Learning better Talmud with a South Korean

Amnesty international billboard (photo credit: REUTERS)
Amnesty international billboard
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Tim Alper’s recent article “Talmud- inspired learning craze sweeps South Korea” reveals South Koreans’ growing affinity for Talmud study as an academic path. Alper’s sources cited the disproportionate success of Jews as the case to embrace “Jewish approaches to education.”
For good or for bad, Jews are associated globally – not just in South Korea – with success in politics, finance, education, medicine, law and more. Our survival as a people stands out, too. Clearly, there is something special about the Jewish people. Recently, I spoke at a Jewish philanthropic conference about my own experience in South Korea that helped me pinpoint what it is.
My view on this was formed in 2011 when I was speaking at a Korean Stock Exchange investor conference in Seoul.
While waiting in the green room with a number of Korean CEOs, one asked me if I was Jewish. He excitedly told me he studied Talmud. Perplexed, I asked him why, and he responded: “to learn the secret of your people’s success.”
Then he pulled a volume of the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud out of his briefcase and popped it open to the first page – Tractate Bava Metzia 2a – about civil law. He asked to study it together. We began discussing the text about two people arguing over the ownership of a tallit (prayer shawl) they both encountered along a road.
We went back and forth, probing the text for intricacies of litigation about a found tallit.
When they called me for my speech, he thanked me for studying with him and asked one last question that almost left me speechless.
“What is a tallit?” I did a double take. My earnest study partner didn’t know what a tallit is! What did he gain from our intense dialogue without the benefit of the context that made the debate important in the first place? Could our sacred texts help him maximize his potential without any personal relevance? Striking to note is that this 2011 conference in Seoul wasn’t the first or the last time I heard about Talmud study during my years doing business in Asia.
But it was the first time I understood they are studying our Talmud in search of the secret to our success. However, what they don’t realize is that knowledge alone – without connection to our 3,500 years of peoplehood – will not reveal that secret.
The Asian businessmen I encountered focus on Jewish learning but are missing the peoplehood. And too often, the organized Jewish community emphasizes the peoplehood to the exclusion – tragically – of meaningful, deep Jewish learning. To continue surviving and thriving as Jews, we need both Torah knowledge (including biblical and rabbinic texts) and peoplehood. And this is the answer to Mark Twain’s famous question asked in 1898 about the secret to the Jewish people’s remarkable survival: Living it and learning it – that’s the secret sauce.
The long-term survival of Judaism is not just about identifying Jewishly, which of course is critical. It is equally as much about turning back to our sacred sources. This is a guiding framework I think about regularly as a philanthropist dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish wisdom and values in the contemporary world.
As for the South Koreans, Alper reported they believe they need only emulate the way Jews teach children and not our beliefs. While I’m certainly not suggesting they should adopt our beliefs, I do wonder whether their approach will achieve the ultimate outcomes they seek.
That noted, I’m honored the South Koreans admire our people. I appreciate their enthusiasm for our ancient sources and hevruta study (partner learning) and hope they find great results in ways that remain to be seen.
The writer, an entrepreneurial businessperson and philanthropist, is a trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, which is committed to the proliferation of Jewish wisdom and values in the contemporary world.