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‘Pirkei Avot’ and the Chinese Connection

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Commentary on Pirkei Avot in Chinese, published by the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, Jerusalem

What is the connection between Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, and the textile business? Most people would say none. This was true for me as well, until one day in 1998 in Hong Kong when I met Thomas, an old student of mine from the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement in Scandinavia. Thomas had, like I, emigrated from Sweden to Israel and was now the general manager of The Israeli Institute of Talmudic Publications, the institute that handles most of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's prolific publications, including his iconic new commentary on the Talmud, and organizes his world-wide lecture tours.

I was on an expat assignment in Hong Kong and lived in one of the lowest buildings in Hong Kong's Mid-levels district, a building with "only" 25 floors, four of which were above ground parking space. Every building worth its name in Hong Kong has an English name, legacy of the British colonial period. Ours was called Hoover Court and was located on 7-9 MacDonnell Road. Thomas had arrived with Rabbi Steinsaltz on the Rabbi's annual lecture to the Ohel Leah synagogue, Hong Kong's main synagogue on 70 Robinson Road, a few streets away.

The Hong Kong Jewish community is one of the richest in the world due to the real estate appreciation in Hong Kong over the last century. The Sassoon family, "the Rothschilds of the East", wealthy merchants of Iraqi origin who had settled in India and China, had donated a large tract of land to build a synagogue with a surrounding park in a outlying area of Mid-levels (among others, the Sassoons were active in the British opium trade between India and China, which was perfectly legal at the time). Another affluent Jewish merchant, the Kadoori family, also with Iraqi roots, doubled the size of the plot.

The synagogue was consecrated in 1902 and totally renovated in 2002. When the influx of immigrants brought the city buildings closer, and high-rises grew like mushrooms all over Mid-levels, the community decided to sell part of the land to build two 47-story high-rises on the land adjacent to the synagogue in exchange for a hefty sum (rumored to be at least US$200M) and the inclusion of six floors for a Jewish Community Center (JCC). In order to make sure the funds remained in Hong Kong, the trustees of the community stipulated that the funds could only be spent in Hong Kong. Later, when they wanted to support Rabbi Steinsaltz's projects for reviving Jewish culture in Russia and China, they couldn't send a donation due to their own by-laws. So instead, every year, they invite the Rabbi for a lecture weekend in Hong Kong, as they do with several other prominent rabbis and lecturers. Thomas was accompanying the Rabbi on one of these visits when we met.

Thomas asked me if I had heard of a certain mobile phone company.

"Sure." I said, "I even know the owner and CEO. He is my neighbor."

"What a coincidence," he replied, "you know only one Chinese man in Hong Kong and I happen to know the same one, Michael L. I'll tell you how well I know him. Michael's family lived in southern China during the civil unrest in the 1940s between the capitalists, led by Chiang Kai Shek, and the communists, led by Mao Zedong (which the British spelled Mao Tse Tung). We all know who won, so Michael's parents decided they should flee to Hong Kong. Michael was born in Hong Kong but his father died when he was very young. He started his business life in Hong Kong at the age of 17. He decided to try his luck at exporting textiles and asked one of his first large customers to advise him on how to organize it. This customer was my father," said Thomas, "and my father was a textile merchant in Sweden. Michael became so close to our family that he would attend many family occasions even if it meant that he return to Hong Kong or America on the same day he arrived. The Chinese have many popular beliefs, one of which is that if you have luck in your first business deal, it is a lucky sign for life. So Michael decided he would do business mainly with Jews."

After several years, when Michael was already an established textile business man, and had started and sold a smaller phone company, he learned of the first major tender for second generation mobile phone licenses in Hong Kong. He didn't know much about this new technology, so who does he call for advice - Thomas' father Göran, his Swedish-Jewish textile business adviser. Of course, Göran too didn't know anything about the new phone technology but he had a Jewish friend who was on the board of one of the Swedish mobile phone companies. The end result was that the Swedish company became a strategic partner in the tender bid and together they won one of the mobile operating licenses."

By the way, it turned out to be a good deal for everyone involved – the company was sold a few years ago for around $2B.

Thomas continued: "On one of our visits to Hong Kong, Michael invited us for a cup of coffee. After some interesting conversation about the Talmud, he politely asked the Rabbi: 'Is there anything I can do to promote learning this Talmud in China?'".

Rabbi Steinsaltz, who didn't think promoting Talmudic learning in China was the best way to promote understanding between the two cultures, answered simply: "There is a Jewish book called Pirkei Avot, which literally means Chapters of Avot, but usually is translated as Ethics of the Fathers. Avot is a tractate in the Mishna, one of the books of the Talmud. This is a collection of philosophical expressions and idioms that our rabbis have uttered in various contexts, in some ways similar to how you Chinese view sayings by Confucius."

"Very interesting," said Michael, "and how can we get such a text published in Chinese?"

"Well, first we have to find a Chinese man who understands Hebrew and Mishna, with whom I can work." They found such a man in Israel and started the project – written directly in Chinese with Rabbi Steinsaltz dictating to the translator. There is actually no English version.

When the project was ready for printing in 1995-6, Michael proclaimed: "I would like to dedicate this book in memory of my beloved family, Doris and Göran Nisell."

I used to give copies to many of my customers in China and Taiwan and it was much appreciated. In fact, it became so well known that Rabbi Steinsaltz was invited by the Academy of Social Sciences to Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing to give a lecture called Pirkei Avot and Confucius: A Comparative Survey, the Beijing opening lecture attended by the upper Chinese establishment in the presence of Israel's female ambassador Ora Namir. In that lecture Rabbi Steinsaltz stated:

'At a first glance, Pirkei Avot looks very much like the collected sayings of Confucius: it has the same style, and seems to have the same way of thinking. A more profound examination, however, will show that in fact, it is more like the work of Menzius, in terms of its view of morality and of ethical values.

But in fact, in both details of style and the general way of thinking, Pirkei Avot bears an inner resemblance to the basic book of Dao. For one thing, Pirkei Avot uses a more poetical language, which is much fuller of parables and metaphors than that of Confucius, and therefore more similar to that of Lao Tse. In addition, unlike Confucius, Pirkei Avot uses ways of thinking which are, in themselves, dialectical and paradoxical.'"

This amazing story exemplifies how everything in Jewish life is interconnected. The actions of a Jewish textile merchant from Sweden led to a lifelong friendship which then, when the son of the Swedish merchant became Rabbi Steinsaltz's right-hand man, resulted in "returning the favor" decades later by enabling the printing of the Commentary on Pirkei Avot in Chinese. 



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