Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Koreans and the Talmud

I saw, on my Twitter feed, some noise about how the Talmud is supposedly a bestseller in Korea.* So I went over to the linked article, which is written from a non-Korean (specifically, from an Israeli) perspective, and I'm still not convinced that the Talmud is a bestseller. I think that much of what's in the article is plausible, e.g., that Koreans admire the Jewish emphasis on education. I even think it's plausible that some Koreans might go so far as to give their kids the Talmud to read because they think it might help smarten the kids up. But as to the question of whether the Talmud is flying off the shelves in Korean bookstores, I'd like to see some hard sales data before I believe any claims of bestseller status.

I have other doubts as well. There are at least two problems with this picture of Korean admiration of Jews. First, there's a nasty streak of antisemitism in Korean culture. Here are three links: refresh your memory. Many Koreans, unfortunately, buy into the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing power-mongers who have somehow managed to insinuate themselves into the most influential centers of American society, whence they subtly direct American foreign policy, media culture, and money. The above links all deal with a particularly scandalous comic book that purports to teach Korean children something about world history. The comic in question, Far Country, Neighboring Country, puts forth the odious 9/11 conspiracy theory that the World Trade Center attack had Judaism as one of its root causes. The fact that everyday Koreans could so blithely buy into that crackpot worldview says much about the overall culture's attitude toward Jews. My own experience dovetails with this general notion: years ago, I was watching Al Pacino's "Merchant of Venice" with a Korean audience, and it became obvious that, although Pacino's version of the story did much to highlight the plight of Jews in old Venice (Pacino had, effectively, turned the story from a comedy to a near-tragedy), the audience's sympathies were entirely with Antonio, the abusive Christian. At the moment when Shylock was told that he could take a pound of Antonio's flesh, but absolutely none of his blood, the audience gave an appreciative, satisfied sigh, and laughed at the foolish, feckless Shylock. I could tell that, in terms of headspace, I and the rest of the viewers were on two completely different planets.

Second, the way in which serious Jews approach the Talmud is probably nothing like how Koreans are appropriating it. The Jewish approach, especially for those Jews in rabbinical studies, is hardcore exegetical: it involves a long and intense plunge into the messy, murky field of hermeneutics, i.e., the art and science of interpretation. To be done right, hermeneutics requires a culture of discussion, something that Korea still largely lacks (see Jeff Hodges on this point; Jeff has written extensively on this question). I have a hard time imagining a Korean going twelve rounds with a serious Jew on the topic of this or that Talmudic tractate without losing his temper and stomping out of the room. Talmud study—much like Tibetan monastic debate—requires a razor wit along with impeccable logical and rhetorical skills. The Jewish temperament also brings with it something that's hard to find in Korea: good old chutzpah. The closest term for chutzpah in Korean might be something like baetjjang, which means, roughly, grit or nerviness. But Korean culture is very hierarchical; social order is important, and bucking the trend isn't encouraged. Social order is also maintained through social notions like "face," "honor," and so on. Chutzpah, by contrast, is transgressive. The rabbi's protégé is encouraged to tussle in as spirited a manner as possible with his teacher; it's hard to imagine authority being questioned to such an extent in Korean society.** Are Korean kids who read the Talmud really engaging the text in the way a Jew would engage it? Is there any actual intellectual wrestling going on? And who in Korea has the necessary training and experience to lead such an involved discussion of Talmudic ideas?

One of my books, Comparative Religious Ethics, contends that chutzpah is something unique that Jews, and Jews alone, bring to the religious table. They and their Hebrew forebears stood up to the ultimate divine power, questioned him, and even interposed themselves against his will (cf. Moses beseeching God to repent of his wrath against the Hebrews). Comparative Religious Ethics cites Job, in the Book of Job, as an example of chutzpah in action. In the midst of his seemingly nonsensical suffering, Job actively questions God. Do Korean Christians do the same? Do Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhists, chided by the monk after messing up during dok-cham (sort of a dharma-dialogue in which one's mind is tested), spar with the monk or accept his judgment fatalistically?

Talmud is casuistry. Are young Korean readers even getting that point?

*Which Talmud? The Babylonian or the Jerusalem? The article doesn't say.

**This isn't to say that Koreans are completely incapable of nerviness. Witness the disrespect that a Korean driver shows to the cop that pulls him over. (Witness Koreans' disrespect for the police in general!) But certain kinds of nerviness are sanctioned and supported in Korean culture because of history: Koreans have a long tradition of satirizing, and even rebelling against, people in authority; this has been a response to oppression. Even today, Korean students are infamous for their protest culture. But a nervy response to perceived social oppression is not the same animal as the bold questioning of received wisdom from a moral or spiritual exemplar. Chutzpah primarily cuts at ideas, not at ideologies.


1 comment:

Charles said...

A quick survey of the best-seller lists this week for the top eight online booksellers in Korea shows the Talmud nowhere in the top 100 (although Yongpoong only lists their top 20).

I did, however, find reference to a book elsewhere entitled "지혜로운 엄마가 읽어주는 탈무드 태교동화" (very roughly: "Talmud fairy tales that wise mothers read to their babies in the womb"). Apparently this book was at some point in the past a number-one seller, but I was unable to find any hard numbers or reference to a particular sales list. It sounds pretty believable, though, as books on pre- and post-natal care are always on the bestseller lists.

It would be quite a stretch, though, to go from this to "The Talmud is a bestseller in South Korea." I am also suspicious of claims that it is included in the primary school curriculum. If there is such a book, it is most likely a watered-down version of stories from the Talmud that sits alongside stories from other cultures. I'm probably the wrong person to speculate on the primary school curriculum, though.