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How the Talmud Became a Best-Seller in South Korea

Arbes-Talmud-in-Korea-690In 2011, the South Korean Ambassador to Israel said on Israeli public television that “each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud.” Credit Illustration by Min Heo

About an hour’s drive north of Seoul, in the Gwangju Mountains, nearly fifty South Korean children pore over a book. The text is an unlikely choice: the Talmud, the fifteen-hundred-year-old book of Jewish laws. The students are not Jewish, nor are their teachers, and they have no interest in converting. Most have never met a Jew before. But, according to the founder of their school, the students enrolled with the goal of receiving a “Jewish education” in addition to a Korean one.

When I toured the boarding school last year, the students, who ranged in age from four to nineteen, were seated cross-legged on the floor of a small tentlike auditorium. Standing in front of a whiteboard, their teacher, Park Hyunjun, was explaining that Jews pray wearing two small black boxes, known as tefillin, to help them remember God’s word. He used the Hebrew words shel rosh (“on the head”) and shel yad (“on the arm”) to describe where the boxes are worn. Inside these boxes, he said, was parchment that contained verses from one of the holiest Jewish prayers, the Shema, which Jews recite daily. As the room filled with murmurings of the Shema in Korean, the dean of the school leaned over to me and said that the students recited the prayer daily, too, “with the goal of memorizing it.”

Park Hyunjun founded the school in 2013, and now runs it with his son, the dean. The two were trained at the Shema Education Institute, which was started by a Korean reverend and brings Christians from South Korea to Los Angeles, so that they can witness firsthand how Jews study, pray, and live. The reverend’s thesis is that the Jews have thrived for so many years because of certain educational and cultural practices, and that such benefits can be unlocked for Christians if those practices are taught to their children. During the drive from Seoul, the dean told me that he was worried about what I would think of his school’s Jewish classes. “I don’t always know exactly what Jewish education is,” he said.

In the classroom, the students paired up for “Talmudic debate.” Their dialectic centered on a paraphrased verse from Deuteronomy: “Money improperly earned may not be donated to church.” The room erupted into impassioned pleas and gesticulations, then two students were chosen to debate in front of the class. Sanguk Bae, seventeen, sat with one palm on the ground and the other hand waving a Bible in the air, arguing that the law was the law, and the Bible was not open to interpretation. Min Kwon, sixteen, countered that God loves everyone and forgives easily. The class concluded with a recitation of a psalm.


Outside, over bulgogi, Park Hyunjun laid out the goals behind his curriculum. “I would like to make our students to be people of God and to have charity just like Jewish people,” he said. Before I left, the dean pulled out a crate of Talmud books in Korean that the school used. There were forty-page books with more cartoons than words and two-hundred-and-fifty-page books that included lesson plans and study questions. He conceded that he wasn’t sure if they had “the same concept of Talmud” as the Jews do. “Our Talmud book,” he said, “is kind of a story about our life.”

In 2011, the South Korean Ambassador to Israel at the time, Young-sam Ma, was interviewed on the Israeli public-television show “Culture Today.” “I wanted to show you this,” he told the host, straying briefly from the topic at hand, a Korean film showing in Tel Aviv. It was a white paperback book with “Talmud” written in Korean and English on the cover, along with a cartoon sketch of a Biblical character with a robe and staff. “Each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud. Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses.” Looking up at the surprised host, he added, “Twenty-three per cent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish people. Korean women want to know the secret. They found the secret in this book.”

His comments were widely shared online. “Reports of the Talmud being a national classic in South Korea have been floating around for several years, but it’s now official,” announced the online newspaper Arutz Sheva. Ynet, one of Israel’s most popular news sites, reported the Ambassador’s comments in a piece that described South Korea as having “more people who read the Talmud—or at least have a copy of it at home” than Israel. A few smaller outlets were skeptical. An online outfit called Jewish Magazine argued that the “story about the Koreans studying Talmud has been blown out of proportion.” Mostly Kosher, a blog written by an Israeli lawyer, questioned whether the Korean Talmud was the same as the Jewish Talmud.

The Jewish Talmud is a dense compilation of oral laws annotated with rabbinical discussions, consisting of about two and a half million words. The legend is that God recited the Talmud, the oral law, to Moses on Mount Sinai, while simultaneously giving him the Torah, the written law. Many Jews believe that one cannot study the Talmud without a solid foundation of Torah study. Even for those well versed in the Torah, the Talmud is a challenging read. A rabbinical student I spoke to explained that significant portions of the book are intended to be understood allegorically rather than literally; entire sections detail “outdated” practices such as sacrifices, “black magic,” “sex advice,” and “dream interpretation,” he told me. I studied the Talmud in seventh grade at a Jewish day school, in Atlanta. In one semester, my class covered two chapters that comprised less than a quarter of a per cent of the Talmud. One of the chapters dealt with lost items, and I was struck by the specificity of the scenarios. If you find a cake with a pottery shard in it, can you keep it? Do you have to report the discovery of a pile of fruit? What do you do if you find an item built into the wall of your house?

It was hard to imagine South Koreans halfway around the world deriving any value from this book without a guide like the rabbi at my Jewish day school. But, as it happens, they do have a guide: a seventy-eight-year-old rabbi named Marvin Tokayer, who lives in Great Neck.

I discovered Tokayer’s name in a bookstore in Manhattan’s Koreatown. Among the store’s roughly five thousand volumes were eight different books called “Talmud,” several of which listed Rabbi Tokayer as the author and included pictures of him inside their front covers. One version included “A Personal Message from the Author,” in English, in which Tokayer expressed his belief that “the Korean people and the Jewish people have so much in common, and share so many similar values.” The letter was signed by him and included an address.

I met Rabbi Tokayer several months later at his home in Great Neck, a predominantly Jewish part of Long Island. On his quiet street, there were mezuzahs as far as the eye could see. He wore a button-down shirt with a dark sweater and dark dress pants; atop his thick white hair sat a black yarmulke. His living room was decorated with Asian art: the carpet from China, the woodblock prints and vase from Japan, the wooden rice chest from Korea.

Tokayer told me that he did not plan on becoming a rabbi. When he was younger, he wanted to be a comedian—he even performed amateur standup shows in the Catskills, and he still frequently slips into Borscht Belt patter. (His favorite joke he used to tell: “What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws? Outlaws are wanted.”) He first visited South Korea and southern Japan in 1962, as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. At that time, Asia was “the moon,” he said. He had been dodging military service and was on a circuitous path to becoming a doctor: college, rabbinical school, then medical school. (“I didn’t want to be an expert on the four hundred muscles of the jaw without seeing the whole person,” he told me.) But, after graduating from rabbinical school, he joined the Air Force, where he was given the option to serve as a private or volunteer as a chaplain.

After his service, he became the rabbi of a congregation in Queens, and got engaged. At the urging of a friend, he sent a wedding invitation to the famed Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement. Rabbi Tokayer was not a “chabadnik,” but he had met the rebbe and admired him. The rebbe declined, but invited Tokayer and his new wife to visit for a blessing. On that visit, according to Tokayer’s animated retelling, the rebbe “boxed me in a corner,” and said, “You’re going to Japan.” “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I just came to say hello.’ ” But the rebbe saw the worldly, college-educated rabbi as the perfect fit for a small but growing community of Jewish American professionals who had moved to Japan to capitalize on the country’s booming economy. In 1968, Tokayer and his wife made their way to Tokyo.

The idea to write a book about the Talmud for Japanese audiences wasn’t Tokayer’s, either. He credits Hideaki Kase, a Japanese writer he met while living in Tokyo. As they sat in the rabbi’s office, Tokayer recalls that they were repeatedly interrupted by phone calls: a Jewish couple that needed marital counselling, two Jewish businessmen having a dispute, a scholar in China with questions about anti-Semitism. According to Tokayer, Kase asked the young rabbi how he had learned to deal with such complicated issues. “I studied the Talmud,” the rabbi told him. Curious to learn more about the book, and confident that other Japanese people would be as well, Kase offered to introduce Tokayer to a publisher.

The resulting book was written over three days. Hoping to write an accessible, “non-denominational” summary of the wisdom of the Talmud, Tokayer prepared notes for himself that included “biographies of Talmudic rabbis, proverbs, puzzles, parables, Aesop’s Fables-like stories, legal issues, and Jewish ethics.” He also jotted down a couple relevant autobiographical anecdotes that could serve as context. He read his notes to an editor and a stenographer, with Kase serving as translator. If anyone didn’t like something, Tokayer said, “out it went. It was censored on the spot.” The team responded more positively to some things than others. They liked, for instance, the Talmudic teaching, as interpreted by Tokayer, that sex dreams about someone else’s wife are good, because a dream is merely a wish, and if you actually had sex with someone else’s wife you wouldn’t dream about it. (“Oh, that’s interesting. Let’s add that in there,” Tokayer remembers them saying.) He had only made it through the beginning of his notes when they stopped him and said that they had enough for a book.

According to Tokayer, “5,000 Years of Jewish Wisdom: Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures” received glowing reviews shortly after it was published, in 1971. Tokayer estimates that it has gone through seventy printings and sold about half a million copies in Japan; his most recent royalty check came in October. He went on to publish more than twenty books about Judaism in Japanese, covering such topics as the Torah, Jewish education, and Jewish humor.

Kase served as Tokayer’s translator for most of these books. Kase is now the chairman of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, which denies Japanese war crimes such as the Nanjing Massacre and the abduction of “comfort women” by Japanese soldiers. In their 1995 book, “Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype,” David G. Goodman, a professor of Japanese literature, and Masanori Miyazawa, a history professor from Japan, highlighted Tokayer’s dependency on Kase: “Tokayer cannot read his own work and does not always know what is in it.” With Kase “speaking through” Tokayer, they argue, some of Tokayer’s books “lent credence to the strangest myths and most stubborn stereotypes of Jews in Japan.”

Tokayer denies this, and says that, when he met him, Kase was not yet a revisionist, and had a “superb reputation” as a translator. He told me that it was possible Kase “sensationalized” aspects of his books, “in order to sell copies,” and acknowledged that someone browsing just the titles, such as “There Is No Education in Japan: The Jewish Secret of Educating Geniuses,” might mistakenly conclude that his books were “inflaming Jewish myths.” But he hadn’t heard of a single Japanese review to that effect, and said that most of his books, especially his earliest ones, are apolitical introductions to Jewish texts and culture. The interactions he’s had with Japanese readers have been consistently positive and wholesome. He remembers receiving a letter from one reader who told him that he was so engaged reading one of his books that he missed his bus stop. And he recounted that once, while walking down the aisle on a flight between Japan and the U.S., he noticed a Japanese passenger laughing hysterically at a book. When he asked the man what he was reading, they were both startled to realize that it was Tokayer’s book about Jewish humor, with a picture of Tokayer on the cover.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how “5,000 Years of Jewish Wisdom: Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures” migrated to South Korea and China. The earliest known South Korean edition was printed in 1974, by Tae Zang, a publishing house that appears to have shuttered in the early nineteen-nineties. In “the old days,” there were a lot of “black market” printing houses that published books without the consent of their authors, one publisher told me. By the late nineteen-seventies, friends of Tokayer who visited South Korea had returned with books that had covers suspiciously similar to his. Then, about fifteen years ago, in a bookstore in China, Tokayer was stunned to find illustrated versions of his Talmud stories in a series of children’s books promoted at the cash register. One story was about Rabbi Tokayer and his brother as children. “A personal story about me!” he told me, still astonished.

Between 2007 and 2009, Reverend Yong-soo Hyun, the man behind the Shema Education Institute, published, in six volumes, his own “official” version of the Korean Talmud. He sought to clean up (to “kosher,” as Tokayer put it) inaccuracies in the pirated books, and he asked Tokayer for help correcting certain details. To signal his version’s authority, he included a picture of himself with the rabbi, as well as a letter by Tokayer.

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. There were many versions to choose from, but I selected a 2006 edition that was “very popular,” according to a clerk at a bookstore in Seoul. The title was simply “Talmud,” and the listed author was Marvin Tokayer. Reading it, I felt like the last player in a game of telephone. The book was organized thematically into seven chapters. It consisted mostly of parables, but there was other content as well: first-person narratives, questions posed to the reader (“If you were the king in this story, which of these characters would you pick for your successor?”), and lists of one-sentence aphorisms (“Not increasing your knowledge is the same as decreasing it”). Topics ran the gamut from business ethics to sex advice.


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