Clubs with different rules

April 25, 2015 16:43

On the plane back from Miami last Sunday night, I tuned into a podcast of Melvyn Bragg and a panel of academics discussing the 16th-century missionary Matteo Ricci. As one does. And I wanted to share with JC readers a thought that occurred to me as the experts cast their pod 35,000 feet above Bermuda.

In addition to vowing the usual stuff (poverty, chastity, humility etc) Jesuits committed themselves specifically to going wherever the Pope sent them. In Ricci's case this was to China, where he arrived at the age of 29. Ricci spoke no Chinese, had little knowledge of Chinese society and customs, and yet had set himself the task of converting as many as possible of its hundreds of millions of inhabitants to the true faith. Specifically, he thought he might manage to convert the Ming Emperor himself to Christianity.

In order to gain access to the Imperial Court and also to help win converts to the Church, Ricci learned spoken and then written Chinese. He dressed as a mandarin. And he even created a new argument in book form, in the shape of The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, fusing Confucianism and Catholicism and suggesting their compatibility.

This "accommodationist" strategy downplayed the crucifixion and resurrection - events that were not appealing to Chinese sensibilities - and concentrated instead on the Nativity and the Madonna.

The Emperor didn't convert. In fact, he never agreed to meet Ricci. But 2,000 Chinese did become Catholics in Ricci's 25-odd years in China, and when he died in Beijing in 1610 he was buried with honours and his tomb stands there still. Ricci Schmicci you may be thinking, what has any of this to do with us? Did your column for The Tablet get mixed up with your offering for the JC?

How much nicer it is to be a Jew than a golfer

So this was the thought I had. How would things have been different if Ricci had been a Jew? Well, he wouldn't have gone to China to convert anyone to anything, because he wouldn't have wanted them to convert. In fact, had the Emperor of China asked to see him and said "Ricci, I wish to become a Jew and here's all my tea", Ricci would have turned him down.

I have written before about the odd contradiction of Jews kvetching that there were so few Jews around, and then making it difficult for anyone to become a Jew. At one point in Judaism's history it, too, was an evangelical religion and then, somewhere along the line, it became more like an exclusive Pall Mall club.

The question posed to wannabe Jews seems to be, "how can we make it difficult for you to join?" In parts of modern Judaism, such as Masorti, the point seems to be to maintain and take a pleasure in that which sets Jewishness apart. After Vatican II, the mass in Latin was replaced by services in the vernacular to improve the appeal outside the Church. But in Britain even progressive Jews look at it the other way round; they lament the lack of Hebrew learning among contemporaries. The mountain must move to Muhammed.

In the fortnight before the flight back to London I was staying at a gold resort hotel in Doral, a suburb of Miami (another story). My fellow guests consisted mostly of golfers - de-familied and unsmiling, whizzing around on golf-carts. But for one week they were joined by a large group of Floridian Jews enjoying Passover en famille and en masse. The Jews were quarrelsome, noisy and happy and I thought how much nicer it was to be a Jew than a golfer and what a good idea it would be to convert the latter to the former.

April 25, 2015 16:43

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