In South Korea there are close to 49 million residents, and they all learn Gemara in the schools (www.ynet.co.il(, March 24, 2011). “We tried to understand why the Jews are such geniuses and we concluded that (it’s because) they study Talmud”, explained South Korea’s ambassador to Israel.
In a week of renewed terror including a bomb is Jerusalem (with 1 dead, 39 wounded, some still in critical condtion) and the returning shelling to the south of Israel (with rockets now reaching the outskirts of Be’er Sheva and Ashdod), as well as a joyous announcement about the women team of Ramle taking the European championship and the taking over the news at least for a few glorious moments, what’s the big deal about learning Talmud in South Korea?
“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 kibutz there is a cultural center with on-going cultural activities.
And the ambassador found other similarities between South Korea and Israel: both were established in 1948, are surrounded by enemies, are poor in natural resources and notorious for bad driving habits: “I feel right at home driving in Israel”.
But what’s with the Talmud?
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 still need today too. While 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 we should slaughter a ram on the altar for the priests, we do need dialog; we need to connect based on real, meaningful content. No social media tricks, no posting, bcc’ing, mass sending everybody our thoughts and conclusions without considering what another person actually says. Just good old face to face encounter with another live human being who cares about the same issues, even if they have an opposing view; nay, especially if they have opposing views! We need to sit down with those we have never met and barely know are part of our family.
The prophet Isaiah says: shalom, shalom larachok velakarov – “peach unto those who are far and those who are near”, calling unto those who are distant, and not just physically, to greet them first with blessings of wholesomeness. By doing so he expressed great confidence and true strength. There is fear in someone who cannot reach out past beyond themselves, and we, who’ve been around for centuries, have no reason to have this kind of fear. Like in the Talmudic page of old, we too can invite everybody to sit around our big table. Let us begin.