March 2011: Nearly ten years ago, the Korea Times reported: “Interestingly, there are at least two different books currently sitting on Korean best-seller shelves that purport to explain the Jewish Talmud. The popularity of these books initially came as a surprise. They read those books because Jews have gained a reputation for hard work and success, two things Koreans relate to well.” In addition, it is said, almost every home in South Korea boasts a Korean version of the Talmud, and mothers commonly teach it to their children, who call it the “Light of Knowledge.”
Why? “We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews,” Young-Sam explained, according to a Ynet report. “Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields – literature, science and economics.
This is a remarkable achievement. We tried to understand: What is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud… We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.”
The country’s ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, told the “Culture Today” TV show that Talmud study is now a mandatory part of the country’s school curriculum. “I, for example, have two sets of the Talmud,” the ambassador stated. “The one my wife bought me, and the second was a gift from my mother.”
He also praised the Talmud and the Jewish tradition it represents for its family values, respect for adults, and respect for education in general. In South Korea there are close to 49 million residents, and they all learn Gemara in school. “We tried to understand why the Jews are such geniuses and we concluded that (it is because) they study Talmud,” explained South Korea’s ambassador to Israel.
“We were curious how come the Jews are so successful academically and have a much higher percentage of Nobel Prize winners in all fields… what is their secret?… one of your secrets is studying Talmud,” continued ambassador Young-Sam-Ma. There might be now more (translated) Talmud volumes in South Korean homes than in Israel! In his appearance on Israeli TV he spoke about shared values between the Jewish people and the Koreans such as the place of the family, respect for elders, education and culture. He was impressed with the fact that even in a small kibbutz there is a cultural center with on-going cultural activities.
The Talmud, which comes from the Hebrew root lmd “teach, study,” is a central text of Judaism’s oral law, composed of two parts: Mishnah (c. 200 CE) and the Gemara (c. 500 CE). Even if you speak Hebrew fluently, it can be most intimidating to try and study or just begin to read one line in it, but in order to appreciate what’s most fascinating about it, you don’t need to know Hebrew – or Aramaic. You just need to look at any random page in one of its many volumes.
The Talmud page doesn’t look like a regular book. It looks much more like a table with chairs around it. There is a central issue on that table, and all around it sit various guests with various opinions, discussing, debating and often fervently disagreeing with each other. Any page of the Talmud is a picture of a multi-generational, global dialog. It’s not an encyclopedia filled with information. It’s a culture of hearing, listening, commenting, structuring a discussion, being creative, thinking outside the box, seeking solutions in the most unlikely places, never giving up on finding them. That has been the strength of our people.
This is what we need today too. We find that, for most part, our issues are not what to do with an egg that was laid on a yom tov (holiday) or the exact methods of the sacrificial systems. But we need dialog. We crave conversations. We thirst connection based on content, good old face to face encounters.
In the last couple of weeks, our Israel Center team has been invited to several places in order to discuss dialogs regarding Israel. We are discovering that often the “program” is not some magical event, but working through the needs, and strategizing to build sustainable systems about bringing Israel to our community through local and overseas resources. In short the program might be talking about the program…