As a rabbi living in Jerusalem, I appreciate being an observer to Gerald McDermott’s deliberations over internal Christian theology regarding Judaism and the Jewish people. Of course, I am acutely mindful of the largely adversarial past between Christianity and Judaism in which Jews were humiliated and persecuted as a result of Christian Adversus Iudaeos teachings. So I have vital interests in the discussion, even as an observer. In addition, the implications for Jews and Christians living together now and in the future are far reaching.

Simply stated, McDermott’s essay is remarkable: stunning, fertile and perhaps even redemptive. Stunning, in its understanding, boldness and sympathy for my faith and my people. It is no exaggeration to say that Jews have waited almost 1,900 years to hear a Christian theologian talk this way about Jews and Judaism. Fertile, in laying foundations for potential increased theological understanding, appreciation and cooperation. Gone from McDermott’s post-supersessionist Christianity is the toxic old Augustinian polemic of Christianity vs. Judaism, universalism vs. particularism, mercy vs. justice and grace vs. law. The result is a noteworthy compatibility in how believing Jews and Christians can read the Bible and view sacred history—even while they must continue to disagree over the fundamental issues of the messiahship of Jesus, the Trinity and the Incarnation. And redemptive, in pointing to possible partnership that could help realize the dream of God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants, a covenant whose purpose is universal human flourishing nourished by God’s love for all His[1] human children.

I would like to comment on three points that McDermott touches on in his essay: the universalism/particularism of Judaism as reflected in God’s covenant with my people, the Jewishness of Jesus, and the role of the Land of Israel, hoping to clarify how Jews understand the Bible, their covenant with God and themselves as an Am Qadosh—a unique people with a holy mission.

Rabbis and Jewish religious thinkers understand that Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah) pose a grand paradox: God is the creator of the entire universe and all humanity, yet the Creator of all seems to make a sharp turn in chapter 12 of Genesis to “choose” one particular people (the Jews) and one particular place (the Land of Canaan/Israel). In Exodus God contracts a particularistic covenant (the Sinaitic laws) with that people. And from Genesis 12 until the end of the Torah, the Bible focuses almost exclusively on this small people and their history, worship, faithfulness and disobedience. In this narrative, God and Israel seem so lovesick with each other that they appear to leave the universe and the rest of humanity behind.

What has happened to the God of the cosmos? Has the Divine “gone ethnic” and forgotten about his other children?

It is true that most of the content and commandments of the Sinai covenant are particularistic. Yet Jews understand that the purpose of the covenant and the Jewish mission is universal. From the covenant’s very first articulation, God chose Abraham’s descendants to be messengers of God’s presence, spirit and values to the entire world: “Be a blessing; through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3) This mission is the very reason the Jewish people were created. So important is this universal mission that it appears five times in the Book of Genesis alone and is stressed when the covenant is bequeathed to Abraham’s son, Isaac (Gen. 26:4), and to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen. 28:13-14). God also emphasized it to the entire Jewish people immediately before revelation at Sinai: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Jewish priests are people who are blessed and who, in turn, extend God’s blessings to others. And if the entire Jewish people is a “kingdom of priests”, it can only be the remainder of humanity that the Sinai covenant beckons the Jewish people to bless.

Later, the universal purpose of the Jewish people is reiterated time and again by the Jewish prophets. Isaiah stresses in God’s name that Jews are “God’s witnesses” to the world (43:10), and a light unto the nations” (42:6, 49:6). The Temple is supposed to be a place of prayer for all people (56:7), and the Jewish capital of Jerusalem is destined to be the place from which the Word of God will reach all people (2:3). The Jewish people and their homeland, then, are supposed to be the source from which the knowledge and spirit of God radiate outward to all humanity.

A number of prominent rabbis understood Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism, one emanating from Jerusalem as an instrument for—but not a replacement of—the Jewish people fulfilling its divine purpose in sacred history. With the emergence of modern non-supersessionist theologies like McDermott’s and even “soft” supersessionist ones, Judaism and Christianity can cease being bitter rivals over God’s blessings and begin being compatible partners to fulfill the covenantal dream of the Bible. I add that Jews should have no problem acknowledging the theological validity of this kind of Christianity, since the ancient rabbis taught that there were non-Jewish religions that are valid for gentiles, whose righteous worshippers have “a share in the World to Come”, i.e. salvation. In the words of one Hasidic master, “God employs many messengers.”

When I read the New Testament for the first time as a young yeshiva student, it seemed all too familiar. I had heard so much of it before. The content, style, images, inferences and parables of Jesus belonged squarely in the classic literature of the Jewish sages that all rabbinical students study so diligently. Professor David Flusser, an important 20th century Israeli scholar, did a study of Jesus’ statements and found that more than 80% of them had their source in the standard rabbinic discourse of the 1st century. McDermott was certainly correct in concluding that Jesus was closely connected to the Judaism of his day. Jesus was not only born a Jew: He was also schooled in the rabbinic traditions and discussions of his day. He was circumcised as a sign of entry into the Jewish covenant, he celebrated the Sabbath on the 7th day of the week (rather than the 1st) when he desisted from creative work as per rabbinic interpretation, made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem on Jewish festivals with other Jews, observed Jewish dietary laws and was part of the religious life of the Jewish community.

Not only Paul was a Pharisee—so was Jesus. Whatever disputes Jesus had with some Jews, scribes or Pharisees were internal disagreements, common in Pharisaic circles. They were disagreements between one Jew and another Jew over how to interpret and live the Torah, not polemics between Christianity and Judaism as different religions. His critique of the hypocrisy of some Pharisees was justified, but was not a critique of Pharisaic Judaism per se. Then, as now, hypocrisy was a human failing found in all religious circles and that invites legitimate criticism.

McDermott reminded us that some passages of the Beatitudes come from Psalm 37, written by (the Jewish) King David and which Jews revere until today. Given the above, this should not surprise us.

Another critically important example of Jesus’ thorough immersion in Pharisaic rabbinic culture comes to mind: A rabbi named Hillel was the most influential teacher in Judea when Jesus was born. His famous Jewish teaching immortalized in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a is:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah. The rest is the commentary; now go and study."

Obviously the first part of this statement is a negative formulation of the Golden Rule found in Lev. 19:18, and Hillel elevated it to be the all-encompassing principle of the Torah.

Now consider what Jesus teaches in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Master, which is the great commandment in of the Torah? Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.On these two commandments the entire Torah and the prophets hang”.

And approximately 100 years after the death of Jesus, Rabbi Akiva was the towering figure in the Pharisaic culture of Judea. Before the Romans executed him in Jerusalem, he is reputed to have said,

"All my life I was concerned about the verse, 'You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis have expounded “with all your soul to signify “even if He takes away your soul.” And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? Now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?"(Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61b)

Not surprisingly Rabbi Akiva is also famous for saying,

‘“Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the fundamental rule of the Torah.” (Rabbinic midrash Sifra, Kedoshim 4)

The mutuality is obvious. It is not important whether it was the rabbis or Jesus who said these remarkable things first. Clearly both Jesus and the rabbis were nurtured by the same theological tradition. Their frames of reference, values, and spiritual worlds are nearly identical. Once we get passed the idea that Christianity and Judaism are a zero-sum game in which Christianity has replaced Judaism, Jews and Christians can continue to drink together from that spiritual well. And we can learn much from each other about the seemingly endless lessons of that tradition.

Finally, McDermott raised the issue of the meaning of the Land in the Bible’s covenantal promise. Thinking about this subject seems long overdue for post-supersessionist Christians. I would go so far as to claim that the spiritualization, dismissal or minimization of the Land promise in the Bible are the last vestiges of the old Christian supersessionism. (In point of fact, the elimination of the Land as essential to the covenant can be traced to the early hard supersessionist theologies of Origen and Augustine in the 3rd and 4th centuries.)

I see no way to coherently assert that God’s covenant with the Jews is irrevocable and continue to deny the theological value of the Land promised in the biblical covenant. McDermott has shown that in the Bible the Land is constitutive of the covenant, and dominant in its articulation. And how is it logically possible to consistently interpret the covenantal Land as a de-hypostasized spiritualized entity in light of the Bible’s numerous detailed prescriptions about the borders of the Land, how to plant and harvest the Land, to which populations the Land’s produce belongs, when that produce is prohibited, and how to divide the Land between the Jewish tribes? These commandments are only applicable to physical land. If these parts of the covenant have not been revoked or superseded, it makes no hermeneutical, theological or logical sense to spiritualize the real Land away. To speak of the covenant without the dimension of the physical Land is to fundamentally distort the Bible’s covenant, similar to the way that chopping off the arms and legs of a person renders him different in a most significant way from the person he was when he possessed his limbs.

Believing Jews have always understood the critical value of the Land in God’s covenant. Even anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews believe this, denying theological legitimacy only to the political entity of the State of Israel. The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel—whether in the past or in the form of the modern Jewish return—was always essential to a coherent Jewish covenantal theology that hewed closely to the biblical text. And today, not only Prof. McDermott and Evangelical theologians acknowledge this intrinsic connection, but so do some Catholic theologians, as Gavin D’Costa’s theological argument for “minimal Catholic Zionism” attests. This nexus should be analyzed more by both Jewish and Christian thinkers.

The fact that the covenantal promise refers to empirical land has enormous implications for how Christians understand Jews and their identity. It leads to seeing Jews as actual human beings in need of all the basics of physical life and security that every individual needs—in contrast to being mere theological categories as many traditional Christian theologians so often regarded them. Moreover, we are not only individuals, but also a national and cultural collective, and as such we have the right to self-determination in a home where we are able to develop our values and culture. In other words, we have a right to a place where we can live freely and securely as a people. This, I believe, is how the Bible understood the covenantal Land: It is a means to the end of living covenantal values and the place where Jews can strive to be the holy people that the Bible beckons them to be. The Land, sovereignty, and the Jewish polity on the Land are not ends in themselves.

There is one sense in which it is important to disentangle the Jewish people from its present polity. While the covenant ensures the right of the Jewish people to the Land, that right should not be confused with any specific policy, action or government of the State of Israel. Fair criticism of Israel’s policies are theologically and morally legitimate. (Goodness knows, Israelis engage overtime in such criticisms.) In contrast, however, denial of the right of the Jewish State to exist is not.

Acknowledging that Jews have the right to return to their covenantal homeland does not preclude dividing the Land with the Palestinians for the sake of enduring peace and security—which after all are also critical religious and covenantal values. In other words, the conviction that there is a theological dimension to Zionism need not absolutize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and close the possibility of compromise on the Land. I and many other religious Zionists support territorial compromise and a two-state solution when it will lead to stable peace and security for Jews and Palestinians. This solution would go far in realizing as much justice as is possible for both these troubled peoples.

Nor does a theological understanding of Zionism and the modern Jewish return to the Land necessarily commit us to any historical messianic determinism. The modern Jewish return to its biblical homeland merely makes the messianic era possible, not necessary.  Whether the return produces a messianic era depends entirely on us and our behavior, that is, whether we choose to live out the biblical values of holiness, moral integrity, justice and compassion toward others.

In sum, there is remarkable agreement between Gerald McDermott’s Christian understanding of the Bible and that of Jewish theology on the issues of the role and permanence of the Jewish people and their faith, the enduring validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and its commandments, and the role of the Land of Israel in God’s covenantal plan for sacred history.

Prof. McDermott’s “Rethinking Israel” immediately reminded me of a beautiful biblical commentary by the 19th century Rabbi Naftali Berlin on the fateful biblical reunion between Esau (who represents Christianity in rabbinic tradition) and his fraternal twin, Jacob, who is interpreted as the symbol of the Jewish people. Genesis 32:4 indicates that Esau “fell on his brother’s neck and kissed him.” Some rabbinic commentators contend that Esau’s kiss was insincere and that he continued hating Jacob. However Rabbi Berlin took a different tack. Since the Bible also tells us that the brothers wept, he comments that,

“Both of them wept, which teaches us that Jacob’s compassion was also awakened for his brother Esau and he loved him at that moment. And in the future when the descendants of Esau out of a pure spirit recognize the descendants of Jacob and their virtues, we also will recognize that Esau is indeed our brother.”

Rabbi Berlin lived in a time of hostile relations between the Church and Jews. He could only dream of a future reconciliation. Gerald McDermott’s and other Christian “rethinking” of Israel indicates that we might be living in a time when Rabbi Berlin’s noble dream is in the process of being realized.

If Jews and Christian can understand, appreciate and make peace with each other after 1,900 years of hostility, then peace between any two peoples on earth is possible. That is the covenantal dream that God showed the Patriarchs, that was carried forward by the biblical Jewish prophets and by religious Jews through the millennia.

It is we human beings who will determine whether God’s covenantal dream is fulfilled.  As Genesis asks us, “Be a blessing.”


Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn was Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Jerusalem and former professor of Jewish philosophy. For the past 20 years he has toiled in the vineyard of Jewish-Christian relations in the hope that he can help to make the future better than the past.


[1] I use male language in reference to God as a linguistic convenience only, and do not want to impute any gender or gender preference to God. In Judaism, God is beyond all gender.

Next Conversation

As a rabbi living in Jerusalem, I appreciate being an observer to Gerald McDermott’s deliberations over internal Christian theology regarding Judaism and the Jewish people. Of course, I am acutely mindful of the largely adversarial past between Christianity and Judaism in which Jews were humiliated and persecuted as a result of Christian Adversus Iudaeos teachings. So I have vital interests in the discussion, even as an observer. In addition, the implications for Jews and Christians living together now and in the future are far reaching.

Simply stated, McDermott’s essay is remarkable: stunning, fertile and perhaps even redemptive. Stunning, in its understanding, boldness and sympathy for my faith and my people. It is no exaggeration to say that Jews have waited almost 1,900 years to hear a Christian theologian talk this way about Jews and Judaism. Fertile, in laying foundations for potential increased theological understanding, appreciation and cooperation. Gone from McDermott’s post-supersessionist Christianity is the toxic old Augustinian polemic of Christianity vs. Judaism, universalism vs. particularism, mercy vs. justice and grace vs. law. The result is a noteworthy compatibility in how believing Jews and Christians can read the Bible and view sacred history—even while they must continue to disagree over the fundamental issues of the messiahship of Jesus, the Trinity and the Incarnation. And redemptive, in pointing to possible partnership that could help realize the dream of God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants, a covenant whose purpose is universal human flourishing nourished by God’s love for all His[1] human children.

I would like to comment on three points that McDermott touches on in his essay: the universalism/particularism of Judaism as reflected in God’s covenant with my people, the Jewishness of Jesus, and the role of the Land of Israel, hoping to clarify how Jews understand the Bible, their covenant with God and themselves as an Am Qadosh—a unique people with a holy mission.

Rabbis and Jewish religious thinkers understand that Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah) pose a grand paradox: God is the creator of the entire universe and all humanity, yet the Creator of all seems to make a sharp turn in chapter 12 of Genesis to “choose” one particular people (the Jews) and one particular place (the Land of Canaan/Israel). In Exodus God contracts a particularistic covenant (the Sinaitic laws) with that people. And from Genesis 12 until the end of the Torah, the Bible focuses almost exclusively on this small people and their history, worship, faithfulness and disobedience. In this narrative, God and Israel seem so lovesick with each other that they appear to leave the universe and the rest of humanity behind.

What has happened to the God of the cosmos? Has the Divine “gone ethnic” and forgotten about his other children?

It is true that most of the content and commandments of the Sinai covenant are particularistic. Yet Jews understand that the purpose of the covenant and the Jewish mission is universal. From the covenant’s very first articulation, God chose Abraham’s descendants to be messengers of God’s presence, spirit and values to the entire world: “Be a blessing; through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3) This mission is the very reason the Jewish people were created. So important is this universal mission that it appears five times in the Book of Genesis alone and is stressed when the covenant is bequeathed to Abraham’s son, Isaac (Gen. 26:4), and to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen. 28:13-14). God also emphasized it to the entire Jewish people immediately before revelation at Sinai: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Jewish priests are people who are blessed and who, in turn, extend God’s blessings to others. And if the entire Jewish people is a “kingdom of priests”, it can only be the remainder of humanity that the Sinai covenant beckons the Jewish people to bless.

Later, the universal purpose of the Jewish people is reiterated time and again by the Jewish prophets. Isaiah stresses in God’s name that Jews are “God’s witnesses” to the world (43:10), and a light unto the nations” (42:6, 49:6). The Temple is supposed to be a place of prayer for all people (56:7), and the Jewish capital of Jerusalem is destined to be the place from which the Word of God will reach all people (2:3). The Jewish people and their homeland, then, are supposed to be the source from which the knowledge and spirit of God radiate outward to all humanity.

A number of prominent rabbis understood Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism, one emanating from Jerusalem as an instrument for—but not a replacement of—the Jewish people fulfilling its divine purpose in sacred history. With the emergence of modern non-supersessionist theologies like McDermott’s and even “soft” supersessionist ones, Judaism and Christianity can cease being bitter rivals over God’s blessings and begin being compatible partners to fulfill the covenantal dream of the Bible. I add that Jews should have no problem acknowledging the theological validity of this kind of Christianity, since the ancient rabbis taught that there were non-Jewish religions that are valid for gentiles, whose righteous worshippers have “a share in the World to Come”, i.e. salvation. In the words of one Hasidic master, “God employs many messengers.”

When I read the New Testament for the first time as a young yeshiva student, it seemed all too familiar. I had heard so much of it before. The content, style, images, inferences and parables of Jesus belonged squarely in the classic literature of the Jewish sages that all rabbinical students study so diligently. Professor David Flusser, an important 20th century Israeli scholar, did a study of Jesus’ statements and found that more than 80% of them had their source in the standard rabbinic discourse of the 1st century. McDermott was certainly correct in concluding that Jesus was closely connected to the Judaism of his day. Jesus was not only born a Jew: He was also schooled in the rabbinic traditions and discussions of his day. He was circumcised as a sign of entry into the Jewish covenant, he celebrated the Sabbath on the 7th day of the week (rather than the 1st) when he desisted from creative work as per rabbinic interpretation, made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem on Jewish festivals with other Jews, observed Jewish dietary laws and was part of the religious life of the Jewish community.

Not only Paul was a Pharisee—so was Jesus. Whatever disputes Jesus had with some Jews, scribes or Pharisees were internal disagreements, common in Pharisaic circles. They were disagreements between one Jew and another Jew over how to interpret and live the Torah, not polemics between Christianity and Judaism as different religions. His critique of the hypocrisy of some Pharisees was justified, but was not a critique of Pharisaic Judaism per se. Then, as now, hypocrisy was a human failing found in all religious circles and that invites legitimate criticism.

McDermott reminded us that some passages of the Beatitudes come from Psalm 37, written by (the Jewish) King David and which Jews revere until today. Given the above, this should not surprise us.

Another critically important example of Jesus’ thorough immersion in Pharisaic rabbinic culture comes to mind: A rabbi named Hillel was the most influential teacher in Judea when Jesus was born. His famous Jewish teaching immortalized in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a is:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah. The rest is the commentary; now go and study."

Obviously the first part of this statement is a negative formulation of the Golden Rule found in Lev. 19:18, and Hillel elevated it to be the all-encompassing principle of the Torah.

Now consider what Jesus teaches in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Master, which is the great commandment in of the Torah? Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.On these two commandments the entire Torah and the prophets hang”.

And approximately 100 years after the death of Jesus, Rabbi Akiva was the towering figure in the Pharisaic culture of Judea. Before the Romans executed him in Jerusalem, he is reputed to have said,

"All my life I was concerned about the verse, 'You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis have expounded “with all your soul to signify “even if He takes away your soul.” And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? Now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?"(Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61b)

Not surprisingly Rabbi Akiva is also famous for saying,

‘“Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the fundamental rule of the Torah.” (Rabbinic midrash Sifra, Kedoshim 4)

The mutuality is obvious. It is not important whether it was the rabbis or Jesus who said these remarkable things first. Clearly both Jesus and the rabbis were nurtured by the same theological tradition. Their frames of reference, values, and spiritual worlds are nearly identical. Once we get passed the idea that Christianity and Judaism are a zero-sum game in which Christianity has replaced Judaism, Jews and Christians can continue to drink together from that spiritual well. And we can learn much from each other about the seemingly endless lessons of that tradition.

Finally, McDermott raised the issue of the meaning of the Land in the Bible’s covenantal promise. Thinking about this subject seems long overdue for post-supersessionist Christians. I would go so far as to claim that the spiritualization, dismissal or minimization of the Land promise in the Bible are the last vestiges of the old Christian supersessionism. (In point of fact, the elimination of the Land as essential to the covenant can be traced to the early hard supersessionist theologies of Origen and Augustine in the 3rd and 4th centuries.)

I see no way to coherently assert that God’s covenant with the Jews is irrevocable and continue to deny the theological value of the Land promised in the biblical covenant. McDermott has shown that in the Bible the Land is constitutive of the covenant, and dominant in its articulation. And how is it logically possible to consistently interpret the covenantal Land as a de-hypostasized spiritualized entity in light of the Bible’s numerous detailed prescriptions about the borders of the Land, how to plant and harvest the Land, to which populations the Land’s produce belongs, when that produce is prohibited, and how to divide the Land between the Jewish tribes? These commandments are only applicable to physical land. If these parts of the covenant have not been revoked or superseded, it makes no hermeneutical, theological or logical sense to spiritualize the real Land away. To speak of the covenant without the dimension of the physical Land is to fundamentally distort the Bible’s covenant, similar to the way that chopping off the arms and legs of a person renders him different in a most significant way from the person he was when he possessed his limbs.

Believing Jews have always understood the critical value of the Land in God’s covenant. Even anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews believe this, denying theological legitimacy only to the political entity of the State of Israel. The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel—whether in the past or in the form of the modern Jewish return—was always essential to a coherent Jewish covenantal theology that hewed closely to the biblical text. And today, not only Prof. McDermott and Evangelical theologians acknowledge this intrinsic connection, but so do some Catholic theologians, as Gavin D’Costa’s theological argument for “minimal Catholic Zionism” attests. This nexus should be analyzed more by both Jewish and Christian thinkers.

The fact that the covenantal promise refers to empirical land has enormous implications for how Christians understand Jews and their identity. It leads to seeing Jews as actual human beings in need of all the basics of physical life and security that every individual needs—in contrast to being mere theological categories as many traditional Christian theologians so often regarded them. Moreover, we are not only individuals, but also a national and cultural collective, and as such we have the right to self-determination in a home where we are able to develop our values and culture. In other words, we have a right to a place where we can live freely and securely as a people. This, I believe, is how the Bible understood the covenantal Land: It is a means to the end of living covenantal values and the place where Jews can strive to be the holy people that the Bible beckons them to be. The Land, sovereignty, and the Jewish polity on the Land are not ends in themselves.

There is one sense in which it is important to disentangle the Jewish people from its present polity. While the covenant ensures the right of the Jewish people to the Land, that right should not be confused with any specific policy, action or government of the State of Israel. Fair criticism of Israel’s policies are theologically and morally legitimate. (Goodness knows, Israelis engage overtime in such criticisms.) In contrast, however, denial of the right of the Jewish State to exist is not.

Acknowledging that Jews have the right to return to their covenantal homeland does not preclude dividing the Land with the Palestinians for the sake of enduring peace and security—which after all are also critical religious and covenantal values. In other words, the conviction that there is a theological dimension to Zionism need not absolutize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and close the possibility of compromise on the Land. I and many other religious Zionists support territorial compromise and a two-state solution when it will lead to stable peace and security for Jews and Palestinians. This solution would go far in realizing as much justice as is possible for both these troubled peoples.

Nor does a theological understanding of Zionism and the modern Jewish return to the Land necessarily commit us to any historical messianic determinism. The modern Jewish return to its biblical homeland merely makes the messianic era possible, not necessary.  Whether the return produces a messianic era depends entirely on us and our behavior, that is, whether we choose to live out the biblical values of holiness, moral integrity, justice and compassion toward others.

In sum, there is remarkable agreement between Gerald McDermott’s Christian understanding of the Bible and that of Jewish theology on the issues of the role and permanence of the Jewish people and their faith, the enduring validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and its commandments, and the role of the Land of Israel in God’s covenantal plan for sacred history.

Prof. McDermott’s “Rethinking Israel” immediately reminded me of a beautiful biblical commentary by the 19th century Rabbi Naftali Berlin on the fateful biblical reunion between Esau (who represents Christianity in rabbinic tradition) and his fraternal twin, Jacob, who is interpreted as the symbol of the Jewish people. Genesis 32:4 indicates that Esau “fell on his brother’s neck and kissed him.” Some rabbinic commentators contend that Esau’s kiss was insincere and that he continued hating Jacob. However Rabbi Berlin took a different tack. Since the Bible also tells us that the brothers wept, he comments that,

“Both of them wept, which teaches us that Jacob’s compassion was also awakened for his brother Esau and he loved him at that moment. And in the future when the descendants of Esau out of a pure spirit recognize the descendants of Jacob and their virtues, we also will recognize that Esau is indeed our brother.”

Rabbi Berlin lived in a time of hostile relations between the Church and Jews. He could only dream of a future reconciliation. Gerald McDermott’s and other Christian “rethinking” of Israel indicates that we might be living in a time when Rabbi Berlin’s noble dream is in the process of being realized.

If Jews and Christian can understand, appreciate and make peace with each other after 1,900 years of hostility, then peace between any two peoples on earth is possible. That is the covenantal dream that God showed the Patriarchs, that was carried forward by the biblical Jewish prophets and by religious Jews through the millennia.

It is we human beings who will determine whether God’s covenantal dream is fulfilled.  As Genesis asks us, “Be a blessing.”


Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn was Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Jerusalem and former professor of Jewish philosophy. For the past 20 years he has toiled in the vineyard of Jewish-Christian relations in the hope that he can help to make the future better than the past.


[1] I use male language in reference to God as a linguistic convenience only, and do not want to impute any gender or gender preference to God. In Judaism, God is beyond all gender.

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