Selling the Talmud as a Business Guide
In China, notions of Jewish business acumen lead to a publishing boom—and stereotyping.
by Isaac Stone Fish • Newsweek
Jewish visitors to China often receive a snap greeting when they reveal their religion: “Very smart, very clever, and very good at business,” the Chinese person says. Last year’s Google Zeitgeist China rankings listed “why are Jews excellent?” in fourth place in the “why” questions category, just behind “why should I enter the party” and above “why should I get married?” (Google didn’t publish a "why" category in Mandarin this year.) And the apparent affection for Jewishness has led to a surprising trend in publishing over the last few years: books purporting to reveal the business secrets of the Talmud that capitalize on the widespread impression among Chinese that attributes of Judaism lead to success in the financial arts.
Titles such as Crack the Talmud: 101 Jewish Business Rules, The Illustrated Jewish Wisdom Book, and Know All of the Money-Making Stories of the Talmud share the shelves with stories of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. There’s even a Talmud hotel in Taiwan inspired by “the Talmud’s concept of success” that features a copy of the book Talmud Business Success Bible in every room. With the increasing interest in business education in China, and a rise in sales of self-help literature, the production of business guides to the Talmud has exploded. The guides are like the Chinese equivalents of books such as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business.
Han Bing, the (pseudonymous) author of Crack the Talmud, says a series on the “Jewish Bible” by a prominent publisher made him realize that “ancient Jews and today’s Chinese face a lot of the same problems,” such as immigration and isolation. The business rules he lists include such unsurprising—and universal—exhortations as “tell a customer about defects,” “help more people,” and “a partnership based on emotions is not dependable.” No statistics are available on the sales of this sliver of the book market. But while the guides haven’t reached the heights of books such as Jewish Family Education, which claims to have sold more than 1 million copies, they currently are “very popular” and a “hot topic,” says Wang Jian, associate dean of the Center of Jewish Studies in Shanghai, a research institution that focuses on Jewish culture and history, and Israel. The Talmud “has become a handbook for doing business and seeking fortunes,” Wang says.
The Chinese perception of Jews as expert moneymakers does not have the religion-based antagonism that often accompanies the same stereotype elsewhere in the world, and probably had its start in the mid-19th century, when investors began flocking to China. Many of the first foreign real-estate tycoons, such as Silas Hardoon and the scions of the Sassoon family, were Jewish. Michael Kadoorie—who hails from a wealthy Jewish family that dates its China connection back to 19th-century Shanghai, and who’s made his fortune in power generators and hotels—currently ranks as the richest non-Chinese in greater China, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion.
The admiration for Judaism stems from a history that goes beyond business. About half of the dozen or so Westerners active in Mao Zedong’s China were Jewish, and that also led to increased interest in Jewish culture among Chinese intellectuals, says Xu Xin, professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University. That’s resulted in mostly glowing portrayals of certain Jewish individuals in the official Chinese press. They included Sidney Rittenberg, the first American citizen to join the Chinese Communist Party, and journalist Israel Epstein, who interviewed Mao at length and whose funeral was attended by China’s President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Rittenberg, who spent 16 years in solitary confinement in China, made the transition from party ideologue to consultant upon his release, and now operates the successful Rittenberg & Associates, which trades off his personal relationships with communist leaders and has advised companies including Microsoft, Hughes Aircraft, and Levi Strauss.
Non-Chinese experts on Judaism are quick to point out that the Talmud is not a business manual. While the Talmud mentions contract law, zoning, and problems involved with charging interest, it’s not a get-rich-quick guide, says Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “I’ve heard a couple of [Chinese] people say that Jews are smart because of the Talmud. But they don’t seem to know what it is. I think they see it as some sort of secret intelligence book,” added Rabbi Nussin Rodin, a Beijing-based emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “I once got a letter from someone in China saying, I’m very interested in making money so I’d like to know what you teach at your courses about how to make money,” says Diamond. “Of course, there aren’t too many people in the Jewish Theological Seminary pulling in the big bucks.”
The notion of the Talmud as a book full of business secrets for others to search for is not entirely benign. Two of the books feature the quote “No one can defeat the Jews, unless they’ve read our holy book the Talmud” on their cover, spuriously attributed to financier George Soros. “There are anti-Semites throughout the world who will say they want a Jewish lawyer, because Jews are good lawyers,” says Diamond. Han Bing says he has never met a Jew and cautioned NEWSWEEK that he’s not sure if he’s gotten his portrayal right. But he nevertheless states that “Jews understand that money itself is neither good nor bad.” He sees his book as “bringing some light into the dark room of Chinese businesses.” At the same time, he complains that no businessman has ever contacted him to say how the book may have changed him. “There’s just too many of these books out there,” he acknowledges.