In 1996, Rabbi Steinsaltz was a guest lecturer at the Academies and Universities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing in the People’s Republic of China. During his tour of China, Rabbi Steinsaltz also presented a Chinese translation of his commentary to Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) to the Chinese National Academy of Social Sciences.
There was a question and answer period after his lecture at the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanghai.
Here is Rabbi Steinsaltz’s answer to the question, “What is the role of the Jewish scholar?” posed by one of the attendees:
In addition to his ability to memorize and understand texts, one of the most central drives for a Jewish scholar is to innovate.
To use a possibly low metaphor: Confucian scholars wanted to have an old woman in an old dress; modern culture wants a young woman in modern dress; and Jewish culture prefers a young woman in an old dress.
Thus, although the Jewish scholar always claims that he is just creating a commentary, he is really constantly driven to create new things, new ideas.
The way in which the Jewish scholar advances is not only analytical, but also synthetic, in that he is always trying to create new structures all the time.
Consequently, the way in which Judaism relates to non-practical ideas is very different from that of Chinese culture.
Confucian wisdom was always very practical, and also strongly connected with science and technology. In this sense, it has had very strong influence on Western culture. In the Talmud, however — of which Pirkei Avot is about the 1/5000 part — there are pages and pages of discussion of subjects of no practical value whatsoever.
In the long run, this attitude has a tremendous advantage. Because the ability to advance — philosophically, scientifically and technologically — lies in the possibility to think about impractical, undoable things.