Jewish Learning: Genius and Affluence? Maybe, but Certainly Insight and Meaning

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
President, Baltimore Board of Rabbis
Chaplain, Jewish Hospice Program of Howard County

It has been widely reported that Talmud is hot in South Korea, that everyone is studying it, and even that it is mandatory in Korean schools. I remain skeptical that any genuine Talmud study is transpiring in Korea — either in translation or thanks to Aramaic language classes — but the reasons given are intriguing.

Girl learningWe’re told that Koreans want to become geniuses like Jews. Yes, they think Jews are geniuses for two reasons. As explained by Korean ambassador to Israel Ma Young-Sam in an interview on Israeli TV, “We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews. Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields – literature, science and economics. This is a remarkable achievement. We tried to understand: What is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud… We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.” David M. Bader’s Jewish Haiku leaps immediately to mind:

Is one Nobel Prize

So much to ask from a child
After all I’ve done?

Mark Twain made a similar observation. He wrote: “[The Jews’] contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of [their] numbers.” (“Concerning The Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899)

It is further reported that Koreans believe that Jewish genius results not only in Nobel prizes, but that such prodigious intelligence generates vast wealth. Nobel laureates and affluence are a slam-dunk combination.

But wait, there’s more. We’re told that Koreans appreciate the ethical values running through Talmud, in particular learning, family, and hard work.

Some have claimed that the reports are erroneous: Koreans study only selected narrative excerpts from Talmud but not the intricate legal discussions. In other words, they study Talmud as one would read Aesop’s fables, mining it for stories and parables that teach valuable moral lessons.

As much as these reports might make us laugh — and they have certainly elicited laughter at our family dinner table — in a sense the Koreans have it right. Those who engage in serious study of sacred Jewish texts do exercise their minds, sharpen their intellects, and absorb admirable ethical values. No promises of Nobel Prizes and wealth, but Jewish learning can be life changing and life enhancing.

Commitment to learning has long marked our culture. Learning — for the sake of learning, Torah lish’ma — is a core Jewish value for many reasons. Jewish learning imparts priceless ethical, social, and communal values that enable us to improve the quality of our lives and make difficult moral decisions in an increasingly complex world. Jewish study gives us insight into ourselves so we can improve our relationships with others. Jewish learning helps us sort out our priorities so we can forge richer, more meaningful, and more satisfying lives. Jewish learning stimulates and challenges our intellects.

Come to think of it — Jewish learning is a lot like winning the lottery, except that it’s priceless, a guaranteed win, and you don’t have to pay tax on it.

The Baltimore Board of Rabbis invites you to learn with us at the 63rd annual Adult Institute of Jewish Studies, beginning October 18 at Beth El Congregation. For four consecutive Tuesday evenings — 7:30 to 9:15 pm — you can take two classes of your choice each evening from a wide variety of topics offered and taught by our community’s rabbis and faculty of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute of Towson University. The menu this year includes classes on Jewish philosophers and thinkers, history, spirituality, ideas and controversies, texts, and mystical practices. There’s something for everyone.

To find a complete listing of courses and registration materials, please go to http://baltboardofrabbis.org and click on “Adult Institute of Jewish Studies” in the right hand column.

This year, treat yourself to some quality Jewish learning and enjoy the pleasures and blessings that flow from it.

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