A question about Jewish life in the Diaspora, particularly America: why is it that if you want Jews to feel good about their Judaism the best way to do it is to have someone who is not Jewish compliment us or imitate us?
Since you are here in shul tonight you probably already know that Judaism is a wonderful religious and cultural world in and of itself, that it has wisdom that the world needs, that our ethical teachings are the basis for all of Western Civilization, and that our holidays and rituals are beautiful, meaningful, and inspiring.
You know that we invented the day of rest, the Sabbath, as well as the Ten Commandments, the idea of loving your neighbor as you love yourself; that we originated a systematic and profound dedication to justice, came up with the concept of tithing and giving tzedakah, began the understanding that we are not permitted to stand idly by while our neighbors bleed, and all of the many other moral commitments of monotheism. You know that Jewish food is simply fabulous, that Jewish music is beautiful and extremely diverse, that we invented Hollywood and the movie industry and much of popular music, too. And you know that Jewish humor is, quite simply, the funniest stuff out there and that without Jewish comedians there wouldn't be much to laugh at in America—except, of course, for Congress. And of course we win a ridiculously high percentage of all Nobel Prizes, proving we are really, really smart and deeply dedicated to education.
You even know, if you read this week's parshah, that we invented the concept of a city of refuge, demonstrating a dedication to due process and the rule of just law.
But you also know that there are only about 13 million of us Jews in the entire world—15 million if you count very liberally—and that in this world of 7 billion people this makes us a tiny, tiny minority. Persecution and attempted genocide have diminished Jewish population throughout history, while today assimilation and dilution threaten to fade our integrity and influence. And this leads to an interesting problem. For in our eagerness to believe that we Jews are much more important than others think, we sometimes accept stories that aren't, well, exactly credible. We want to believe that other people appreciate all the wonders of Jewish life and lore, and that we are as respected and honored as we deserve to be. And sometimes that makes us easy marks for fantastic tall tales...
There was a great story out in the news last week, a human interest Jewish tale that was both startlingly unlikely and deeply attractive. It was widely reported that the great Jewish text of learning, law, and lore, the Talmud, completed in the 5th century CE in Babylon, today's Iraq, and the most important source of Halakhah, the binding Jewish law of life for Orthodox Jews, is apparently the source of systematic and regular study by the entire nation of South Korea.
Now this is an odd story, on the face of it not quite believable, because while the Talmud is a fabulous, elaborate text but it also extremely difficult to study without a very strong Jewish background. In general, a comprehensive knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic is essential, and even if you are studying it in translation you really must already know the text of the Torah and rest of the Hebrew Bible well, what Christians call the Old Testament, as well as having a solid knowledge of the Jewish annual festival cycle, life-cycle, prayer rituals, and much more. While children as young as 8 or 9 do study Talmud in the Orthodox world, they also continue to do so for the rest of their lives. There are, after all, some 68 volumes in a standard edition of the Talmud.
I have personally studied Talmud for about three and half decades, and I can tell you that there is nothing easily accessible about it.
So the story that the Asian nation, one of the tigers of the world economy, South Korea, a place with virtually no Jewish population ever, has mandated instruction in Talmud for all of its students in a country of nearly 50 million people was really exciting and sounded too good to be true. I mean, before this story all we could say that we share with Korea is a love of pickles, and half-sour is not the same as kimchi. But it turns out this is not about pickles at all; it is about intelligence, and cultivating the brain.
"We tried to understand why the Jews are geniuses and we came to the conclusion that it is because they study Talmud," supposedly said the Korean ambassador to Israel. And the story went on, "This is how Rav Papa became a better-known scholar in Korea than in Israel. It is doubtful if the Talmudic rabbis Abbaye and Rava imagined their discussions of Jewish law in the Batei Midrash in Babylon would be taught hundreds of years later in East Asia. But it is so: South Koreans have required that Talmud study be part of their compulsory school curriculum. Almost every home in South Korea now contains a Korean-translated Talmud, and unlike in Israel, Korean mothers teach the Talmud to their children. (No word on how these Korean mothers learn Talmud so that they can teach their kids, by the way.) Supposedly, in a country of close to 49 million people who are primarily Buddhists and Christians there are more people who read the Talmud – and far more who own their own copies of tractates at home - than in the Jewish state.
"We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews," explains South Korea's ambassador to Israel, Young Sam Ma. "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."
According to Young Sam Ma, Koreans are fond of the Talmud not just because they believe it advances the genius quality but because they have found values close to their heart in it. "The Jewish tradition emphasizes family values," explains the South Korean ambassador. "You can also see it today, in your custom to convene every Friday for a family meal.
"In my country the family is very important too. The way older people are treated, the respect and appreciation Judaism has for the elderly, are parallel to the high appreciation the elderly get in my country."
The ambassador, a well-spoken and quite convincing man, went on, "I find many similarities between us – the Jews and the State of Israel," the ambassador says. "Both you and we have a long history with great difficulties. Israel and South Korean received their independence in the same year, 1948, so we are the same age. We, like you, have problems with hostile neighbors. We, like you, hardly have any natural resources and we must rely mainly on our human capital.
"In its 64 years of existence Israel has greatly developed. It created miracles in its economy, and so did we. The people in Israel are similar to the South Koreans in their courtesy as well as in the impatience they show, sometimes."
So this intriguing story was picked up by every Jewish news network and sent all over the world last week. As it was also sent around the web last summer, by the way...
Too good to be true?
Well, yes. It turns out that there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere. There is apparently a book that Korean kids do read that has something like Midrashim from the Talmud, the Gemara, in it, and that they like very much. But the idea that 50 million Koreans are going to become iluim, great scholars of Talmud, and suddenly create giant Samsung-sponsored yeshivot in every Koreatown in the world is not a part of reality. I'm not saying the enthusiasts who embrace this story are one pickle shy of a deli, but the fact that we still crave appreciation for our under-valued religious and cultural and, yes, legal tradition should be pretty obvious by now. We really want to be loved... As though the more popular Judaism, or at least Jewish ideas and practices become the better we feel about ourselves.
Except that isn't really the point, now is it?
You see, it's not what others think of us that matters most. We don't find our Jewish pride because of what Koreans, or Catholics, or South Sudanese, or anyone else thinks of Jews.
We need to find our self-confidence in our Judaism because Judaism is an amazing ethical tradition, because the aspirations and inspirations of our people throughout history have helped this world become, so far as it can be, more ethical, wiser, more civil; because Shabbat is the holiest day of the week when we make it so; because our cycles and rituals of life add meaning and beauty and sanctity to our lives, and to this and every society in which we live.
We need to find our pride inside. Because when we own our Jewish heritage, and our learning, and our practice, when we are proud of who we are because of what we do and how we act, then we don't need outside reassurance. We can give more to the world, and seek to make this whole planet truly holy.
Whether or not they really study Gemara in Korea...
And then we will be able to have a lives, Jewish lives, that merit blessing and meaning.
Ken Yehi Ratson.