How the Talmud became a Korean best-seller
Recommended Reading

How the Talmud became a Korean best-seller

The New Yorker reports a tale of popularization, piracy, and cultural appropriation

Last week, Lois Goldrich told of how a group of Korean Christians here in New Jersey were putting on a cultural festival at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center as a tribute to the Jewish people..

So we weren’t totally surprised to open this week’s New Yorker and discover a story about the Talmud becoming a best-seller in Korea.

If that idea sounds familiar, that’s because you remember in 2011, when the Korean ambassador to Israel, Young-sam Ma, told an Israeli television show that “Each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud.”korean talmud Clipped

In a 4500 word article, Ross Arbes traces that statement to its roots. He discovers that indeed, books titled “The Talmud” have sold millions of copies in Korea. And while it won’t come as a shock that Korean’s aren’t buying 20 volume translations of the actual Talmud, Mr. Arbes discovers the origins of the Korean Talmud phenomenon.

It leads to another familiar story, that of Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who served as a rabbi in Japan and written books such as “Pepper, Silk & Ivory: Amazing Stories about Jews and the Far East.”

It turns out that without Rabbi Tokayer’s knowledge, a brief introduction to the wisdom of the Talmud he had written with the aid of a Japanese translator made its way to Korea.

The story is worth a read. Mr. Arbes is no stranger to Talmud study. He recalls his time as a a seventh grader at a Jewish day school in Atlanta, where his class covered two chapters — or as he put it, “less than a quarter of a per cent of the Talmud.”

No summary can do the article justice. But we’ll leave you with an opening anecdote, from a Korean boarding school that promises to offer Korean Christians a “Jewish” education. After learning about tefillin and reciting the Sh’ma, “the students paired up for ‘Talmudic debate.’ Their dialectic centered on a paraphrased verse from Deuteronomy: ‘Money improperly earned may not be donated to church.’ The room erupted into impassioned pleas and gesticulations, then two students were chosen to debate in front of the class. Sanguk Bae, seventeen, sat with one palm on the ground and the other hand waving a Bible in the air, arguing that the law was the law, and the Bible was not open to interpretation. Min Kwon, sixteen, countered that God loves everyone and forgives easily. The class concluded with a recitation of a psalm.”

read more: