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The Bulgogi Talmud: a Bestseller in... Korea?!?

The Torah is the Old Testament. The Talmud is a long, multi-volume series of rabbinic commentaries and applications of the Torah, as well as general discussions of philosophy, ethics, etc. Think of it as THE Jewish blog, with lots of manual links and comments spaced over a couple thousand years, plus unnoted commentary and arguments by all who study it. "The Essence of Judaism: On Teaching Judaism to Seventh Graders" is an entertaining explanation of how this process goes. Pirkei Avot (loosely, "The Wisdom of the Fathers") is the most frequently read and translated Talmud volume, since it deals only with general morals, ethics, and philosophy, and spends little to no time on halacha (Jewish law). That reach gives it an arguable place among the Great Books of civilization.

As a surprising demonstration of that reach, it turns out that the Talmud (I strongly suspect it's mostly Pirkei Avot) enjoys near-universal distribution in South Korea, of all places:

"Almost every house in South Korea has a translated Talmud. But unlike Israel, even Korean mothers study it and read from it to their young children. Yes, in a country of almost 49 million people, many of whom believe in Buddhism and Christianity, there are more people who read the Talmud - or at least have a copy of it at home - than in the Jewish state."

Turns out there's a reason for this...

"We were very curious about the Jews' outstanding academic achievements," explains South Korean Ambassador to Israel Young Sam Ma, who was a guest on Channel 1's "Culture Today" show.... We tried to understand the secret of the Jewish people. How do they - more than other nations - manage to reach such impressive achievements?... Jews read the Talmud from an early age, and we believe it helps them develop great abilities. This understanding led us to the conclusion that we should also teach children Talmud.... Young says he himself has been reading the Talmud since a very early age."

Beyondf the "In Search of Excellence" motif, Korea's own Confucian values also find strong echoes in the Talmud and Pirkei Avot - a phenomenon that has been noticed here when Jewish and Asian families have children who date. Promise of academic excellence + cultural affinity + curiosity of a foreign import... well, say no more.

Though I might venture to say a little bit more. "The Essence of Judaism: On Teaching Judaism to Seventh Graders" explains the essence of the part that goes beyond the book:

"In the following week, I begin with the semi-solemn warning that "now we are going to do something really difficult," and I recite the story of the physicist I.L. Rabi, who, when asked to explain his success as a physicist, attributed it to his mother, who each day when Rabi came home from school asked him not what he learned that day, but "did you ask a good question today?" 2 The assignment, then, was to ask three good questions about Judaism but not simple question of fact..."

You can read the Talmud, but without that kind of questioning engagement, it will lose the ingredients that made their way so strongly into Western culture, as they merged with the intrinsic ethics of science to form a larger whole.

Mind you, the Koreans are doing a pretty good job, beyond even the consumer items we've all become so familiar with. Not a lot of people realize this yet, but they're close to doing things in the defense arena that mirror Hyundai's auto success: designing and delivering capable, well thought out, reasonably priced alternatives. I expect we'll be hearing more about this in the years to come, as their land, air, and even naval products start gaining export traction.

Meanwhile, I've been noticing increased Israeli defense cooperation with South Korea for a few years now. Long-range Green Pine radars will become the anchor of South Korea's ballistic missile warning/defense system, they're buying Elbit's Skylark-II UAVs, an Israeli radar looks set to equip their locally-designed fighters and possibly their F-16s, etc. On the flip side, Israel looks set to buy Korea's supersonic T-50 Golden Eagles to replace its Skyhawk trainers, and probably serve a secondary fighters for the IAF.

I never thought there was more to it than mutual need, and a somewhat similar problem set. But, as usual, it seems there's more. And now you know the rrrrest of the story.


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