Back in 2011, an article appeared on the web about South Korean school children studying the Talmud. The South Korean ambassador to Israel was quoted as saying, “Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates. We tried to understand, what is the secret of the Jewish people? The conclusion we arrived at is that you study the Talmud.”
The article was forwarded to me two years later because my daughter Sarah Jane had just moved to Seoul to teach English in a public school. I enthusiastically told her about it. Her response? It wasn’t true. None of the kids in her school knew anything about the Talmud, none of the other teachers had taught Talmud classes, and she had never seen a copy in a book store.
I chalked it up to yet another internet fantasy and forgot about it until yesterday, when the 2011 article was forwarded to me yet again.
I decided to do some digging, and discovered that a New Yorker writer named Ross Arbes had had the same idea. He determined that in the early 1970s there indeed had been a book called the Talmud in South Korea.
Arbes had the book translated into English. He found that it was an amalgation of stories; “Most of the stories in the book had origins in the Talmud. Others came from derivative commentary that has since been absorbed into the Talmud canon. One story was a Jewish joke, first published in the nineteen-thirties, about the complicated and sometimes contradictory nature of rabbinical interpretation.” Although his article is titled “How the Talmud Because a Best Seller in South Korea,” it turns out that the Korean version is nothing like the Jewish Talmud.
I also found a Reddit page where someone asked “Do many Koreans really read the Talmud?” The replies were scoffing. One Korean wrote, “Hahaha! There was a Talmud boom indeed. But like what, 10-20 years ago? And most of them, including me thought it was some kind of a life lesson book, not religious script.” Another wrote “I remember reading comic books based on stories from Talmud in the mid-90s.”
Which is the truth? Sarah Jane’s first-hand experience of living in Korea for two years? A brief article from 2011 that doesn’t have a byline? The Korean replies to a social media post? The New Yorker writer’s article?
Truth is a slippery thing. I don’t mean scientific truths; facts are facts, and so-called alternative facts are nothing but falsehoods. I’m thinking about the truth of a relationship, of an event, even of an institution, as seen by different people.
And when it comes to interpersonal truths, things become blurry. A man who I know wrote, “It’s complicated” when prompted by Facebook to list his relationship status. It is probably one of the most honest statements I’ve ever seen on social media.
This week’s Torah portion is about one such complicated relationship, where the truth is different to different people. It’s called Korach, after the leader of a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korach thought that he deserved to be in a leadership position, and to bolster his point he gathered 250 like-minded leaders to back him up. Moses disagreed. One was in charge, the other wanted to take over. They tussled verbally, and Moses asked God to intervene (spoiler alert: Korach lost).
In my congregation’s Torah study group this week, two people argued that Korach wasn’t in the wrong. They saw him as standing up for the little guy, speaking truth to power. It led me to think about the noun “rebel” — sometimes the rebels are the good guys, sometimes not. It depends on your point of view.
So what is the truth about the Talmud? I am inclined to believe Sarah Jane. She’s my daughter, for one thing. And she is a real person; that is, she’s not an anonymous writer or social media commenter, and the New Yorker writer equivocated.
Yes, there are two sides to every story, and often multiple versions of the same story. Which means there are multiple understandings of what is true. For me, I will listen respectfully to others’ truths and sometimes I will be swayed, and other times I will not. And most important, I will remain true to the Truths that I hold dearest — the truths that my tradition has given me, the truth that is Judaism, the truth that our time on this planet is limited and there is much to be done.