Family First: Finding Common Ground Between Jewish and Confucian Ethics

Daniel Goldstern ('17)

Schwarzman Scholars worked together to create an academic journal, reflecting their ability to think critically about the Middle Kingdom and the implications of its rise. These collections of thoughts come together to form "Xinmin Pinglun," our Journal dedicated to the publication of the informative and analytical essays of our scholars. As the application deadline for the class of 2019 is approaching and the start of the 2017-2018 academic year is on its way, we are sharing pieces from the second issue of Ximin Pinglun to give insight into the critical thinking and scholarship taking place at Schwarzman College. Here, Daniel Goldstern, (Class of 2017) examines the similarities between Jewish and Confucian ethics, particularly the importance of family. 

On the outskirts of the Chinese city of Kaifeng, a once-proud capital of the late Northern Song Dynasty, roughly 1,000 Chinese Jews represent the unlikely intersection of two ancient traditions. Today’s Jews of Kaifeng trace their religious heritage back to Persian silk road merchants who, in the 12th century, settled down in the heart of the Middle Kingdom. Seven centuries later, in the wake of the First Opium War, the British Empire dispatched a small number of Mizrahi Jewish merchants to establish businesses in the newly- won treaty port of Shanghai. In the early 20th century, a wave of Russian Jews fled to Harbin in a plea to escape violent persecution, whether from an intensifying spiral of pogroms or the merciless Red Army. And, in the 1930s and 40s, Jewish refugees of the war in Europe formed a community of 20,000 people in Shanghai. Aside from these few relatively modern exceptions, there is no record of the Chinese and Jewish cultures making direct contact over the millennia of their coexistence.

Given this scarcity of contact, it is surprising how much common ground the two ancient traditions share. I argue that Confucianism and Judaism are fundamentally in agreement as ethical systems, even though the former begins with humanistic assumptions while the latter is theocentric. In fact, the concept of filial piety constitutes the ethical core of both traditions. Understanding the overlap and disagreement on this central tenet offers a lens for comparing the traditions more generally. Finally, I attempt to engage Confucianism and Judaism in a dialogue that may help address the contemporary issues most critical to each side. As both traditions seek to adapt with the changing times while simultaneously preserving their essences, what can they learn from one another? To become relevant for an increasingly secular people, Judaism can breathe new life into its ethical convictions by adopting some of Confucianism’s rational humanism. Confucianism, in turn, can better resonate with the more egalitarian attitudes of a new generation of Chinese by embracing the emphasis on moral equality found in Judaism.


Setting aside the semantic argument of whether Confucianism ought to be considered a religion in the Judeo Christian sense, Confucianism and Judaism have much in common. In particular, both set forth highly robust ethical systems. Ancient Confucian texts from the Analects to the Guide to Filial Piety—oftentimes read like instruction manuals for good behavior and proper etiquette. These tracts stress the centrality of ritual (li, 礼) in daily life, spelling out the proper form for a variety of mundane actions, including the wearing of ceremonial caps and the preparation and consumption of tea. In Confucian societies, political arrangements follow from the ethics. The rigid hierarchies found at the societal and organizational levels in China, Japan, or Korea are, in a sense, magnified versions of the patterns prescribed for individual relationships. On the other hand, Jewish ethics are expressed in the form of laws handed down directly from heaven, as the endowment of a mystical god. The 613 mitzvot and the Ten Commandments read as a catalog of what to do and what to avoid doing. The instructions run the gamut of ethical topics, covering proper behavior in the relationships of people with their neighbors, with their rulers, and with their god. Just as in the Confucian canon, the commandments of the Torah can range from the profound—“imitate [God’s] good and upright ways”—to the mundane –“[do not] eat the flesh of an ox that was condemned to be stoned” (Deuteronomy 28:9 and Exodus 21:28, respectively).

If what Confucianism and Judaism share is a strong ethical orientation, then filial piety is their archetypal shared principle. In Confucianism, filial piety is considered the paramount virtue, the first step on the road to benevolence (ren, 仁). Because duty to one’s family is the most quotidian and, thus, feasible form of ethical behavior, it is regarded as the root of all other virtue. The concept is denoted by the character xiao (孝), which is pictographically comprised of a child holding up his elder. This “holding up” is a far-reaching concept in the Confucian tradition, as children are expected to not only provide for the material well-being of their parents, but must furthermore respect, love, and revere them. Material care is a minimum requirement but, as Confucius notes in the Analects, “dogs and horses require care as well. Without respect, what is the difference [between caring for animals and parents]?” Nevertheless, merely going through the motions does not satisfy the Confucian standard for virtue. Authentic filial behavior requires that one not only care for and respect parents, but that one do so cheerfully, with a smile, such that parents feel delighted rather than guilty.

In the Jewish tradition, the duty to “honor thy father and thy mother” comes directly from the biblical Ten Commandments, handed down to the nascent Jewish people at Mount Sinai in the midst of their exodus from Egypt. This particular directive is stressed throughout the Torah. Like Confucianism, Judaism distinguishes between simple material care and a more comprehensive respect, and the Torah requires a child to deliver both. The book of Leviticus departs from the recurring expectation of honoring parents and further directs children to revere their father and mother. Post-biblical rabbinical commentary has identified honor with a son who feeds and clothes his father (The Babylonian Talmud). Reverence, on the other hand, refers to “a son [who does] not stand where his father stands… [or] contradict his father in speech.” Together, the two injunctions require a child to behave with a cautious and concerned disposition, not altogether different from their Confucian analog. The command to be pious to one’s forebears is central in the Jewish ethical system. Although it appears fifth in sequence on the list of god’s Ten Commandments, it is in fact first among those that pertain to secular life. The first four in order—accept that god is one; do not worship idols; do not take god’s name in vain; keep the holy Sabbath—outline the relationship between man and deity. Of the remaining six commandments—honor one’s parents; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not covet the property of others— filial piety is primary. The common ground between Confucianism and Judaism goes beyond issues of care, respect, and reverence for parents in this world. Both traditions treat the death of a parent as a monumental and shocking occurrence. Funeral rites are accorded great significance, and the habit of respect continues well beyond a parent’s departure from the physical world. Confucianism dictates that a son must mourn his father for three years, expressing and reaffirming his emotional state during this time by wearing crudely sewn clothing, sleeping on a straw mat with a headrest made of earth, and avoiding all music. To be sure, Confucianism is a degree more severe than Judaism on the question of death and burial. The Jewish tradition requires a more moderate eleven months of mourning, after which the child wishes his parent eternal life in the world to come. The Confucian Book of Rites, on the other hand, goes so far as to say that “father and son should remain of one heart and one mind even after the father is deceased.” On the flip side, the two traditions are quite unambiguous regarding the issue of future generations and the specific question of how best to bring them about. The greatest of offenses in Confucianism is the failure to produce an heir, while god’s instruction to “be fruitful and multiply” goes hardly unnoticed in Jewish culture.

If what Confucianism and Judaism share is a strong ethical orientation, then filial piety is their archetypal shared principle.

In cases where the two traditions do diverge on the subject of filial piety, Confucianism tends to prescribe the more stringent or extensive behavior. As previously discussed, a Confucian child must be concerned not only with taking proper care and giving proper respect, but must furthermore tend to the overall psychological state of his parent. Although Jewish rabbinical commentary offers extreme examples to illustrate the relevance of filial piety across a range of situations, it does not go so far as to say that a child’s purpose is to make his parents happy. Both Confucianism and Judaism stress that at times when a child disagrees with a parent, or believes that a parent has acted unjustly, the child must tread lightly. However, Confucianism takes this a step further: while a child should attempt to address a parent’s unjust action or thinking, imperatives such as “wait until [the parent is] in high spirits or there is a suitable moment,” or “respect but do not transgress” reveal how little room is left for disobedience (Book of Rites and Analects, respectively). The Jewish tradition, while also stressing that remonstration must come in a respectful form, does allow a child more leeway in disagreeing with actions that he deems immoral. A child may openly challenge a parent should he believe that a parent’s command contradicts the Torah, the word of god.

The divergence between Confucianism and Judaism can be traced, in part, to the foundations of their ethical systems, whether rational-humanistic or transcendental-theological, respectively. Fu and Wang argue that the Confucian virtue of filial piety is grounded in the essential human emotions of familial affection and gratitude. The rituals required by ancient texts aim at the mindful and orderly cultivation of the natural love that a child feels for his parent. The purpose of Confucian ethics is therefore to give expression to this natural feeling, and ultimately to spread it outward, beyond one’s immediate family, to the broader community. Fu and Wang note that “benevolence, [the chief Confucian virtue], refers first and foremost to the love one feels for a family member.” From this perspective, to pursue benevolence is to constantly seek to broaden the familial circle and to develop relationships with others in society based on the same emotional bonds one naturally experiences with one’s kin. Furthermore, Confucian filial ethics seek to reflect and cultivate gratitude, the natural desire to reciprocate good deeds. The three-year mourning period, for example, reflects the consideration that “children hardly leave their parents side until after three years of age” (Analects).

In Judaism, on the other hand, filial piety is primarily a divine command and, consequently, is less explicitly grounded in human experience. And, although it comes first among the secular commandments, honoring one’s parents must ultimately come after one’s responsibility to worship god. One important consequence of this direct relationship with the deity is a moral equality among all people in the eyes of god, regardless of the worldly roles they play. This egalitarian spirit is essential to Judaism (as well as to Christianity). In the case of filial piety, it tempers the degree to which children may venerate their parents, insofar as worship is reserved for god alone. It also permits children to, at times, prioritize their own conscience and disobey parental instructions they deem morally unjust.

Confucianism and Judaism share in common a strong ethical orientation, of which filial piety is one example (shared attitudes towards education, and business are, unfortunately, well beyond the scope of this paper). In light of this closeness, is there anything the two traditions can learn from one another? Both must find ways to adapt and stay relevant to contemporary sensibilities. No doubt, both would do well to reappraise the male-dominated and exclusive components of their creeds. Although the two face different challenges, I believe each has something to offer the other. Judaism has a long tradition of “secular revolt.” Modern Jewish history is replete with those who come to doubt the theological narrative but remain committed to finding a rational-humanistic version of Jewish ethics and tradition that they can connect with.” Confucianism has a suitable contribution here. As a philosophy that expressly spurns transcendence and supernatural forces, it may have appeal for Jews who would wish to ground their ethics and rituals in the human experience. The biblical commandment to honor a parent, for example, finds a clear rationalization in the Analects as the codification of a natural human tendency: familial affection. Confucianism and Judaism reach many of the same ethical conclusions, and a dose of Confucian rationalism may very well reinforce these traditions and practices in the Jewish mind.

On the other hand, Confucianism’s promotion of rigid hierarchies may seem outdated to people aspiring to the modern ideal of equality. Inequality between generations, when taken to the extreme, can often be detrimental to the development of filial piety within family units. The god-ordained egalitarianism that underlies the Jewish tradition—but only if expressed in its universal, non-religious form—can temper the hierarchy imposed by inter-generational (and other unequal) relationships. By striking the right balance, both sides of a relationship can remain dignified yet faithful to their distinct duties to one another.

Confucianism and Judaism have remained intact for thousands of years, maintaining their ancient essences through persecution, revolution, and world war. Despite scarce contact throughout the annals of history, the two are fundamentally in agreement as ethical systems. Examining each tradition’s attitude towards filial piety—a core virtue in both cases—provides a lens for understanding more general similarities, as well as reasons for divergence. Confucianism typically demands more in terms of obedience and duty. In Judaism, the supremacy of god can sometimes offer a way out of worldly responsibilities. If permitted to engage in a conversation, the two traditions may well have something to offer one another. Confucianism’s rationalism and humanism can refresh the basic assumptions underlying Judaism’s system of ethics, while Judaism’s egalitarian spirit can help temper some of the more extreme inequities of Confucian relationships. But, barring a—likely candlelit—interfaith conclave of elders, how might Confucianism and Judaism really learn from one another?

In fact, the conversation is already underway. A 1995 study of Chinese and Japanese Americans who had married whites found that 18 percent of those white partners were Jewish (note that only 2-3% of whites identify as Jews). Interviewed couples tended to cite strong cultural similarities—particularly, “strong family ties”—as the reason for the trend. May filial piety and outstanding academic performance come easily to their children.

家庭至上:犹太文化和儒家论理的共同特征 (金健)

Daniel Goldstern (Class of 2017) is from the United States of America, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.