“Our Talmud book,” he said, “is kind of a story about our life.”
September 12, 2019 5:22 PM   Subscribe

 
This is really interesting.

Here in China I have had a similar if not so complete experience of this "fetishisation" trend. In more than one Chinese academic conference setting, the lecturer has gone off on a tangent about Jews and how great they are and how they respect education and yadda yadda.

In these cases I have kind of done a spit take, and confirmed with my colleagues that yes, this is really happening, yes this senior education expert is telling us about "the Jews".

So it is not just a Korean thing.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:00 PM on September 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


the WHOLE Talmud? isn't it like 73 volumes or something?
posted by jb at 6:30 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


Rashi says: Rtfa
posted by lalochezia at 6:34 PM on September 12, 2019 [17 favorites]


Wow, fascinating! But it's hard for me to believe that Tokayer is as naive as the article portrays him to be regarding the myths about Jewish people in East Asia and how his writing is contextualized within them. Tokayer has written a whole book about how Imperial Japanese officials read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and, apparently believing it wholesale, launched a plan to settle Jews in Japan in order to take advantage of their supposed business prowess (this Wikipedia article looks like it summarizes his book). From his bibliography in the Japanese Wikipedia article on Tokayer, it also seems that he has authored or co-authored multiple books suggesting a connection between Japanese people and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, a wacky theory with a history almost as long as Japan and the West have interacted with each other.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 6:41 PM on September 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeesh, a mix of Evangelical nuttery and Jew fetishism. And apparently half of South Koreans believe that Jew bankers rule the world, but it's a good thing because they aspire to that kind of power, so they read the Talmud to learn the Secrets of the Jews. Fantastic.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:45 PM on September 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


okay, I am reading the article and it's not the Talmud: it's a whole series of different books with bits from the Talmud and elsewhere. But that makes the beginning very deceptive.

I wonder what they would do with dozens of volumes, with the Mishnah in the middle, and then Gemara, and then lots of commentary. Even in translation, that would utterly overwhelm me.
posted by jb at 6:47 PM on September 12, 2019


They wouldn't do anything with a full, complete translation because it's not about the Talmud per se. At least according to this article, the popularity of these summary editions in Korea is due to a belief that the Jews have superior eduction/intellect and study of the Talmud is the key to that.

It seems akin to the popularity in the West of pop/condensed versions of Asian classics/religious texts, though with the added sinister overtones of classic anti-Semitism, intended or not.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:55 PM on September 12, 2019 [10 favorites]


Oy vey.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:55 PM on September 12, 2019 [7 favorites]


I can confirm I've encountered this in Vietnam too... And even here, which is an interesting counterpoint to the institutionalised antisemitism in my country but I keep having to point out, it's racism from another angle. It's not an improvement!
posted by cendawanita at 6:59 PM on September 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


It's a pity, because so much of the Talmud reads like the Confucian. dialogues. It's all about these sages who are trying to figure out the proper way a person should live in a society very similar in terms of material civilization and organization. And they reach the same general conclusions: in any situation there is a Right Thing To Do (TM), which is intractably tied to the context and so cannot be ascertained without examining the context, and the Right Thing is a sum total of conflicting obligations that apply to every person. It's also inherent to the order of the universe, regardless of reward in this world or the next, and pondering The Right Thing is a good way to be humble and remember that its definition goes beyond just yourself. Kung Fu Tse and Rabbi Hillel could have had fun kicking back with a few beers and comparing notes.

It seems akin to the popularity in the West of pop/condensed versions of Asian classics/religious texts, though with the added sinister overtones of classic anti-Semitism, intended or not.

Well, Western interest in Asian classics did coincide with a lot of Fun Manchu crap. People suck. The one counterexample I can think of is, well, the couple of centuries in the Akhameneid era, with Jews and Zoroastrians comparing notes and not fetishizing each other.
posted by ocschwar at 7:18 PM on September 12, 2019 [19 favorites]


(Also, there's a good bit in the Talmud of quasi-Chinese taxonomies. and enumerations of every possible thing along with some impossible things.)
posted by ocschwar at 7:19 PM on September 12, 2019


I've had a colleague tell me that "Koreans are the Jews of Asia", and I don't think he meant it as a compliment to anyone involved. Odd/interesting to see that some Koreans see a parallel, too.
posted by clawsoon at 7:35 PM on September 12, 2019


It felt strange to read this. My first reaction, as a Jew, was the warm feeling that there are people out there, non-Jews, who actually like us. Needless to say, that is not a reasoned conclusion about the article or about the cultural phenomenon it purports to describe. An admiration like that can easily turn into something rather darker. But as it is, I prefer this to something like the "Jew with a coin" popular in Poland.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 7:44 PM on September 12, 2019 [11 favorites]


One popular subgenre of Talmuds is the “prenatal Talmud,” marketed to expecting mothers who want to encourage brain development in the womb.
Baby Einstein, but with Talmud.
posted by clawsoon at 7:49 PM on September 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


The part I find most interesting is that they're doing this from the Talmud and not the Kabbalah, which is what Western gentiles tend to plunder for special mystic Jewish knowledge.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:26 PM on September 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


Just wait untill they get to the prohibition on Pork.
posted by nickggully at 8:47 PM on September 12, 2019 [9 favorites]


I've had people both Jewish and non-Jewish tell me that one of the main paths in Judaism is the belief that one should work to set the world right, to fix the world, to work for social justice in a variety of ways.

I'd say, if people are learning to approach life from this perspective, I don't care where it comes from.
posted by hippybear at 9:19 PM on September 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


Oh. oh. I am sad. I was hoping that this would be a cute confusing story somehow encapsulating in reverse my childhood (Korean family, predominantly Jewish classmates, friends' parents asking my parents how to make their kids math nerds like me, forgive me, I was that kind of Asian American).

I will still have to ask my parents if this is true: "Sung estimated that “over eighty per cent of the country” had read most of Tokayer’s Talmud in some form or another."

But I got hung up on the fact that the Korean translation is based on the Japanese translation, whose translator is a Japanese nationalist and historical revisionist. Game of telephone indeed.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:52 PM on September 12, 2019 [7 favorites]


Though the fact the Talmud's popularity is tied into anxious Korean parents is very true to brand:

South Koreans teach it early to their children and venerate it over traditional children’s books. “Aesop’s Fables is basic nutrition,” Young-sam Ma said. “The Talmud is like vitamins.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:54 PM on September 12, 2019


boy are they going to be disappointed with how it ends
posted by kokaku at 2:49 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


This gives me the mega creeps. I have seen too much of non-Jews saying what Jews are to feel anything but nervous about this.
posted by wellred at 5:48 AM on September 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


Yeah, this is really, really bad. And I guess that I'm not surprised that non-Jews don't recognize how bad it is, because I have come to have really low expectations of non-Jews. But come on.

1. The Talmud is a religious text. This isn't someone appropriating some secular part of Jewish culture, like bagels or kelzmer or something. This is a particularly gross kind of cultural appropriation, because it coopts people's religion.

2. To say the Talmud is complicated is kind of the understatement of the century. This is not a text that can be studied casually. Almost everyone who studies it starts training for that task in earliest childhood and devotes decades of their lives to it. And that's kind of the sick irony of this thing. There is nothing magical about the Talmud. None of its magical Talmud juice is going to spill onto your kid and make him or her brilliant and successful. But if you want to know why Jews have been so successful in a modern world that rewards education, you could start from the fact that generations of Jewish men of all social classes were trained from infancy that their most important task in life was to learn to be an amazing scholar of twisty, complex, interconnected texts. You can't get the same benefit from your dumbed-down, flattened, translated fake-Talmud, because the difficulty and the labor were the things that produced the result that you admire. If you want your kid to be like a Talmud scholar, start those Hebrew lessons when he's three years old, because that's what's required.

3. As everyone keeps pointing out, there is such a fine line between "Jews are brilliant and successful and run everything, so let's emulate them" and "Jews are brilliant and successful and run everything, and they're responsible for all my problems, so let's go kill them." That sounds overwrought, but it's a fact. This shit is dangerous. This shit gets people like me killed. This is not a flattering stereotype, because antisemitism is the flip-side of philosemitism.

So yeah. This is gross. And if you're a non-Jew who is defending it, could you maybe take at least a second to try to understand why a lot of Jews don't see it that way?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:34 AM on September 13, 2019 [28 favorites]


Imperial Japanese officials read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and, apparently believing it wholesale, launched a plan to settle Jews in Japan in order to take advantage of their supposed business prowess (this Wikipedia article looks like it summarizes his book).

I recall reading that the arcade game company Taito was originally founded in the 1920s by a Jewish immigrant from Russia. I wonder whether this policy was involved.
posted by acb at 6:41 AM on September 13, 2019


What ArbitraryAndCapricious said. The line between this and the outright fake Talmudic "quotations" that circulate amongst anti-Semites of all descriptions is not that fine.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:24 AM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


Just wait untill they get to the prohibition on Pork.

Given the current Swine Flu crisis in China they might not even need a prohibition on pork.
posted by srboisvert at 7:39 AM on September 13, 2019


2. To say the Talmud is complicated is kind of the understatement of the century. This is not a text that can be studied casually. Almost everyone who studies it starts training for that task in earliest childhood and devotes decades of their lives to it.

The Talmud is complicated - I'm certainly too lazy to try it. But there are plenty of people who have made serious study of the Talmud without starting from childhood, and that would include a lot of rabbis. I seriously doubt that my rabbi - who grew up female at a Reform synagogue in the 60s - was sent to a yeshiva just after her first haircut. I also know someone who came to the study of Talmud in his 40s - you know, kind of like Rabbi Akiva - and was taking classes in Babylonian Aramaic to read the Gemara in the original. (He had already learned Biblical Hebrew as an adult).

As for it being a religious text: of course it is. But Judaism is not a mystery religion where knowledge is meant only to be shared with members. Judaism may not be evangelical, but the main texts are open to all (maybe with the exception of Kabbalah, except that the books were printed and circulated publicly ...). I, personally, have no right to get annoyed at people who aren't Jewish studying the Talmud, even in a shortened/simplified/summarized form - I studied Confucianism, Legalism and Daoism in a similarly pre-digested way. I was doing so as a history student and with an interest to understanding the culture of China in c200 BCE, but if I'd been a different kind of person, maybe it would have influenced my personal life more.

That philo-Semitism can be the flip-side of anti-Semitism is true, but we should also put this into context. For Koreans, Jews are a far away people who can be emulated, not real-life neighbours to be resented. It's like how I was raised to think of Chinese culture (as always more advanced than European, inventors of everything), only I don't think Israel is about to challenge Korea the way that China now can challenge the West in terms of economic power (the demographics just don't support that). Burning anti-Semitism is where it's always been: where people both problems and Jewish neighbours they can blame them on (rather than the actually powerful).

My response to this whole story - other than my initial incredulity with the first few lines - is that this is a bit news of the weird, and secondly that maybe there is some good to come of it. From what people have told me, Korean education does lack in the kind of powerful debate that the Talmud demonstrates. The article notes that the Talmud study groups use a kind of chavruta study model in getting students to debate with each other.

There is an interesting twist to the whole issue: it seems like these Talmud study classes are happening mostly in Christian contexts - and while some Christian traditions embrace debate, others don't (even within the same denomination). Chavruta without true debate seems like it would miss the point to me.

Just wait untill they get to the prohibition on Pork.

Enh, that bit's mostly in the Torah. Also, we can introduce them to the Pittsburgh Platform, which makes bacon cheeseburgers a-okay.
posted by jb at 8:10 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


Jewish/Japanese here, I remember when all the yuppies were reading the Book of Five Rings in the eighties.

Exoticizing moneygrubbers gonna be exoticizing moneygrubbers.
posted by fnerg at 8:31 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


As for it being a religious text: of course it is. But Judaism is not a mystery religion where knowledge is meant only to be shared with members. Judaism may not be evangelical, but the main texts are open to all (maybe with the exception of Kabbalah, except that the books were printed and circulated publicly ...). I, personally, have no right to get annoyed at people who aren't Jewish studying the Talmud

I'm not Orthodox myself, but apparently that isn't true for them:
When Jonathan returned to his yeshiva in New Jersey and told his ultra-Orthodox classmates and family members about his experiences, he was chastised. The Talmud—the real one—explicitly forbids the teaching of the Talmud to non-Jews, he was told. Jonathan paraphrased the criticism he received this way: “Talmud study is neshama [Jewish soul] work. It speaks to your neshama. Koreans don’t have a neshama. By presenting it to non-Jews, you are desecrating the Talmud.”
posted by Sangermaine at 8:34 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


For Koreans, Jews are a far away people who can be emulated, not real-life neighbours to be resented.

The article mentions that over half of South Koreans harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, so the fact that there's not many of us in Korea to be targeted by it doesn't exactly give me the warm and fuzzies.

There is an interesting twist to the whole issue: it seems like these Talmud study classes are happening mostly in Christian contexts

This bothers me even more, since the current fad of philo-Semitism for many Christians extends only as far as Israel being a battleground for Christians versus everyone else, with Jews either converting, becoming a subject people, or being put to the sword.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:39 AM on September 13, 2019 [8 favorites]


Arbitrary, this phenomenon is all sorts of problematic and the interviewees' explanations are cringe-inducing to me as a person of Korean descent who lived for several years in Korea as an adult, studying modern Korean history. 100% co-sign that any sweeping stereotype, however complimentary, is easily flipped to prejudice and even hatred. "Jewish people have Nobel prizes/control the world." "Asians are so good at math/are calculating robots with no people skills." I fully believe the prevalence of - even if I didn't encounter - gross problematic generalizations about Jewish people. My anger about Korean xenophobic/xenophilic obsessions however, was way more directed to how South Asian and Southeast Asian immigrants to Korea were devalued while white Westerners were lauded (and don't get me started on the ways that K-pop is inspired by/shamelessly appropriates Black American culture), but thankfully that was and is still changing.

That said, I guess I have all sorts of unhappy feels about the article itself too. I'm sure some of it is ethno-defensiveness. (My ancestral people! Don't do this shit!) It feels like the writer wanted to do a gentle "what an odd phenomenon" piece and yet it does tap into a fondness of the American media for the "har har Asian people are weird, look at this ridiculous thing they do" story. Generally it's Japan that gets this treatment, but Korea isn't immune. I've seen a lot of crappy feature-style journalism about Korean culture, even on very low-stakes topics such as the restaurant scene, that suffers from the translator/interpreter dependence that is described in the article.

I suspect (again maybe for my own emotional ease, but also because I know how spectacularly quickly fads spread in South Korea) that the reasons for the popularity of the children's/graphic novel/chicken soup for the soul versions of a greatest hits of the Talmud as interpreted twice, once into Japanese and then once again into Korean, are much fuzzier, and hopefully less culturally appropriative / fetishizing of Jewish people than the reasons that these ridiculous "Talmud-themed" cram schools are articulating for their own intentions.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:46 AM on September 13, 2019 [7 favorites]


I dunno, I guess I'll reiterate to myself what I was suggesting in the Media Lab thread. In explaining my feelings about this article/phenomenon I by no means am saying that my reactions negate other people's disgust and unhappiness about this.

As a racialized person born and raised in the U.S. (and repeatedly told to go back to my country), I am terrified by the rise of Nazis, but also recognize that Asian Americans of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent have the privilege of not being a primary target of this current incarnation of hatred. The immediate stakes of crappy commodification of Tokayer's stories about the Talmud are very different for me.

Nonetheless I have feelings, a lot of them -- as a Korean American who has their own complex feelings and relationship to Korean culture, and as a person went to a school with majority Jewish classmates as a kid*

* Crap, I did the "I have a ____ friend." Let me also say that in no way do I feel more knowledgable about this because of my years of trading PB&J sandwiches for matzo during Passover. I just have extra feelings that I am working through in a public forum.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:59 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm not Orthodox myself, but apparently that isn't true for them:
When Jonathan returned to his yeshiva in New Jersey and told his ultra-Orthodox classmates and family members about his experiences, he was chastised. The Talmud—the real one—explicitly forbids the teaching of the Talmud to non-Jews, he was told. Jonathan paraphrased the criticism he received this way: “Talmud study is neshama [Jewish soul] work. It speaks to your neshama. Koreans don’t have a neshama. By presenting it to non-Jews, you are desecrating the Talmud.”


Most Orthodox also think that I'm not Jewish, and that my Rabbi shouldn't be singing from the Bimah due to the awesome sexy power of her voice. (She has a lovely voice. It does not spur me to lust). The Orthodox are not the sole inheritors of the Talmud.

Judaism: a land of contrasts.
posted by jb at 9:16 AM on September 13, 2019 [13 favorites]


Also, neshama doesn't mean "Jewish soul", it just means soul/spirit (or breath - all related). Using it to mean just a Jewish soul has a weird implication that other people don't have souls, or that non-Jews souls that are inherently different from Jewish souls. This is a stream of thought within the Jewish community, but certainly not one that I would endorse.
posted by jb at 9:23 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


The Orthodox are not the sole inheritors of the Talmud.

Yeah, as a Jew myself I don't much care what the Ultra Orthodox have to say about anything, any more than I'd imagine most Christians feel the need to run things past the Amish.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:27 AM on September 13, 2019 [11 favorites]


It's a bit disappointing that the author does not speak Korean:

When I asked Tokayer for an English translation of his book, he told me that
none existed, so I bought a Korean Talmud and had it translated into English.


And that he was unable to get any actual book sales numbers.
posted by haemanu at 7:47 PM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


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