Close to 50 million people live in South Korea, and everyone learns Gemara (Talmud) in school. "We tried to understand why the Jews are geniuses, and we came to the conclusion that it is because they study Talmud," said the Korean ambassador to Israel. And this is how "Rav Papa" became a more well known scholar in Korea than in Israel.I thought this was a Purim joke...but it's not.
It is doubtful if the Amoraic scholars, Abbaye and Rava imagined their discussions of Jewish law in the Beit Midrash in Babylon would be taught hundreds of years later in East Asia. Yet it turns out that the laws of an "egg born on a holiday" ("ביצה שנולדה ביום טוב") is actually very interesting to the South Koreans who have required that Talmud study be part of their compulsory school curriculum.
Almost every home in South Korea now contains a Korean-translated Talmud. But unlike in Israel, the Korean mothers teach the Talmud to their children. In a country of close to 49 million people who believe in Buddhism and Christianity, there are more people who read the Talmud - or at least own their own copy at home - more than in the Jewish state. Much more.
"So we too will become geniuses"
"We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews," explains Israel's ambassador to South Korea, Young Sam Mah, that was a host on the program "culture today."
"Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields: literature, science and economics. This is a remarkable achievement. We tried to understand what is the secret of the Jewish people? How they - more than other people - are able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud."
"Jews study the Talmud at a young age, and it helps them, in our opinion, to develop mental capabilities. This understanding led us to teach our children as well. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud Study to our school curriculum."
Young says that he himself studied the Talmud at a very young age: "It is considered very significant study," he emphasized. The result is that more Koreans have Talmud sets in their homes than Jews in Israel.
"I, for example, have two sets of the Talmud: the one my wife bought me, and the second was a gift from my mother."
Koreans don't only like the Talmud because they see it as promoting genius, but because they found values that are close to their hearts.
"In the Jewish tradition, family values are important," explains the South Korean Ambassador.
"You see it even today, your practice of the Friday evening family meal. In my country we also focus on family values. The respect for adults, respect and appreciation for the elderly parallels the high esteem in my country for the elderly."
Here's an article in the Korean Herald about a rabbi who teaches Talmud in Korea.
Here's a message board posting from 2005 in a Christian forum where a visitor to Korea is trying to figure out why all Korean kids are learning Talmud.
Here's a Korean website filled with Talmudic sayings and stories.
And, most convincing to me...pictured here is a Korean children's book called "Splash Into the World of Talmud". I found other books filled with Talmudic stories for kids.
If only Jewish parents would be as interested in teaching Judaism to their kids as Koreans are!
UPDATE: The story is not exactly what it seems.