Judi's Journal 06-10-2011

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Reading the Talmud in Korean

By Judi Siegal

There is a standing Jewish observation about how Jewish people love Asian food. On any given day, the reservation list at a Chinese or Asian Fusion restaurant in any major U.S. city reads like the membership list of a synagogue. The interesting part is, however Jews may love Asian food, you rarely see an Oriental in a kosher deli! While this may not change in the future, at least in South Korea, the study of Talmud, the classic Jewish text of Jewish laws, history, stories and Torah commentary has become a part compulsory school curriculum.

            How did a seemingly “Western” Jewish text become part of Eastern education? It is all based on the Korean culture of hard work, education and family values. In a country where most people believe in Buddhism or Christianity, it seems unusual for its citizens to have a copy of the Talmud but in fact most homes do and it is translated from the Aramaic into Korean and is known as the “Light of Knowledge.” While it has been rumored for years that Koreans were studying Talmud, the Korean Ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam revealed on the “Culture Today” TV show, that his country was indeed Talmud studiers, more so in this nation of 50 million than in the much smaller Jewish state. And mothers teach it to their children more so even in Israel. Why the fascination with Talmud?

            As the Korean ambassador explained it, the number of Jews who have received Nobel peace prizes in all areas fascinated him and his country. The proportion of Jews to the number of prizes they have won is very high for such a minority group. The Koreans concluded that the Jews were geniuses and the Koreans wanted to acquire knowledge and be geniuses as well. After much research, it was agreed that the Jews owed their intelligence to studying the Talmud and if the Koreans followed the Jews’ example, they too would be geniuses.

            It also helped that certain Jewish values also came into play here, namely the Jewish respect for elders, respect for education and strong family values. Koreans as a whole respect that traditional Friday night Shabbat observance with its rituals and prayers. A strong family life is important to Koreans and they admire this in the Jewish family. They are also great believers in education and respect for elders.

            For Jews, the study of Talmud helps to better understand the Torah and its interpretations and application to daily life. In the book are rabbinical responsa on many of the issues that face Jews today such as medical ethics, business ethics and the correct way to observe the holidays. Arguments pro and con on any given topic are presented in hopes of solving legal dilemmas that come up in life. Although written about 2,000 years ago, Jewish scholars have found new insight into the ancient text and have attempted to apply these principles to contemporary living.

            There are stories that have become popular from the Talmud as well. The Chanukah story of the oil lasting for eight days and Choni the Circle Maker are two examples.

            Halacha, or Jewish law also is part of the Talmud. This often comes into play when certain holiday rituals need to be performed. What is permitted on the Sabbath, for instance, is part of the tractate on the Sabbath. Amongst the more Orthodox and traditional Jews, this is important; liberal Jews do not consider Halacha to be binding, though the spirit, rather than the letter of the law is followed.

            One does gain much knowledge by studying the Talmud. As for becoming a genius, I’m sure the rabbis could argue about that one. As for Asian-culinary delights, I would love a corned beef sandwich on rye with a kosher pickle, please. And oh yes, a cup of egg drop soup to go!

(Sources: various web sources, and YNET)