Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The Talmud in Korea, revisited

BACK IN THE NEWS: How the Talmud Became a Best-Seller in South Korea (Ross Arbes, The New Yorker). I noted this story when it was last in the media back in 2011. This article is much longer and more comprehensive. It's difficult to excerpt and worth reading in full, but here's a taste:
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.

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.

The stories and lessons that Tokayer had described to me, such as the one about adulterous sex dreams, were all there. Though sourced primarily from his first book about the Talmud, the stories were a best-of compilation from several of his books, he said, adding, “Whoever pirated that chose wisely.” Some errors had crept in: Rabbi Hillel moved to Israel at the age of forty, not twenty; Tokayer’s grandmother, not his grandfather, died in the Holocaust.

Tokayer could not believe that the book he had written nearly forty-five years earlier in Japan had achieved mainstream popularity in South Korea, that it was his book the Ambassador had been referring to on Israeli public television. But with every conversation I had and every bookstore I visited there, it became increasingly apparent that Rabbi Tokayer had unknowingly helped to create a movement thousands of miles away.