Oxford Professors discuss South Korean Talmud study at Oxford University Chabad Society

Monday, 13 June, 2011 - 5:45 pm

Noble.jpgOxford Professors discuss the reason for the study of the Talmud in South Korea at the Oxford University Chabad Society Shabbat dinner


Oxford University Chabad Society hosted two professors and experts on South Korea, including the UK Government advisor for South Korea and fellow of Balliol College, Professor Denis Noble, and South Korean representative of Oxford University and Professor at Seoul National University, Professor Sung Hee Kim, to explore the much reported phenomenon about the study of the Talmud in South Korea, as part of the national curriculum.


Professor Noble confirmed that it is true that children are brought up to study readings of the Talmud in Korean and that they call it Talmudu.


He explained a number of reasons for this phenomenon.


He said, South Koreans identify with Israel and Jewish history and therefore it is natural that they wish to study some of their most important works. To be clear, he said, South Koreans are not studying the intricate details of Jewish law, characteristic of analytical Talmud study, as can be found in the multi volume work, but they read the stories of the Talmud that contain some of the most profound values and ethics of Judaism.


A person in South Korea, he said, can pop down to the local corner shop and along with a pot of instant rice or dried noodles buy a copy of Stories from the Talmud. It is not rare, either, to come across book-vending machines stocked with classic works of Babylonian Judaism.


Talmud.jpgAccording to Professor Noble, the reasons why Korean children are taught Talmud is because Koreans and Jews both have a long history of oppression and surviving adversity with nothing but their own ingenuity to thank. There are no natural resources to speak of in Korea, so, like the Jews, all they can develop is their minds.


Dr. Kim said that South Koreans believe that Jews are very intelligent people. Jews have one of the highest percentages of Nobel Prize winners in the world. We want our children to all achieve this excellence. Dr. Kim explained that South Koreans, like Jews value education. She said that it is not uncommon for someone to sell their house to cover the university education of their children and children frequently study until midnight.


She said that it is due to this emulation that they study the Talmud.


Professor Noble who travels to South Korea and speaks Korean said that although most Koreans don’t know what it involves to be a Jew, anti-Jewish feeling is almost unthinkable in that part of the world.


Some of the similarities between South Korea and the Jews is related to recent history. In the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Qing Dynasty had to give up its role in Korea according to Article 1 of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which was concluded between China and Japan in 1895. That same year, Empress Myeongseong was assassinated by Japanese agents and the Japanese military occupation of Korea had begun.


In 1910, an already militarily occupied Korea was a forced party to the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, signed by Lee Wan-Yong, who was given the General Power of Attorney by the Emperor.


Over five million Koreans were conscripted for labour beginning in 1939, and tens of thousands of men were forced into Japan's military. Close to 400,000 Korean labourers lost their lives due to the war.  Approximately 200,000 girls and women, mostly from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. 


It is probable that the total genocide in East Asia during World War II equals the 6 million lost in the Holocaust. Roughly 7.5 million civilians died in China under Japanese occupation.


Professor Noble suggested another comparison between South Korea and the Jews. During the Japanese Colonial rule, 1895 to 1945, a systematic attempt had been made to eradicate Korean language and culture. Koreans were forced to take Japanese surnames, known as Soshi-kaimei. Traditional Korean culture suffered heavy losses, as numerous Korean cultural treasures were destroyed


Like Hebrew, the recovery over the last 60 years has been remarkable. Korean is a strong and vibrant language, Hangul is universally used, and South Korea has become a major industrialised democracy.


Rabbi Eli Brackman, director of the Chabad Society, hosted the event and gave a Talmudic example that in his view optimised the unique approach of Jewish wisdom.


Drawing on a section of the Talmud about a dialogue between Moses and G-d when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah he elaborated on this point.


When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Angels argued that Moses should not be the one to receive such an exalted spiritual wisdom; it should rather be given to the Angels on High. Moses was forced to persuade the Angels of his right to the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people.


This rational debate, arguing and questioning, rather than just accepting, pointed out Rabbi Brackman, is intrinsic to Jewish study. Secondly, the answer that Moses gave is also indicative of a Jewish approach to sublime ideas and scholarship in general. Moses argued that the Torah, despite its lofty Divine origin, is intended to elevate the most basic aspects of, rather than remain detached from, our existence, where good and evil resides and it is necessary to choose between them. Thus, the commandments 'Thou shall not kill', etc.


It is central to Jewish theology the need to combine lofty wisdom with the reality of the world. In the words of the Midrash, G-d desired a dwelling place in the physical world, necessitating us human beings to be in pursuit of lofty ideals and wisdom while being rooted in the world so as to elevate it.



Comments on: Oxford Professors discuss South Korean Talmud study at Oxford University Chabad Society

June Klein wrote...

Denis Noble and Sung Hee Kim, this was fascinating. It explains why the 3 of us automatically had a synergy which interestingly expanded to Salsa dancing and my panel with Bill Dutton at the oxford internet institute symposium. Looking forward to working with you. June Klein CEO Technology & Marketing Ventures Inc.

XRumerTest wrote...

Hello. And Bye.