The Historical Background
THE FIRST SYNAGOGUE OF KAIFENG — or, to be more precise, the first synagogue in that city of which we know — was established in 1163. The structure was destroyed or severely damaged several times, but was rebuilt or repaired as the need arose. In 1642, after Kaifeng had endured six months of of an exceptionally brutal siege, a rebel army led by Li Tzu-ch'êng demolished portions of the dikes of the nearby Yellow River in an effort to bring the city to its knees. In the ensuing flood 100,000 or more of Kaifeng's inhabitants were drowned, among them an un- determined number of members of the Jewish community. Two stone monuments erected in the courtyard of the Kaifeng synagogue in 1663, twenty-one years after the catastrophe, tell us that the structure itself, as well as the thirteen Torah scrolls that were kept in its ark and many other books, were swept away by the flood.
We are also informed that two young Jews, Kao Hsien and Li Ch'êng-chün, retrieved ten Torah scrolls and "twenty-six items of miscellaneous Scriptures" from the swirling waters. The badly damaged salvaged scrolls were dried out and delivered to Li Chên, who is described as the "Chief of the Religion" (Chang Chiao). Rabbi Li, assisted by the mandarins Li Ch'êng-hsien and Chao Ying-ch'êng, thereupon "removed the blurred portions and cut out the spoiled parts." The sheets were then examined and collated; "and in this way [Li Chên] was able to make one roll of a complete Scripture." This exemplar, the most treasured of all the Kaifeng synagogal Torah scrolls, was spoken of as the "Scroll of Moses."
Two additional copies were also restored by Li Chên and Li Ch'êng-hsien, both of whom collated old salvaged sheets with newly written texts. Other scrolls were completely rewritten. One scroll, we are told, "was that ancient Scripture which the Chief of the Religion, Li Chên, had formerly restored and repaired." The stelae, however, tell us absolutely nothing about the provenance of the skins from which this "ancient Scripture" — obviously the Scroll of Moses — was assembled. However, Father Jean Domenge states in a letter of 20 December 1724 to Father Étienne Souciet, that "the K’aifeng Jews obtained their ancient Bible or Pentateuch from a Mohammedan they met at Ningsia in the Province of Shensi after the conflagration of their first synagogue. And this Mohammedan had got it from a Jew, who dying at Canton had entrusted it into his hands as a valuable security and deposit [for a debt?]. This is the very one which was later saved from the flood in K’aifeng, and from which 12 copies in scroll form were made by copyists they had at that time to replace [the lost exemplars in] the Bethel or their Holy of Holies, which they call in Chinese T’ien-t’ang or the Tem- ple of Heaven, round inside and square outside, and in which they keep no other Bibles except these 13 Pentateuchs in memory of Moses and the 12 Tribes."
A differing account of the provenance of the Kaifeng congregation’s Scroll of Moses appears in Father Antoine Gaubil’s letter of 18 August 1723 to Father Jean-Baptiste du Halde. During the reign of the emperor Wan-li (1573-1620), Gaubil states, the Jews of a region which he calls "Syyu," but which, two para- graphs earlier, he spells "Siyu," brought a Torah and other books to the Kaifeng Jews following the destruction of the Kaifeng syna- gogue by fire and its rebuilding — events, it should be noted, that do not appear to be recorded elsewhere. "Le Pentateuque dont je parle," Gaubil continues, "est le seul de ces livres qu’ils aient conservé en original. Les autres ne sont que des copies des autres qui peu à peu se sont perdus, faute de soins, on verra comment."2
In all, in any case, between 1642 and 1663 thirteen Sifrei To-rahs were written or restored by the Kaifeng kehillah. The ratio- nale for the choice of this number would appear to be tied to a delightful legend which has Moses devoting several hours of the last day of his life to the writing of thirteen Torah scrolls, a most remarkable feat when one considers that he would have had to write a total of 1,039,688 words — i.e., 79,976 words per scroll — in those few hours. Each of the twelve tribes of Israel, as Louis Ginzberg recounts the tale, was given one scroll, and the finest of the scrolls was taken by the archangel Gabriel "to the highest heavenly court to show the piety of Moses, who had fulfilled all that is written in the Torah. Gabriel passed with it through all the heavens, so that all might witness Moses' piety. It is this scroll out of which the souls of the pious read on Monday and Thursday, as well as on the Sabbath and holy days."3 Another version of the legend has Moses directing the people of Israel to place this scroll in the Ark of the Covenant, where it could serve as a proof text in the event that questions should ever arise regarding the accuracy of the wording of any of the Torahs being held by the individual tribes.
We are further told in the 1663 stelae that the restoration and rewriting of the scrolls and other books, together with the rebuilding of the synagogue, went on for approximately two decades. During those years the congregation attended services in a large rented house. We are also given the names of numerous individuals who contributed funds for the restoration of the holy books and the re- construction of the synagogue, and are informed that by 1663 it finally became possible to dedicate a rebuilt synagogal center on the site of the old and to install the restored and rewritten Torahs in the new sanctuary. "And thus," the stelae proudly proclaim, "the thir- teen rolls were completed. They shine in their new splendour, and those who read them find them easy to understand, while those who see them find them pleasing and acceptable. In short, they were all written at the hands of the chief of the religion and the Man-las,4 and the members of the religion helped [with their financial contributions] to bring the work to completion."5
The thirteen scrolls that were placed in the rebuilt synagogue in 1663 served the congregation of Kaifeng for about two hundred years. It is doubtful, however, that they saw much use after the first decade of the nineteenth century, for the last rabbi of Kaifeng died at that time, leaving absolutely nobody in the community capable of reading Hebrew.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the kehillah of Kaifeng was in desperate straits. Because it had been totally cut off for a dozen or more generations from the Jewish world outside China, its understanding of the tenets and practices of its ancestral faith had withered away. The economic situation of the Jews of Kaifeng, moreover, had deteriorated badly, so much so that many of them were reduced to living in squalor in the courtyards and auxiliary buildings of their old synagogue. The depth of their misery may be gauged by the fact that in order to obtain food they were obliged to sell tiles from the buildings in the synagogal compound, and even the topsoil from its grounds.
In 1844 James Finn, a dedicated member of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews, composed a letter to the Jews of Kaifeng asking for information regarding their origins, status and religious practices.6 This he entrusted to T.H. Layton, a consular officer then preparing to sail to his new post at Ningpo. Shortly after writing this letter Finn moved from London to Jerusalem, having been appointed Consul for Jerusalem and Palestine. From Jerusalem he continued his efforts to make contact with the Kaifeng Jews through Layton, who had in the interim been transferred to Amoy, and who tried several times, though without success, to relay copies of Finn's queries to Kaifeng. As matters turned out, in any event, it was to take several years before a message was finally gotten through to Kaifeng. A letter of reply, dated 20 August 1850 and specifying that it was to be brought to the attention of "the chief teacher of the Jewish religion," quickly followed. However, Layton having died shortly before the arrival of the letter, the letter was given to his widow who, it would appear, made no effort to transmit its contents to a "teacher of the Jewish religion."
The letter was signed by Chao Nien-tsu, a member of the Jewish community of Kaifeng. It provides replies to certain of the questions Finn had asked concerning the background and religious practices of the Kaifeng Jews, but it is basically a poignantly worded plea for assistance in rebuilding the synagogue and restoring the spiritual life of the community. "During the past forty or fifty years," Chao writes, in moving terms, "our religion has been but imperfectly transmitted, and although its canonical writings are still extant, there is none who understands even so much as one word of them. It happens only that there yet survives an aged female of more than seventy years, who retains in her recollection the principal tenets of the faith. Morning and night, with tears in our eyes and with offerings of incense7 do we implore that our religion may again flourish." Chao asks for a Jewish teacher to be sent to Kaifeng so that the spiritual life of the community might be revitalized.
On 12 June 1851 Layton's widow, having arrived in London from Amoy, wrote to James Finn, then in Jerusalem, about the letter that had been sent to her late husband at Amoy. However, through a series of mischances Finn and Mrs. Layton lost touch with each other, with the result that Finn did not see Chao's letter until nineteen additional years had passed — until, that is, April 1870.
Of interest to us at this point is that before writing Finn Mrs. Layton, as she informed him in her letter, had already sent a copy of Chao's letter to the Reverend George Smith, Bishop of Victoria, at Hong Kong. Finn, however, states that Smith never received a copy of the letter.8 Still, if Finn was wrong, and if Smith did in fact receive a copy, it would have come at a most opportune time, for the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, having recently received a bequest of £500 from a Miss Jane Cook of Cheltenham with the stipulation that it be used to establish a mission to the Jews of Kaifeng, was now in a position to fulfill Miss Cook's directive by providing Smith with the funds that would enable him to enter into communication with the kehillah.
On 15 November 1850, acting under Bishop Smith's instructions, two Chinese Christians, Ch'iu T'ien-sheng and Chiang Jung-chi, left Shanghai for Kaifeng. These two men — the Chinese Delegates, that is — arrived in Kaifeng on 9 December 1850. There they promptly sought out and visited the synagogue. On 14 December 1850, Chiang's journal entry for that day tells us, the Delegates "took tea and luncheon with [the two brothers] Chao Chin-ch'êng and Chao Wên-k'uei of the Jewish sect, expending 500 cash." It continues: "Chao Wên-k'uei then taking the key of the great hall of the synagogue, gave it to Chao Chin-chêng, who opened the great hall and sold us Jewish books, eight in number, large and small."
It is evident from Chiang's journal entry that both he and Ch'iu were fully aware that the two sellers were acting on their own, and without the knowledge and authorization of their congregation.9
The Delegates left Kaifeng on 17 December 1850 with their purchases, arriving in Shanghai on 9 January 1851. On 20 May 1851 they started out again from Shanghai and went back to Kaifeng, where they remained about two weeks. During the latter part of June 1851 (or in the first few days of July) they succeeded in buying six of the community's thirteen Torah scrolls, various skins of Numbers presumably taken from an old Torah, and fifty-nine smaller manuscripts, paying a total of 400 taels of silver. They were back in Shanghai on 20 July 1851.
There are grounds for suspecting that many of the Kaifeng Jews, knowing little or nothing about Christianity, were under the impression that the men to whom they were transferring their sacred writings were of their own faith. Chao Nien-tsu's letter to Consul Layton makes it clear that a burning desire still existed in at least some members of the Kaifeng congregation to be guided back to a deeper affiliation with the Judaic traditions of their forebears. The tenor of the letter indicates the continuing presence of a strong sentimental attachment to the books that contained the secrets of their old faith (secrets to them, that is, since they could no longer read Hebrew); and it is unlikely that those Kaifeng Jews who felt as Chao did would knowingly have permitted such books to pass into the hands of non-Jews.
In an entry dated 10 December 1850, Ch'iu T'ien-sheng states that he was brusquely ordered to leave the synagogue on that day by an elderly Chinese named Ch'iao. He also writes that he learned from Chao Chin-ch'êng, one of two brothers from whom the Delegates would buy eight synagogal books four days later, that Ch'iao had explained his uncivil action on the basis that the Delegates were non-Jews who had been sent to Kaifeng by English missionaries to pry into the affairs of the Jews of that city, and were not to be trusted.10
In Chiang's journal Ch'iao is identified merely as an old man, no mention being made as to whether he was a Jew. Actually, we have no indication anywhere in the literature that there was ever a Chinese Jewish clan surnamed Ch'iao. The Kaifeng Jews, for that matter, were commonly referred to by themselves and by their fellow townsmen as "the eight clans with the seven surnames," these names being Shih, Ai, Chao, Kao, Chang, Chin, and Li (with the last shared by two clans). Ch'iao, it therefore appears, was not a Chinese Jew, but his actions in the synagogue suggest that he may have been a person of some authority, perhaps an official, who wanted to make it clear that foreigners, or agents of foreigners, were persona non grata in Kaifeng.11
The fact that Ch'iao had to tell the Jews that the Delegates were other than they seemed to be suggests that the Delegates may have been somewhat less than candid in their dealings with the people whose books they were trying to acquire.
Whether Ch'iao was still alive when the Delegates returned to Kaifeng some six months later and purchased six of the synagogal Torahs and fifty-odd other manuscripts is not known, but in the absence of any specific information to the contrary it should be assumed that he was. The question therefore arises: did Ch'iao (or the others who had learned through him, or by other means, that the Delegates were not Jewish) warn the members of the congregation that they were conveying their sacred writings to people of a faith that was not their own? Alternatively, is it possible that the congregation was fully aware that the Delegates were not Jews but needed funds so desperately that it had no choice than to agree to the sale of the books?
On the basis of the data currently available to us we cannot really tell whether the Kaifeng Jews were conscious that they were selling their synagogal books to non-Jewish buyers; but from the description the Delegate Ch'iu gives of Ch'iao it would appear that if the latter were still alive when the decision regarding the sale was being made he would have objected vociferously. It would appear, also, that Chao Nien-tsu, the man who wrote the letter to Layton, would have done his utmost to prevent the sale. And so, we may surmise, would others among those Kaifeng Jews who felt as Ch'iao and Chao Nien-tsu did.
The journals of the Delegates appear to have come off the press just as they returned to Shanghai from their second trip to Kaifeng. It was found desirable, accordingly, to print a short note explaining that the men had now come back from a second visit to the Kaifeng kehillah, and telling of their acquisition of six Torahs and other documents "from the Jews duly assembled to the number of 300 persons." This note was bound into the book immediately following Bishop Smith's introduction to the two journals describing the first trip of the Delegates. One wonders, however, why it was necessary to stress in the tipped-in note that so many Jews participated in the sale of the synagogal documents the Delegates had just brought with them, and why it was also necessary to explain that as soon as these manuscripts were acquired they "were conveyed in open day from the synagogue" to the Delegates' lodgings. One is left with the impression that the two assertions — and especially the careful declaration that the documents "were conveyed in open day" — seem not only uncalled for in the description of a legitimate transaction, but somewhat suspicious. The questions then arise: were the Delegates being entirely truthful?; or could they have pocketed the money themselves and made up a story designed to lull any suspicions that might trouble their sponsors concerning the manner in which the documents were acquired? We do not know.
The first professing non-Chinese Jew to visit the Kaifeng community in modern times appears to have been Aaron Halevi Fink, who claimed to have spent eleven days in the city during July 1864.12 Fink asked the Kaifeng Jews if they had a Torah scroll. He records their reply as follows: "I asked if they had scrolls of the law. They replied that some Europeans had been with them, and that these had gradually got from them all their books by fraud; that they had given up these books in the belief that they who took them were Israelites, brethren in faith, and that moreover these books were useless to them, as none of them understood what was written in them." However, Fink was not convinced that the scrolls had been taken away from Kaifeng fraudulently, having heard from certain Muslim sources in the city that the texts "had been bought by missionaries at a high price," and that many "were still hidden in the hands of traders or capitalists of the children of Israel, and that they refuse to show these books to anyone." Yet, although he made a point of relaying to his readers what he had learned from his Muslim informants about the acquisition of the texts by the "mis- sionaries," Fink did not take issue with the statement of the Kaifeng Jews that they did not know whether the men who had removed the scrolls from Kaifeng "were Israelites, brethren in the faith." He did not, moreover, attempt to explain why the Jews spoke of losing the books to Europeans — unless, of course, they were claiming to have been led to believe not only that the two Chinese with whom they had dealt were acting on behalf of Europeans, but also that these Europeans were fellow Jews.
Whatever the case, the documents acquired by the two Dele- gates in 1850 and 1851 were quickly sent to the London Society at its headquarters in England. One scroll, however, remained in China, and was transferred to the Bishop of Victoria for retention at the Missionary College of St. Paul's, in Hong Kong.
Item 963 of the General Committee Minutes of the London Society, dated 25 February 1852, reads: "The Secretary stated that the Rev. J. N. Coleman, of Victoria, was anxious to have the loan of one of the Rolls of the Law which had been received from China, in order to examine same. Resolved, that the Rev. J. N. Coleman be allowed the use of one of the Rolls of Law on his giving a written assurance that he will restore it to the Society within six months." Item 1379, dated 22 September 1852, reveals what happened to four of the six scrolls belonging to the Society: "Having read letter from the Bishop of Victoria, dated August 22nd, 1851, with reference to the appropriation of the Chinese Hebrew Manuscripts, Resolved, that one of the six Rolls of the Law procured from the Synagogue of Kaefung-foo in China, be presented to the British Museum, another to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and a third to the University Library at Cambridge, and that the retention of the fourth copy by the Bishop of Victoria for the College at Hong Kong be approved"13 I was able to ascertain by personal inspection that the exemplars authorized in 1852 for presentation to the British Museum, the Bodleian Library and the Cambridge Library were still being held by these institutions in November 1973. The Hong Kong copy has, however, disappeared. It is alleged to have been destined for transfer to the Hebrew University at Jerusalem,14 but I have been informed by the library of the Hebrew University that its records do not indicate it had ever received a Kaifeng Torah from Hong Kong or, for that matter, from any other source.15
The two scrolls that were retained by the London Society were definitely in its possession as late as 1929, and perhaps for some years thereafter. One of these scrolls is now at Bridwell. Where the other is, I do not know.
In the years following the second trip of the Delegates to Kaifeng four more Torah scrolls were acquired by westerners from the city’s Jews. At some time between 1851 and 1866, the years during which the Kaifeng synagogue was demolished, most or all of the remaining scrolls were presumably transferred to the homes of various Jews. In February 1866 the American missionary W. A. P. Martin visited Kaifeng. Shortly afterward, three young Kaifeng Jews appeared in Beijing with three of their community’s synagogal scrolls. In a letter addressed to me on 3 May 1976, Mr. W.A. Rydings of the University of Hong Kong Libraries, stated that "in no. 10, pp. 159-60, of Notes and Queries on China and Japan, A. Wylie reports that the three scrolls were initially ‘deposited in the custody of the Rev. J. Edkins’." Martin and his friend S. Wells Williams purchased two of these from the Kaifeng men, and in 1870 Karl von Scherzer, an Austrian diplomat, bought the third. Von Scherzer also reported the presence of another Kaifeng scroll in a mosque at Beijing.
The scroll purchased by Martin is now in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in New York; the scroll acquired by Williams is at the American Bible Society, also in New York; and the copy bought by von Scherzer is in the possession of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, at Vienna. I saw each of these three scrolls in its respective home during 1973. Where the exemplar supposedly at a mosque in Beijing now is — or, indeed, if von Scherzer's statement that there was also a scroll at a Beijing mosque is even correct — I do not know.16
Still another Kaifeng scroll is known to have come into the possession of Msgr. Volonteri in 1899, or slightly before that year, while he was Apostolic Bishop of the Honan Vicarate.17 I have not been able to determine where the Volonteri copy is today. It is not, as has been suggested, at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.18
As for the rest of the scrolls, nobody seems to know very much about them. An unscrupulous Taoist priest is said to have defrauded the Kaifeng Jews of one Torah and to have sold some of its skins to unidentified European visitors.19 The skins of another scroll were purportedly used to make trousers for several unnamed Chinese women.20 In 1906 Oliver Bainbridge, who was shown a Torah case at a Kaifeng mosque, was told that the scroll that should have been in it "could not be seen, for it was in a secret place"; but seven years later White, living at that time in Kaifeng, wrote that there were no Torah scrolls to be found in the city.21
On 18 December 1986 the New York City office of Sotheby's auctioned off the first twelve skins of Genesis, taken from a Kaifeng Torah, to the Reverend David A. Smith of London, who had presented a bid in the amount of $16,000.00 on behalf of an unnamed American collector. In a telephone conversation held a month later with Mr. Jay Weinstein of Sotheby's I was informed that both the seller and Mr. Smith's client preferred to remain anonymous. My several subsequent exchanges of correspondence with Mr. Smith brought little further information. Mrs. Phyllis Horal of the Sino-Judaic Institute, who at my request visited Mr. Smith at his church in London on two or three occasions, was, however, permitted to see the sheets, which were then being made ready for restoration and subsequent transfer to the United States. Mrs. Horal was also able to obtain a set of greatly reduced color photographs of the texts of all twelve sheets, and my inspection of these reproductions leaves me quite sure that they were written in a Chinese Jewish scribal hand. Whatever the case, there is reason to believe that the Sotheby’s sheets were sent by Smith to an Eng- lish documentary restoration specialist, returned to Smith, transferred to the purchaser, and kept for a time in the Chicago area. There is also reason to believe that the sheets have since that time been transferred to a new home somewhere in Michigan.22 Although I do not know when, how and where these skins were originally acquired from the Chinese Jews, certain possibilities come to mind: may they have been interspersed among the assorted loose Numbers skins obtained by the Chinese Delegates in 1851?; or could they have been bought from individuals in Kaifeng who, as has been reported, had on occasion offered synagogal documents to foreign visitors to Kaifeng?
In 1978, when Prof. Leonard J. Duhl of the University of California, Berkeley, was in China, he was told by the distinguished Chinese sociologist Prof. Fei Hsien-tong of the University of Bei- jing that he had heard that "the remains of a Torah" had recently been recovered in Kaifeng.23 Although there have been no confirming reports of such a recovery, it may be that Fei was correctly informed. If he was, which I seriously doubt, it is also possible that the Sotheby’s skins were part of that find.