Back in 2011, South Korean ambassador to Israel Ma Young-sam sparked a wave of stories about his country’s love affair with Judaism when he told reporters that the Talmud was all but mandatory reading for school children. Though South Korean’s described Jews in terms so stereotypical as to be anti-semitic, and conversion was almost impossible, somehow parents had decided the education of Jewish children was worthy emulating. The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of how Korean’s came by their version of the holy text.
According to writer Ross Arbes, South Koreans have transformed the Talmud into a sort of CliffsNotes collection of biographies of rabbis, Jewish proverbs, parables, and talmudic wisdom stitched together by a now 78-year-old rabbi named Marvin Tokayer. He put the book together more than 40 years ago at the urging of Japanese writer Hideaki Kase, who he met while living in Tokyo. The originally titled 5,000 Years of Jewish Wisdom: Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures was published in 1971, and somewhere in its permutations and new editions found its way into South Korea under the more recognizable, simple, title: The Talmud. It’s massively popular.
“Koreans are obsessed with education, and we have this stereotypical view of Jews as the model of academic excellence,” Dr. Hahm Chaibong, the president of the Asan Institute, a policy think tank based in Seoul, told The New Yorker in an attempt to explain why the book has become so popular it can even be found in vending machines.
Exactly how much access the average South Korean has to real information about the Talmud is questionable. While boasting an excellent technology infrastructure, the censorship regulations those high internet speeds labor under renders their network, at best, “partially free.” Buying into the inch-deep cliche of Jews is a double-edged sword, leading more than half of South Koreans polled to say that Jews have too much control over the media, and that has the Talmud-loving country ranked third most anti-semitic by the Anti-Defamation League.
The resulting book was written over three days. That’s not a very long time to distill several millennia worth of wisdom, but points given for efficiency.