Have you ever heard of Kaifeng, China? Kaifeng was the home of the only indigenous Jewish community in China. There have been other Jewish communities in places like Harbin and Shanghai, and a few years ago, a colleague of mine went to Beijing in his capacity as mohel to perform a circumcision, but these communities are made up of Western expatriate Jews. Kaifeng was the only home of indigenous Jews, who were Chinese in culture, language, and appearance. It is surmised, though not known for sure, that they were descendants of Persian Jewish merchants who settled in Kaifeng and then married local women.
The Kaifeng community became known to the West through the work of Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary who had gone to China in the late 1500s with, among other things, the goal of contacting indigenous Chinese Christian communities who were believed to exist. He was contacted by a Jewish government official from Kaifeng who had been told about this bearded Westerner who believed in one God. The Chinese Jew assumed Ricci was Jewish, Ricci assumed the official was Christian, and it took some time until the confusion was straightened out to Ricci's satisfaction, although the Chinese Jew apparently never quite caught on. Today, the Kaifeng community is only a memory, though there are still some descendants of the Chinese Jews in the Kaifeng area. If you ever travel to Cincinnati, you can go to the Rare Book Room at the Hebrew Union College and see documents from the Kaifeng Jewish community which were saved by Jesuits. They are fascinating, being written in both Chinese and Hebrew.
While Ricci and his fellow Jesuits preserved the knowledge of Judaism in China, they also played an important role in introducing Western ideas to China and Chinese ideas to the West. They did not, however, succeed in converting many Chinese to Christianity. The Jesuits believed that many of the ideas of Confucianism were more cultural than religious, and could be made compatible with Christianity if correctly understood. In particular, they were willing to allow their Chinese converts to continue veneration of the dead. The Jesuits' Dominican rivals reported this to Rome, and the Jesuits were recalled, to be replaced by Dominicans and Franciscans who were much more “orthodox” in their approach. As a result, Christianity never really spread significantly in China, as would-be Chinese converts could rarely bring themselves to give up venerating their ancestors as the price of becoming Christian.
It is not always easy to determine whether a practice is religious or merely cultural. I doubt that there is anyone in our congregation who has a problem with observing Thanksgiving, but in Baltimore or New York, for example, the question of whether or not to close a Jewish day school on Thanksgiving is a hot-button issue that serves to demarcate a school as Modern Orthodox or “ultra”-Orthodox. In our family, we do not wear Halloween costumes or put up Halloween decorations, but we give candy out to those who come to our door. To my way of thinking, Halloween retains enough of its non-Jewish religious origin so that I am not comfortable actively observing it. Yet, as part of the larger American society – and realizing that most Americans, most Jews included – don't see Halloween as religious, I act as a good neighbor in distributing candy.
Thanksgiving is an easy call – secular, American, appropriate for Jews to observe. Halloween is less easy – I don't observe it but I don't strongly object if other Jews choose to do so. Christmas or Easter, it seems to me, is also an easy call. And yet . . .
The fact of the matter is that almost all contemporary Jews have Christian relatives. A Jewish elementary school child today is far more likely to have at least one Christian grandparent than he or she is to have at least one immigrant Jewish grandparent. Whereas once the hostility between Jews and Christians was so great – on both sides – that the child of a convert to Judaism was unlikely to have a strong relationship with his or her Christian grandparents, today that is no longer the case. Christian grandparents proudly participate in the Bar and Bat Mitzvah services of their Jewish grandchildren. Under the circumstances, it is not reasonable to expect that a Jewish family refuse to attend Christmas or Easter celebrations of their extended Christian family members.
When I am asked to set parameters for the participation of non-Jewish friends or relatives in a Jewish service, the main guideline which needs to be followed is that the non-Jew not do anything which would create the appearance that they were in fact Jewish. So they could not have an aliyah, lead the congregation in required prayer, count as part of a minyan (which consists of ten Jews), and so on. They can read the prayer for the government, the prayer for peace, or additional readings which are not part of the service itself. We try to be inclusive of non-Jewish friends and relatives while maintaining the integrity of our Jewish worship.
It seems to me that these guidelines should be followed in reverse when a Jew is invited to a Christian celebration. It is perfectly fine to attend as a guest, as long as it is clear that this is what is happening. Keleigh and I have on occasion attended Christmas celebrations at the home of some of her relatives in Kentucky, who went out of their way to make sure that there was food which we could eat. They understood that we could not participate in any of their prayers or Christmas songs.
Our participation in a multicultural, pluralistic society creates questions and dilemmas our ancestors never imagined. In resolving them, I recommend we use the wisdom of a Matteo Ricci – who, it should be noted, was offered , and declined, the position of Chief Rabbi of Kaifeng if only he would give up eating pork.