Why Koreans study Talmud
Close to 50 million South Koreans read collection of Jewish writings in school in bid to become 'geniuses like the Jews,' ambassador explains
Almost every house in South Korea has a translated Talmud. Moreover, the South Koreans have made the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish civil and religious law part of their school curriculum's compulsory literature.
But unlike Israel, even Korean mothers study it and read from it to their young children. Yes, in a country of almost 49 million people who believe in Buddhism and Christianity, there are more people who read the Talmud – or at least have a copy of it at home – than in the Jewish state. Much more.
'This way we'll be geniuses too'
"We were very curious about the Jews' outstanding academic achievements," explains South Korean Ambassador to Israel Young Sam Ma, who was a guest on Channel 1's "Culture Today" show.
"The Jews have a high percentage of Nobel Prize laureates in all fields: In literature, science and economics. It's an amazing achievement.
"We tried to understand the secret of the Jewish people. How do they – more than other nations – manage to reach such impressive achievements? How is it that Jews are such geniuses? The conclusion we reaches is that one of your secrets is studying Talmud.
Korean version of Talmud (photo courtesy of South Korean Embassy)
"Jews read the Talmud from an early age, and we believe it helps them develop great abilities. This understanding led us to the conclusion that we should also teach children Talmud. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud we could also be geniuses. And that's what stands behind the decision to integrate the Talmud into the school system in South Korea."
Young says he himself has been reading the Talmud since a very early age. "It's considered very significant studying," he stresses. "The result is that there are more Koreans who have a copy of the Talmud at home than Jews in Israel.
"I, for example, have two sets of Talmud – one of them was bought by my wife and the other I received as a gift from my mother-in-law."
Fans of Jews
The Koreans are fond of the Talmud not just because they believe it advances the genius quality, but because they have found values close to their heart in it.
"The Jewish tradition emphasizes family values," explains the South Korean ambassador. "You can also see it today, in your custom to convene every Friday for a family meal.
"In my country the family is very important too. The way older people are treated, the respect and appreciation Judaism has for the elderly, are parallel to the high appreciation the elderly get in my country."
Korean bookshelf (photo courtesy of South Korean Embassy)
"Another significant thing is the attitude towards education. In the Jewish tradition there is a duty to teach the children, and a lot of attention is devoted to it. Among Korean parents, the children's education is the top priority as well.
"I think that this similarity led to the fact that today you can see in the United States Korean immigrants following in the Jews' footsteps and succeeding in the same areas the Jews succeed in."
The love of Talmud was followed by appreciation in additional fields, including culture. "The Jews like culture and art. I live in Rishpon, which is a small Moshav, and an art and music gallery opened there last week," the ambassador says.
"I was impressed by the fact that even a small moshav has a home for culture. We don't have the options you have, but we learn from you in this area too and invest as much as we can in order to enjoy these fields like you."
Twins (well, almost)
And if you thought this is where the connection ends, think again: The Jewish biography, which looks pretty unique to us, reminds the Koreans of their own.
"I find many similarities between us – the Jews and the State of Israel," the ambassador says. "Both you and we have a long history with great difficulties. Israel and South Korean became received their independence in the same year, 1948, so we are the same age, 63. We, like you, have problems with hostile neighbors. We, like you, hardly have any natural resources and we must rely mainly on our human capital.
"In its 63 years of existence Israel has greatly developed. It created miracles in its economy, and so did we. The people in Israel are similar to the South Koreans in their courtesy as well as in the impatience they show, sometimes.
"When people complain about the way you drive, I say that I find it very convenient driving here because you act on the road like we do. You also have a warm heart, like the Koreans, and therefore I think Israelis and Koreans can befriend each other easily, because we are emotionally similar.
"I found out that when an Israeli befriends you, he helps you without expecting anything in return. This is why I cherish my friendship with Israelis. We learn from you all the time."