu has already made a lot of important points, some of which are related to what I was going to talk about. So I wanted to start about on one of the reasons I began to think about Judaism in relation to Confucianism. There are a couple of books by my former teachers who talked about Judaism and Christianity. These books attempt to compare the Judeo Christian tradition as a whole with the Asian tradition. This is one of the things that professor Fleischacker brought up. It is precisely that we don’t want to posit the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole and contrast it with Asian thought or Chinese thought, because in this way we overlook both the differences between Christianity and Judaism and also similarities between Judaism and Chinese thought.  Indeed, the famous Jewish thinker, Martin Buber believed that Judaism was an Asian religion.


Now there are certain ways in which so for example if you take a recent book that’s actually come out in Chinese Prasenjit Duara’s book. He has a book and I think it’s called The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future. Where he opposes the Abrahamic religion to Asian traditions including Confucianism and so on. Duara claims that the former religions are characterized by absolute transcendence.  To some extent professor Fu also discussed this in relation to the transcendent God in the Jewish tradition. On the other hand, he contends that Asian religions constitute a dialogic transcendence. So for example, “天” (Tian) implies “天人合一”(tian ren he yi), so it’s not that far removed human beings. Roger Ames makes a similar point. Why make such comparisons?  The answer has to do with evaluation. Both of these views are saying, that there’s something in the Asian tradition that the Judeo Christian tradition doesn’t have or, put simply, dialogic transcendence might better help us cope with the contemporary world. So for example with Torah view, one might say that the problem with the Judeo Christian tradition, is that God is too far away and because he is omnipotent nature becomes a tool. This then leads to environmental problems.  For this reason, Duara contends that Asian religions could help us.

Roger Ames has another view concerning the political possibilities of Asian or Chinese philosophy and he claims Chinese philosophy anticipates the modern critique of transcendence or modern philosophies that are non-transcendental, including John Dewey and so on. I would like to examine the above defense of Asian philosophies in some more detail.


Perhaps we should not separate Western and Asian traditions so clearly. Martin Buber, a twentieth century Jewish philosopher, actually even said that Judaism should be considered in Asian religion, that’s something we should we should think about. But in relation to the Torah, we should ask about the relationship between dialogue and transcendence and this is something that I think professor Fu brought up. There is a famous passage by Marcel Gauchet, whom political scientists in the audience might know.  He said “plus les dieux sont grand, plus les hommes sont libres, the greater gods are, the more free man are.” And there’s something to this. If you think about the nature of dialogue in the Jewish tradition it brings us to the problem of debate. This is where I would like to mention a passage that Sam and I have discussed. I will not read the whole passage, but reproduce it here:

  • Babylonian Talmud Baba Mezia 59b:
  • On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument,  but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachahagrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall.
  • But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachahagrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’  What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.
  • Nathan met Elijah6 and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’


Notice that because God is transcendent  “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they joined; again here: “if the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,” Whereupon the walls inclined to fall”, right?”  But walls also cannot prove a point about the halachah. You can see what happening here. Then you get finally you have if the halachah agrees with me let it be proved from heaven, whereupon the heavenly voice cried out, why do you dispute with Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him. But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed, it is not in heaven. What did he mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah says the Torah had already been given at mount Sinai and so we pay no attention to heavenly voices because thou has long since written in the Torah at mount Sinai after the majority must one incline. So it’s very interesting here is that even if the voice from the heaven comes down at this point, it can’t settle the dispute. So there must be a debate, that is necessitated precisely because of a kind of inaccessibility of God, so this is how absolute transcendence does not necessarily imply dogmatism. In fact it could mean the opposite. Because one could say that if you’re very close, if you can actually experience, then you can say well I have experienced it there’s no need to debate, right? Experience might not be the most critical. I think is very interesting that the God in the Jewish tradition is not re-presentable. The issue of debate emerges in the Pirkei Avot as well. The texts talks about the controversies and certain controversies are going to endure for the sake of heaven and those that are not, will not endure. There is an affirmation of controversy even in the Pirkei Avot, which meshes with the above point.


Here I would like to follow up on a point that professor Fu was making and we see this even in the Pirkei Avot. Let us return to Gauchet’s point. Gauchet was discussing the modern world, where God had become so transcendent that it’s becoming irrelevant. But there might be something of this, in the Jewish tradition, where you have God being removed in the sense, so one wonders how one can love God. What kind of love do we have of something that cannot be represented. To use Kantian terms, in the Jewish tradition, God cannot be an object of possible experience. I am not sure if I am right about this, but it is something that came to my mind.


Before concluding, I just wanted to go into some quick things, the problem of the halachah, and this is something like the law, but the Analects he’s not very interested in law, right? You have the famous saying that you know, I’m as good as others in dealing with litigation.  But what he says but he says the best thing is to see that there are no mitigation.  (Analects 12.13子曰:“听讼,吾犹人也。必也使无讼乎。) At first sight this to me sounded like it’s not a Jewish tradition because halachah is really law. But then if you look at the literature on halachah some questions emerge. I’m not a specialist in the neither Judaism or Confucianism, but some who say it’s very much law, but then someone like Buber says no, no if you look at the Halachah, it’s really the root meaning is to walk and so it’s really about a way and if you read it that way you can push it closer to the Confucianism. (“halakha literally refers to the root h.l.kh (ללכת)meaning “to walk” and to halikah (הליכה) ,meaning “walking. (Galia Patt-Shamir, “Way as Dao, Way as Hallachah” Dao: Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 2005, Vol. 1, 137-158 ))So, so it depends on how one thinks about law. But I think it’s something that we can bring out in the discussion really, how to think about Halachah in relation to law. Because usually Halachah and Hagada, you know, they are separate and the question would be how to relate the two.


Finally, we would need to further think about filial piety and other terms. The Hebrew equivalent kibbud horim and Sam mentioned the fifth and fourth commandment, but the political consequences of these are different, and this gets into our problem of anarchism. Henry Rosemont talks about Confucian anarchism. Look at the following passage.  Mencius says: One can rule in a space of a 100 li 方百里,而可以王. So this very famous passage that says that the ideal kingdom should be small and without many laws.  And he’s really saying it if you just, if you just have “仁政” (ren zheng), benevolent governance there will be harmony. So basically the whole thing is you have a very small territory and if you have “仁政” (ren zheng), you don’t need to do that much. This is a type of anarchism is it not?  But notice that this anarchism is also, of course one with hierarchy. Various people play their roles. They served their parents and so on, so there’s a hierarchical kind of anarchism, which is interesting. The reason again, which reinforces the anarchism is they are not that interested in laws.

So that’s another way in which you have the anarchism, and this of course made me think about feudalism.  Feudalism probably is not the right term for “封建” (feng jian). But if you look at history, the Confucian regime is often associated with “封建制”(feng jian zhi). if you separate “封建制”(feng jian zhi) which is translated feudal system, it’s not a good translation, because it’s not really about, it’s not like medieval Europe, but the key is it’s a decentralized system. As opposed to “郡县制”(jun xian zhi) or the prefectural system. So the 郡县制 is what happens with the Qin emperor where you have the unification. After that, it becomes much harder to go back “封建制”(feng jian zhi), but I think that Confucius really saw the “封建制”(feng jian zhi) the feudal system as an ideal polity. So  even if we want to say that Confucianism criticized the aristocracy in some ways, it was also a reinforcement of the “封建制”(feng jian zhi) ,because the aristocracy doesn’t go away until the Tang dynasty when you get the examination system. So I think we have to think about Confucius in relation with aristocracy in a more complex manner.

Now, we can compare this to the point that something that Professor Fleischacker already mentioned. So when one who accepts himself upon himself the yoke of the Torah is exempted from the yoke of government. “Rabbi Nechunia the son of Hakanah would say: One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares.” (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3.5)

”So this is almost a completely different type of anarchism and because it’s not even trying to say this is going to be an ideal state, but it’s going to be something that you are actually, you’re casting off the yoke of government.  In the Confucian tradition, it appears that the anarchism is actually incorporated into the government, it is a ritualized anarchism.


I am almost finished.  There was one other question–the problem of labor. The word “work” comes in numerous places and I was wondering about what work means. Take the following example.

““Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Psalms 128:2): “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you” n the World to Come.” (Chapter 4)

” Take the following example.

Compare this to the Mencius, where you have the difference between those who work with their minds and those who work with the bodies. and those who work with their minds are going to rule those who work with their bodies.“劳心者治人、劳力者治于人” (lao xin zhe zhi ren, lao li zhe zhi yu ren). So I was wondering about the problem of work in the Jewish tradition.

There seems to be a tension in the Jewish tradition itself, between how to think about work and worldly occupation and here again you know, this comparison would be Confucian tradition would be interesting.  On the first page of the handout, we have I.10 Shemayah says, “Love work, hate lordship and do not become familiar with the government.” There is also this passage about business.  IV.10 Rabbi Meir says: “Minimize business and engage in Torah. Be humble of spirit before everyone.”  But at the same time, there is the following passage about worldly occupation. “II.2 Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said: “Excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation; for the exertion [expended] in both of them causes sin to be forgotten. And all [study of the] Torah in the absence of a worldly occupation comes to nothing in the end and leads to sin.” Here one needs to think further about the relationship between government, business and worldly occupation. How would we think about these in the Jewish tradition.




Okay, now I don’t know if I have time, but I will just mention repentance because repentance keeps coming up in a lot of these texts. And I wonder about your pension repentance in the Confucian tradition whether there is something like that. Because it seems to be connected with the notion of sin and guilt which may not be there in the Confucian tradition. There are notions of repentence in modern intellectual history, but I will end here.









Well, that was fascinating. Thank you! I  have a lot to say, but I have to end the argument from self-constraint, because of lack of time. Let me just add one thing. The passage about Mencius about labor was really directed at  the ruler. He said to the ruler don’t waste your time doing hard manual work in the fields, spend your time ruling. I don’t think it’s a general point about what everybody should be doing,.. (


Professor Murthy: That’s where I disagree (people laugh).


Bell: The more important point  I wanted to make is about this idea of argument. Because I think on the one hand it’s a very important difference between Judaism and Confucianism.  On the other hand, one thing about the Confucian tradition is that it’s constantly engaged with arguments from other traditions and has changed in response to those arguments,.First, the argument with Legalists (fajia) . And then in the Han dynasty Confucianism  absorbed some of the insights of legalism , and then became  more appropriate for a ruling in a kind of non-anarchist large political community. And then later it was Zhu Xi who absorbed many of the arguments from the Buddhist tradition.. And more recently many Confucian thinkers are explicitly trying to engage with the liberal tradition and with the feminist tradition. Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t see the Jewish tradition trying to argue with other traditions to the same extent and  radically changing in response to those arguments. This is just a question, which may be a leading question.

But I think we only have a few minutes maybe, I wonder if we have time for Sam to respond, but before we do that, let’s open it to  arguments from the audience. .(Professor Fleischacker’s’s son Benjamin raises his hand)Good, go ahead. Don’t criticize your father. (People laugh),


Professor Fleischacker: That’s Confucian.



Benjamin: I was wondering. 傅老师,if tradition doesn’t come from a deity or other outside power, what is the use of lineage? And what kind of authority does that kind of lineage provide? Then from dad and 傅老师,how accurate is the lineage in both texts supposed to be? Is it a way of …………legitimizing rabbinic authority or an attempt at historical documentation?


Professor Fu: 他问我的问题呢,就是说,如果说中国的传统,他的起源不是神的话,他的权威性从何而来?Benjamin: 为什么要说他有权威性?


Professor Fu:

就是这个点,是我们经常会遇到的一个难题。At first I mentioned that 尧舜禹汤文武周公, this is the lineage of sages. We call it sage, not prophet. Prophets receive revelation from God. All of the Torah in the Bible and the (104:57)oral Torah is ultimately divine. They are divine words. In Judaism, call it ultimately reality. They think it absolutely right. All he say is absolutely right. We have to accept. We have to follow. We have practice them in our daily life. So there is no doubt on this authority. But in Confucianism, we don’t say that what 尧 said, 舜 said, Confucius said are directly from heaven. We couldn’t say we have to 100% accept it and put it into practice. That is why in different generations, for example. In the May Fourth Movement and the New Culture Movement, in the Cultural Revolution, we can raise the slogan “Down with the Confucianism”[6]. We just forget it. Throw it away. We don’t need Confucianism. Because we don’t need the bondage[7]. We need something different. We need Western philosophy. We need Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy. I don’t think we can guarantee that the Chinese people can accept Confucian expression as our dannimine. So that is one problem why we strengthen the importance of faith, or belief. It’s the same to me that in Confucianism, Confucius said it struggles.  Accept heaven as some kind of God, which is similar to God in Judaism. The problem is there is no direct connection between Heaven and sage, but common people.天听自我民听,天视自我民视。We get the words from the common people. We want to know Heaven, but we don’t know heaven directly. We know heaven from the people. That is the source of Confucian words, expression, principles. It is a question of your reason important problem.


Thank you very much.


Professor Samuel Fleischacker:

So I am quite sure that the initial section of Pirkei Avot — which says “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and Joshua from him” and so forth — that whoever wrote it meant it to be taken as historically correct. But I don’t know that that matters. That’s to say, today in the Jewish community people talk a lot about this and Orthodox Jews want to insist this is literally true, historically. But as you go on in Pirkei Avot, it’s never mentioned again.

I’m going to say something else that affects, intersects with, what professor Fu said and you’ll be glad to know I don’t agree with you entirely. (laughter) It is indeed true that controversy and argument is central in the Jewish tradition and in fact, when I was studying this with my rabbi and other members of the Orthodox community, we found a lot of resonances with the Analects but the one thing that kind of shocked us was, there’s nothing in it encouraging people to argue. There’s nothing like this claim, which professor Murthy mentioned, that any controversy which is for the sake of heaven will stand, and no encouragement to argument, which as professor Fu said is certainly stressed in the rest of the Talmud and I think is implicitly important here. The thing is this … (109:06)

[Daniel Bell:  There’s one line in the Analects that encourages students to raise questions about their teachers, and to correct their teachers when they’re wrong.]

Fleischacker: Okay. Even that suggests that there is a right and a wrong, and you just want to find out what the right answer is. While the claim that any controversy which is for the sake of heaven will endure suggests endless controversy. (109:27) And in fact Hillel and Shammai, whom I mentioned, are two great rabbis who never agreed on anything. And I think that that actually goes to some extent against, or at least is in some tension with, what professor Fu just said. The Jewish tradition doesn’t think, and certainly Pirkei Avot doesn’t think, the rabbinic tradition doesn’t tend to think, [that] there is a right answer, and it was given to us by God, and we know what it this. Something is given from God — but we don’t know what is. That’s why we argue about its meaning all the time. And I think professor Murthy picked this up nicely. God is so transcendent that although things come from God, that doesn’t help. It doesn’t help settle the dispute today. In fact there are even passages in the Talmud that are very close to what professor Fu just quoted about [how] we know what heaven wants from the people. There are places where the rabbis say, “What is the halakha?” (What is the law or the way?) And the answer is, “Go out and look what the people do.” And also if you look at this passage on the handout — “[A]nyone who is pleasing to human beings is pleasing to God; anyone who is not pleasing to human beings is [not] pleasing to God” — there is an emphasis on getting to God through humanity in this text. In fact, interestingly, the opening section which professor Fu stressed, doesn’t say, “Moses received the Torah from God on Sinai”;  it just says he received the Torah on Sinai. God is in the background in this text.

You know, both of these traditions are very big, long traditions with many, many people involved over hundreds, thousands, of years. So one thing that I think is an important corrective [with which] I entirely agree is that in comparative studies we shouldn’t just look for similarities; we should look for differences, and look for similarities within differences. (111:22) I do agree entirely with your methodology on that. But we should also be careful about not thinking, “There’s this tradition and that tradition.” Each of these traditions is very complicated and has many different strands in it. So, for instance we have a moralistic as well as a legalistic strand. About a thousand years after the Pirkei Avot you have a strand of Jewish thought that emphasizes virtue and not law. And even this text [Pirkei Avot] — even though we have such a legalistic tradition in many ways and emphasize law — this text is more about cultivating certain virtues of humanity, and kindness and respect and honor for people and so forth: non-legal notions. So there’s a complex mixture of things going on here. The Jewish tradition has aspects that stress the presence of God, thought not so much in the Talmud, and aspects that don’t. Sometimes, mostly later on, there’s an engagement with other traditions — with Islam especially. There’s a very strong engagement with Islam in Maimonides and in that period of Jewish philosophy. There’s an engagement with Christianity beginning in the eighteenth century really — very late, that there’s an explicit engagement with Christianity. Some Jews in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries said we should do away with the Torah. Buber is one of those basically. I mean, [that] we should certainly do away with the law and look for the ideas behind in it and so forth. Zionist Jews said we should return to certain pagan practices — some of them [did], secular ones.


So there are a lot of different aspects of the tradition and different aspects of the tradition look at Pirkei Avot differently. Pirkei Avot is also just one of many texts in the Talmud. So, coming around finally to what Benji asked, my son asked, whatever the author of Pirkei Avot what may have meant by giving this little history in the beginning — which is only there in the first section and after that you have one Rabbi inheriting from the other rabbi and there’s no more talk about Sinai, let alone heaven — that whole section of Pirkei Avot, which basically is there to legitimate the rabbi’s work, has meant different things to different people at different times. And much of what Pirkei Avot has to say depends just on the inherent moral wisdom of what people are saying rather than any kind of talk about God. Although there are other sections of Pirkei Avot that do talk very much, in a very pious way, about attending to God, being clear that God is watching you and paying attention to you and recording your sins. So there are different strands within the text, some of which are really legitimated by their own moral content and some of which are legitimated by reference to verses in the Torah and some might be legitimated by the idea that these rabbis get their authority ultimately from God. But I actually think that the first chapter which gives you the lineage — the first paragraph — is not that important. It’s given great importance today, in battles between Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews, but I don’t think in the context it’s that important. Maybe that’s just my view.


I would like to get the other people that have questions. I don’t want to just take up the rest of the time. In English or Chinese: somebody can translate for me if people ask me in Chinese. Thank you.




Audience 2:我们讲孔子,他的思想就作为一种思想,作为道德伦理的一部分。为什么一定要有faith, 为什么一定要把他神化?就把他作为道德伦理的一部分,大家都信仰这个道德,都按照这个原则去行使?为什么一定要把他作为一个宗教来比较。


Professor Fu

不一定要把它作为一种宗教。First of all, we don’t have to regard Confucianism as a religion. As a matter of fact, Confucianism has not been regardless as a religion for a long time in the history of China. And, you know I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, no one think Confucian is, Confucianism is a religion.

After the May fourth movement, many Chinese people, a majority of Chinese people didn’t consider Confucianism as a religion. If you accept Confucianism as a moral system, you can also put them into practice. Confucianism also can, also played a role as a guideline for your life. Do you understand? But, for some people, I am one of them, I think if we stressed the importance of heaven, find some connection connection between Confucian principles and heaven, to grant some divinity or some holiness to Confucianism, in this way we can put some authority, gave more authority, to Confucianism. In this way the people are more easily accept it and Confucianism become more authority of authority, so that the people can accept and practice it. So this is my way count. I am not saying Confucianism is a religion definitely, everybody has to accept it as a religion. If you don’t think Confucianism is a religion, well in a small system is okay. If you don’t think Christianity is a religion, if you don’t think Judaism is t a religion is also ok.

Well religion, science, philosophy, they are different. Religion is based on faith. The call of Religion as a faith, it doesn’t matter if it is historically real or not. As you mentioned the historical fact, as mentions Moses received the Torah from Sinai, I didn’t say it is a historical fact, but in the tradition the people believe it. The Jewish people believe that Moses received Torah from God, from God, from God in Sinai. If the people receive it as a divine revalation, it is a religion. Religion become very, very powerful, you, the people can easily accept the program into a protest. Ok, you can say Judaism is not a religion, is not true, Moses received Torah from Sinai from God. It’s a tradition and some reforms at the some reformer of Judaism. They think Confucian, tradition was found in the long process of history step by step, is the accumulation of human experience, and is also ok. But that is the guiding principle for Reform Judaism, so just cut into different kind of understanding.

I want to say several words about your question: Do Jewish people also argue with other traditions? Yeah, I think it’s a yes. Jewish people argue with everybody, every tradition even with God.



Professor Murthy

One needs to historicize religion. Leora Batnitzky has a book of which is How Judaism Became a Religion and she makes the argument that, before a certain time I think it is the seventeenth eighteenth century, Judaism itself didn’t conceive of itself as a religion and what that means is that it’s precisely not about, just about belief that stemps from the inside. After the dominance of Protestantism, where all the other cultural traditions started modeling themselves based on things like belief. So if you think about Confucianism for the longest time it didn’t need to be a religion, it’s only with “康有为” (kang you wei) and these people in the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century, that all of a sudden everybody wants to be a religion. In the Chinese context when a cultural tradition becomes a religion it gets a higher status than “迷信” (mi xin), “宗教”还可以 (zong jiao, hai keyi),但是 “迷信” 是不行 (mi xin, shi buxing) 或者是贬义词. We need to keep this context in mind when understanding superstition. If we think about the problem of religion historically, we can get a better comparative perspective on how religions had to change in the context of modernity.

End of Professor Murty Reply to Audience 2




So we are definitely past time, but let me just say, I think it’s very  persuasive answer regarding  the engagement with Islam. By the way there’s a lot to compare to 朱熹 (Zhu Xi) and Maimonedes , the two greats, because朱熹 (Zhu Xi) systematized Confucianism in a way that Maimonedes systematized Judaism..

Professor Murthy: There might be a Phd dissertation on this topic [add reference?];


Professor Fu: Daniel, do you remember in Tel Aviv, one young woman. I think she was doing PhD with XX in Hebrew University. She was XXX ) (123:10)


Bell: So there are many striking parallels. Also about Confucian argument, there is a political aspect, right? There’s a line in the Analects asking that if there’s one thing wrong with government, what is it? It’s precisely when the ministers don’t criticize the ruler for mistaken policies. And the idea of harmony in Confucian thought contrasts with 同 (tong) which is uniformity or conformity. So the whole idea of Confucian harmony is really meant to emphasize difference. And actually the idea of harmony  was also  used in a political context in the Zuo Zhuan, again, arguing that the emperor for the ruler should listen to diverse views including criticisms only then could he correct mistaken  policies. So anyway I think there’s also a tradition of argument in the Confucian tradition. I don’t think this idea that  students should  blindly listen to the teacher is really Confucian either. It’s more, like a stereotypical or vulgarzied Cultural Revolution-style view of Confucianism.I do think that the true Confucian teacher would encourage the student to raise objections and to improve the teacher, right?


Professor Murthy

I think so, the issue though concerns how we interpret Confucianism.  Because on the one hand we often want to push Confucianism in a postmodern direction and say it’s not about rationality. In this case, can it be about rational debate? This type of interpretation emergers because Asian philosophy began to posit itself against Enlightenment philosophy, which stressed rationality.  In this way, scholars working on Chinese philosophy could say, hey we are already postmodern and consequently, China already in the Warring States period appears ahead of Western philosophy and therefore the claim is that Westerners must recognize and learn from Chinese philosophy.  However, the price one pays for such a dialogue is that it becomes difficult to stress debate in the Chinese tradition.  This might open us to the possibility of an idea of different types of debate.  There is no doubt that Chinese philosophers and Confucian philosophers engaged in rational debate.  But perhaps the question we must ask is “what type of rationality?”  (Professor Fleischacker: fair enough).




I think we should thank you so much for the lovely idea, that  endless argument is valuable per se,  That does indeed seem to be moving away from Confucianism.  Sam, perhaps you can offer the last word?


Professor Samuel Fleischacker

Well, I do have to say, the line in the Analects about how rulers always should have someone correcting them and contradicting them was one of my favorite bits in the Analects. Maybe I like the argumentative part. But it’s good that you remind me of it. So bearing in mind the importance of endless argument, I think it’s crucial that some ways in which, say, professor Fu and I, and professor Murthy, professor Bell about do not entirely agree — it’s not necessarily a bad thing, leaving things open in that sense. In fact it could be a very good thing. I guess the final things that I would have to say are primarily, first of all, just a reminder that we’ve focused on two texts, two books. Pirkei Avot is just one piece of a large Jewish tradition, and as professor Fu stressed, it’s not necessarily even representative of rabbinic thinking. It’s different in many ways from other rabbinic thinking, even though it emphasizes the role of the rabbis and it stresses study and so forth. And one should be careful in any kind of work on religion or philosophy to not think, “OK, this book (even if it’s very important) represents the whole tradition.” [We shouldn’t think that about] the Analects, [and we shouldn’t think that about] Pirkei Avot. The Analects has a long history — in some ways before it, the books Confucius is looking back to, and the tradition is looking back to — and certainly afterwards, and the way it is used later on. And Pirkei Avot also has a long history before it, that it’s looking back to, and afterwards in the many ways that it’s used.

But I think what’s useful, and I do want to stress this — although I like very much the final thing the professor Fu said about the way in which heaven can validate your tradition — [is that] both of these particular texts are quite humanistic. The Jewish tradition in general looks to God very strongly, but in Pirkei Avot God is more in the background most of the time (not always). What the role of heaven is in the Confucian tradition I don’t dare to say. But certainly this particular text is very much about how human beings interact. And the fact that these texts are very important — the Analects and Pirkei Avot — in our respective traditions, the Jewish and the Confucian, does suggest something of a difference between our traditions and, say, Christianity or Islam. (128:34) Although I don’t want to overstress that either — there are humanistic elements certainly in both of those traditions as well.

And I certainly think the emphasis on a community of scholars, and on studying the past and respecting the past, is something that’s quite distinctive in our traditions. Certainly quite different from Islam, Christianity and Buddhism which both start with a rebellion against an older tradition. They start as a reform movement. That’s less true among Hindus, who in other ways are also I think similar to Jews and Confucians in this respect for the past. And all I want to urge going forward is that we pick up on some of the affinities that our traditions have, and sometimes differences from other traditions, as something to work on, something that’s valuable. I think it’s very useful not to make Jews just a form of Christians; we Jews certainly don’t think of ourselves that way at all. It’s also important not to merge Confucianism into all other Asian religions. And the certain powerful ways that I think have come out this evening in which there are similarities between the Confucian and the Jewish that are not necessarily shared with other traditions — that’s something to build on and emphasize even as we also recognize that there are many differences between the two traditions and many differences within the two traditions. So I hope this is a contribution to an ongoing dialogue that can continue, including its debates. But also that we can recognize that there are some powerful strains of similarities here that are worth developing.


Bell: Let me add one thing, in about twenty years’ time your son will come and continue this dialogue in Chinese.


Fleischacker: Yes! That will be an improvement. Thank you very much




[1] Professor Bell talked about the three books with assistance of a power point. The power point introduced basic information of professor Samuel Fleischacker, professor Fu and professor Viren Murthy.

[2] Four refers to the fourth section of part one in the document Rabbinic and Confucian Wisdom: Saying of the Fathers and the Analects

[3] The Book of Songs

[4] The Book of documents

[5] The last chapter of the book Mencius.

[6] Knock down Confucius

[7] Or bondage


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