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Monday, March 28, 2011

The Korean Study Of Talmud And The Asian Fascination With Jews

Korean Talmud (Photo courtesy of the Embassy of South Korea to Israel)

In their quest for success, South Korea has eschewed all the other self-help books on the market and have decided learning Talmud is the key:
In South Korea there are close to 49 million residents, and they all learn Gemara in school (www.ynet.co.il). “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.
In an interview on Israeli TV, Mr. Young-Sam-Ma, pointed to the values that the Jewish people and Koreans share in common: family, respect for elders, education and culture. He was also impressed that even the smallest kibbutz has a cultural center with cultural activities. Then there are the other similarities: both countries were established in 1948, both are surrounded by enemies, both are poor in natural resources--and both are known for their bad driving habits (“I feel right at home driving in Israel”).

The blog Menachem Mendel in a post, Sura, Pumbedita, and now Seoul, has found a number of interesting links on this:

The Korean interest in the Talmud has been going on for a number of years. In a 2004 post, The Cunning Linguist found out about this and found an article in The Korea Times:
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. But Koreans aren't converting to Judaism. They read those books because Jews have gained a reputation for hard work and success, two things Koreans relate to well. They don't look up to Jews for their culture or religion. They admire the Jews's diligence and persistence at striking out on their own and obtaining wealth.

In that sense, Koreans and Jews--at least as they're perceived by Koreans--have something in common. But locally that diligence and hardworking attitude is being questioned these days, something that might explain why Koreans are looking to Jews for inspiration.
According to Hashkafa.com--it is not only the Koreans who have an interest in the Talmud; the Japanese are studying Talmud as well.

Though the may not study the Talmud (yet), the Chinese government did send an official to both England and Israel in order to earn a Ph.D. in Jewish studies, so that he could come back and teach the future professors of Jewish studies from major universities of China.

This is all part of the Chinese fascination with Jews and their apparent success in the world:
According to Song Lihong, deputy director of the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, a glance at the shelves of Jewish-interest books in Chinese bookstores provides a clue as to why Judaism fascinates. Popular titles include “The Talmudic Wisdom in Conducting Business,” “Talmud: The Greatest Jewish Bible for Making Money” and “Unveiling the Secrets of Jewish Success in World Economy: What’s Behind Jewish Excellence?”

While Song acknowledges that the nature of this interest may seem “ominous” to Westerners, he insists that there is nothing sinister about it. Divorced from the Christian context that bred conspiracy theories about Jews in finance and the Muslim context that perpetuated them, it is simply driven by a natural curiosity about a group that appears to play a significant role in world affairs.
An article entitled New Era in the UN, about Ban Ki-Moon's appointment as Secretary General of the UN notes the implications of South Korea adopting the method of studying Talmud, and not just its content:
Eighth grade Korean students study a one-year course introducing the Talmud and adopting its methods. Commentators have labeled this trend a rejection of rigid Confucian education, which rejects discussion, and an adoption of the Jewish model of education, which greatly emphasizes discussion and creative thinking.
Of all the ways that Jews and Israel might have an impact on the world, who would have thought that the Talmud would be the source of Jewish influence in Asia?

Hat tip: Israel At Level Ground

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