International Symposium on Jewish and Chinese Classical Hermeneutics

All day
Through December 20, 2017
Shandong University, Qingdao Campus

Dec. 17

This was the third conference sponsored by the Beijing Center (and as a late-comer, the Greenberg Center for Jewish Studies at UChicago [GCJS]) in collaboration with the Center for Judaic and Inter-religious studies at Shandong University to bring together scholars in Jewish and Chinese Thought to discuss a topic of common interest. The first, a workshop on Maimonides and Medieval Jewish Thought, was held in April 2012 at the Beijing Center and the second, a symposium on Jewish and Confucian Ethics, convened at Shandong University, Jinan, in December 2013. This third conference finally took place this past December 17-20. We want to thank the Beijing Center both for its support and for its encouragement to persist in our efforts to organize the conference. The symposium was indeed a great success, the best of the three conferences, so our efforts were repaid in full.

The topic of the conference was a theme that came up repeatedly in the previous conference: the dialectic between tradition and change and, in particular, the problem how one re-constructs a tradition—the Chinese tradition that was most often mentioned at the conference was Confucianism—under circumstances of great change. The question is both how to translate classical problems and solutions into contemporary language and concepts and how to address contemporary problems through creative interpretation (or re-interpretation) of classic sources of authority as a way of reviving lost traditions, that is, traditions that for one reason or another had lost relevance and meaning in later or the present circumstances. This is a subject of great concern in China at the present moment for scholars who are still struggling in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution with its deliberate attempt to efface Chinese traditions, and it is an issue that has concerned Judaism throughout its history, beginning from ancient exiles through the Middle Ages to the Holocaust. We would add that it was striking and moving how deeply the Chinese participants continue to feel the present urgency to face this problem, as a number of them mentioned in the course of the conference.

Sixteen scholars participated in the symposium, seven Chinese and eight from abroad, including two from Chicago (Brook Ziporyn and Josef Stern), one each from Scranton and Hawaii, three from Israel, and one from Singapore. There were, unfortunately, four last minute cancellations for personal reasons which were too late for us to recruit replacements. In addition, about ten students from Shandong University in Jinan came

and participated, some quite actively. Of the participants, five were first-timers to the series of three conferences; nonetheless, the group cliqued remarkably well and there was a lot of discussion and exchange among Chinese and ‘Western’ participants during meals and outside the formal sessions.

All the papers were on topic (something the organizers proactively monitored before the conference!) and well-prepared, and represent a remarkably cosmopolitan mixture: papers by Chinese scholars on the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinics, comparative papers by Chinese scholars on medieval and modern Jewish and Confucian thought, American scholars on Confucian thought, as well as (the expected) Chinese scholars on Chinese thought and Western Jewish Studies scholars on Jewish topics. (Unfortunately, one of the late cancelations was by a distinguished American scholar who works on both Chinese and rabbinic thought.) The major fault with the conference was that despite our efforts to leave enough time for discussion, we could have used several more hours! That we all learned a huge amount was a sentiment shared by everyone. And all the participants, we would add, seem very interested in continuing the series of conferences.

In addition to the formal sessions, we were treated to an excellent tour of the very impressive new Qingdao campus of Shandong University, led by the Vice-President of the University.

The organizing committee for the conference consisted of Brook Ziporyn (Divinity) and Josef Stern (Philosophy and GCJS) from UChicago and Youde Fu and Xiuyuan Dong from Shandong. Michael Fishbane (Divinity) was also very actively involved in the early planning and conceptualization of the conference, but for personal reasons was unable to attend. We would add, finally, that Dong, a former Ph.D. student of Professor Fu and now himself an Associate Professor at Shandong and the new associate director of its Center for Judaic and Inrer-religious Studies (and heir to Fu), did a superb job organizing the conference logistics from the Chinese side and will be a real resource for the organization of future conferences.

In addition to the conference, Josef Stern gave a paper (“Quotations and Pictures”) at Fudan University in Shanghai the Friday before the conference and the same paper on the day after the conference at the Beijing Center in collaboration with the Department of Philosophy at Peking University. The paper in Beijing drew the largest audience ever attracted to quotation-marks (some 35 participants, including two faculty members) and went a half-hour over time because of the lively discussion.

As we mentioned, there was great interest by the participants in continuing our collaboration with Shandong University with future conferences. Although there are regular Western (American and Israeli) visitors to both of the serious centers in China in Jewish Studies, at Shandong and at Nanjing, our conferences are, to the best of my knowledge, the only such series to exist. Even more important, through these conferences young Chinese scholars in Jewish Studies have had the opportunity to meet American and Israeli scholars who have (I (JS) know from my own experience and from others) mentored them and brought them to Chicago and to Jerusalem as visiting scholars

or fellows for a year. One of Stern’s papers from the first conference has now been published (in Chinese translation) by Nanjing University and we just learned that two papers from our recent conference (in December!) have already been translated and will be published in a volume by Shandong University! Clearly our collaboration is paying off in longer-term results. This is one—rather surprising—way in which the University of Chicago can make a real intellectual impact in China.

Josef Stern

William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy

Inaugural Director, Greenbergt Center for Jewish Studies 2009-2014

Brook Ziporyn

Professor of Chinese Religion, Philosophy, and Comparative Thought

Divinity School