How the Talmud Came to South Korea

June 25, 2015 | Ross Arbes
About the author:

In South Korea, widespread admiration for Jews and especially for the Talmud has led some schools to include Talmud classes in their curricula. But the book being studied is a digest of selected passages compiled by an American rabbi for translation into Japanese in 1968. Unbeknownst to the compiler, Korean publishers then began producing their own translations—some abridged, some illustrated. Ross Arbes writes:

In 2011, the South Korean ambassador to Israel at the time, Young-sam Ma, was interviewed on the Israeli public-television show “Culture Today.” “I wanted to show you this,” he told the host, straying briefly from the topic at hand. . . . It was a white paperback book with “Talmud” written in Korean and English on the cover, along with a cartoon sketch of a biblical character with a robe and staff. “Each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud. Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses.” Looking up at the surprised host, he added, “Twenty-three percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish people. Korean women want to know the secret. They found the secret in this book.” . . .

[One popular version] is organized thematically into seven chapters. It consists mostly of parables, but there is other content as well: first-person narratives, questions posed to the reader (“If you were the king in this story, which of these characters would you pick for your successor?”), and lists of one-sentence aphorisms (“Not increasing your knowledge is the same as decreasing it”). Topics run the gamut from business ethics to sex advice.

Most of the stories in the book had origins in the Talmud. Others came from derivative commentary that has since been absorbed into the talmudic canon. One story was a Jewish joke, first published in the 1930s, about the complicated and sometimes contradictory nature of rabbinical interpretation.

Read more on New Yorker: