The Challenge to the Historian
DURING THE SUMMER OF 1972 a Torah scroll which is part of the Harrison Bible Collection at Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, was identified as one of the thirteen Pentateuchal rolls that were installed in 1663 in the newly rebuilt synagogue of Kaifeng, the old Song capital of China. It was also determined that this particular scroll was acquired in 1851 from the Jewish community (Hebrew: kehillah) of Kaifeng, together with five other Torah scrolls and fifty-odd smaller Hebrew manuscripts, by Ch'iu T'ien-sheng and Chiang Jung-chi, who were acting as agents for the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews.
In March 1973 the news of the discovery of the identity of this old scroll was circulated internationally by the press. Some of the accounts that were disseminated were restrained and factual, but others proved to be sensational in form and marred by inaccuracies. In any event, these press announcements evoked a surprisingly large number of inquiries concerning both the Chinese Jews and their newly identified scroll. It became advisable, accordingly, to go to press quickly with the preliminary report of the discovery which was then being prepared so that the erroneous press reports could be corrected and the inquiries could be answered, at least in part. This report was published by Bridwell in April 1973.
Of the numerous questions that have been raised in connection with the Bridwell find these three stand out: (1) Does the text of this exemplar differ in any way from that of the Pentateuchal texts currently in use throughout the world?; (2) Have any other Chinese Torah scrolls survived, and, if so, where are they?; and (3) What do these scrolls tell us about the far-flung diasporic Jewish community for which they were written?
Even a cursory review of the literature that was available at the time the Bridwell Torah was identified makes it clear that the recorded history of the Chinese Sifrei Torah needed tidying up. The mere fact that no one could say how many of the thirteen scrolls reported to have been held in the ark of the Kaifeng synagogue had survived or, for that matter, where all the surviving exemplars could be found, discouraged the initiation of full-scale comparative studies of their texts. To make matters worse, some of the scholars who examined and described individual scrolls shortly after these were obtained from the Kaifeng Jews were not adequately qualified for the tasks they undertook, with the result that it is difficult today to determine what to believe and what not to believe as one reads the early studies relating to these exemplars.
The need for both a reliable census and a reappraisal of the Kaifeng scrolls had been brought into focus in 1972 with the publication of Donald Daniel Leslie's masterly researched history of the Chinese Jews. In the section of his book which discusses the Sifrei Torah of the Kaifeng kehillah Dr. Leslie attempted to assemble a census of those that had survived, but was handicapped by having to rely upon records that were not always trustworthy or up to date. Dr. Leslie, to be sure, appreciated the nature of the problem he faced and the limitations it placed upon his work. The census he provided could not be definitive, accordingly, but it was the best that could be put together under the circumstances. (Dr. Leslie's book appeared some months before the disclosure of the Bridwell discovery, and therefore makes no allusion to it.)
The Kaifeng Torahs are of course interesting as relics of an exotic Jewish community that is now to all intents and purposes defunct — as museum pieces, that is — and would merit our attention even if they had no more to offer than this. Of much greater significance, however, is the fact that a careful study of their formats and of the numerous orthographic idiosyncrasies they display would appear to have considerable value in assisting scholars to identify the particular Jewish groups to which the Chinese Jews were historically linked. Since there is currently no complete agreement as to where the Chinese Jews came from or in which century they first ventured into China, the determination of the provenance of the models by which the scribes of Kaifeng were guided in the preparation of their Torahs could go a long way towards filling the gaps that presently exist in our understanding of the history of Chinese Jewry.
Essentially, the matter comes to this: if the surviving scrolls derive from originals brought to Kaifeng by the first Jewish settlers in that city, they may offer clues for fixing the time of the arrival of these people in Kaifeng and for indicating the areas from which they came; if, on the other hand, the extant scrolls are based on Torahs brought to China from Jewish centers outside the country subsequent to the initial settlement of Jews in Kaifeng, they may help us trace the identities of the foreign Jewish communities with which the Kaifeng congregation, once established, was able to maintain contact. It is for these reasons, primarily, that Dr. Leslie re- commended that there be a re-examination of the Kaifeng scrolls, noting that the descriptions which we do have are mainly from the nineteenth century.
It would be presumptuous for anyone but a scholar who is thoroughly at home in Masoretic and Torah-scribal traditions to attempt a comprehensive textual analysis of all the surviving Kaifeng scrolls and then, as must be done, to follow this up by care- fully comparing their texts with those of the Jewish communities from which the Chinese Jews may have inherited their scribal practices. It is to be hoped that such a scholar will before long address himself to this task. Nevertheless, as a matter of interest and as a faltering first step toward demonstrating what might be done, a small sampling of the textual peculiarities that characterize the extant Chinese scrolls is presented and discussed in Part Three of the present work. However, no in-depth attempt is being made at this time to compare the stylistic characteristics one observes in the Chinese Torah scrolls with those occurring in scrolls used long ago by various non-Ashkenazic Jewish communities upon one or more of which, there is reason to believe, the scribal rules and the formats of the Kaifeng exemplars were originally patterned. It is anticipated, in any case, that Bridwell will within the next year or two prepare digitized facsimiles of all 239 columns of its Kaifeng Torah and make these available over the Internet.
It should be made clear at this juncture that while the texts of the extant Chinese Torahs exhibit minor variations from the texts of the Torahs in common use today, these variations are the results of scribal lapses — and nothing more. In short, the wording of the Pentateuch that the Chinese Jews knew was exactly the same as the wording we know. The proliferation of scribal errors in the surviving Chinese scrolls becomes understandable when it is realized that during the years in which these scrolls were written the Jews of Kaifeng had already been cut off for several generations from all contact with Jewish communities outside their country. In their isolation, it was inevitable that the Kaifeng Jews should gradually become deficient in their knowledge of the language of their forefathers. What is remarkable, really, is that the thousand or two Jews who lived in the city of Kaifeng in the middle of the seventeenth century retained as much understanding of that language as they did.
My purposes in writing this study are basically fourfold: (1) to provide a reliable and up-to-date census of all extant Chinese Torah scrolls, so that scholars who are interested in studying them will know where to find them; (2) to tell how the scrolls I was able to locate came to their present homes; (3) to summarize what I have discovered about those scrolls which are now missing in the hope that the information thus presented may lead to the recovery of one or more of them; and (4) to consider the advantages that an in-depth study of the Kaifeng scrolls may present to the historian. To accomplish these ends I have personally examined all the Kaifeng scrolls that I could locate — namely, two in New York, and one each in Dallas, London, Oxford, Cambridge (England), and Vienna. I have also tried to trace those scrolls which are missing by searching the available records and by corresponding and talking with several dozen people who, I hoped, might be able to furnish clues as to their fate.
The literature that has accumulated on the subject of the Kaifeng Jews includes a fair amount of information concerning their Sifrei Torah. Unfortunately, as I have noted above, not all this material is as reliable as one might wish it to be. Moreover, quite a few misconceptions about the scrolls have been carried over from one writer to the next. Some of the errors occurring in the literature distort the history of the peregrinations of the Kaifeng scrolls since they were originally purchased; and it is by no means uncommon to encounter reports that turn out to be utterly misleading in their treatments of the physical and textual specifics of the individual exemplars.
A substantial portion of the present study is of necessity based upon data extracted from the literature to which I have had re- course. While I was able to make a number of extended personal examinations of the Harrison exemplar at Bridwell Library and two shorter examinations of the exemplars held by the libraries of the American Bible Society and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the restrictions imposed by geography and time made it impractical for me to allot more than a few hours to the inspection in situ of each of the four other surviving Kaifeng scrolls. I have therefore been compelled to rely in some degree upon the findings of a number of scholars who were able to spend much more time scrutinizing the individual scrolls than I. There is nothing in the literature, in any event, to indicate that anyone else — with the possible exception of a few individuals through whose hands the scrolls passed shortly after their acquisition from the Kaifeng Jews — has ever had the opportunity of examining more than two or three of the extant scrolls.
To the best of my knowledge, the notes I took during my inspections of the six Kaifeng scrolls that are housed in New York, England and Austria reflect exactly what I saw. I must admit, how- ever, that I have since that time suffered occasional twinges of doubt with regard to the accuracy and completeness of my notes. These doubts have arisen in those instances in which I discovered that various of my recorded observations were in conflict with those reported by others. I was therefore compelled to resolve several of the discrepancies I found and to fill in certain lacunae in my notes by resorting to microfilms and to other photographic reproductions of the texts in question. Fortunately, it was possible to dispose of nearly all these problems in this fashion.