A guide for the (Christian) perplexed

A guide for the (Christian) perplexed

I tell Jews, ‘Buy two copies of the book: one for themselves and one for their Christian neighbors,’" said Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn about his newly released "The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians" (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, ‘008).

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn

Simultaneously dedicated "to the millions of Jews throughout the millennia who dreamed of Zion but were never privileged to live there," and "to Christians everywhere who understand the meaning of the Holy Land to the Covenant of Abraham," this slim volume takes readers on the journey that began with the biblical birth of the Jewish people around 1,700 BCE and concludes with Israel’s contemporary existential struggle and the Jewish people’s ongoing need to defend her.

"For 18 centuries [of exile], no Jew could have written a book like this," said the Rev. Dr. Kathleen Rusnak, spiritual leader of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Cresskill who has worked for years in the field of interfaith relations and frequently crosses paths with Korn. "At the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, this book is necessary," she continued in a recent interview. "Christians have only listened to their own voices, and it’s important that they listen to a Jewish voice about the connection to the land."

The book "documents the love and commitment of a people for a land — always emphasizing the Jewish biblical and historical rights to Israel — in a most engaging manner and without sacrificing accurate scholarship," wrote Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, a network of educational programs in Israel, in another tribute to Korn. "Anyone truly interested in understanding the Jewish connection to Israel will greatly benefit from this book."

In the first of four sections, Korn clarifies that connection through references to sacred texts, scholarly research, and literature describing the periods of Judaic reign in antiquity, the exilic experience, the early Zionist movement, the declaration of statehood in a post-Holocaust world, and the resulting and continuing political-religious turmoil. The final section, "The Future and the Hope," is a look at prospects for peace between Israel and her neighbors and a paean to what Korn envisions will be Israel’s elevated role in human history and among the nations of the world.

With a nod to his Christian readership, Korn writes, "A true understanding of Israel and its religious significance should bring Christians and Jews closer together," adding, "Today, both Christians and Jews are Middle Eastern minorities, considered dhimmis (second-class residents), and this common status makes them strategic allies with common challenges and a common message."

Herein lies Korn’s central plea for political support from the Christian community, the primary intended audience for "The Jewish Connection to Israel." The executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and editor of Meorot: A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse, Korn has spent a lifetime teaching Christians about Judaism from multiple perspectives that include the scholarly, the practical, the religious, and the political. That’s why when Jewish Lights publisher Stuart Matlin approached him with the project two years ago, Korn said, he readily accepted.

"How do you talk to Christians about Israel?" Korn wondered. "Israel has real enemies, and we have to know how to explain Israel and the justice of Israel to them."

These enemies, "certain Christian thinkers on the radical left, including those at the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem and the darlings of ultra-leftists in some Protestant churches, who propound the worst kind of anti-Zionism," said Korn, created the necessity for a book of this nature.

(According to its Website, "Sabeel is an ecumenical, grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians … inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ… [T]he word ‘sabeel’ is Arabic for ‘the way’ and also a ‘channel’ or ‘spring’ of life-giving water." The Jerusalem-based center serves Ramallah, Bethlehem, and surrounding areas, with a branch in Nazareth, serving the Galilee.)

Careful to note that the majority of Christian leaders today are not anti-Zionist but rather sympathetic to Israel, an outgrowth of the Catholic Church’s 1965 declaration, Nostra Aetate, that redefined the Christian relationship with non-Christian faiths, Korn said, nonetheless, "we have to explain Israel to them correctly, so anti-Zionists won’t get to them. We need to arm them against left-wing ideologues and anti-Israel propaganda and ideology."

But Korn makes clear he is writing for Christians in pews as well as in pulpits, laity who may have more difficulty than their leadership understanding the theological and historical underpinnings of contemporary Jewish ties to Israel.

In Christianity, Korn noted, there is no equivalent tie to land. Christian faith, said Korn, "transcends geographical limits. They have a connection to holy places, but there is no notion of people-hood in Christianity."

"Christians thought that Judaism is dead, finished," agreed Rusnak. "Christians never learned about Talmud, about Mishnah, about how Judaism grew and deepened [in exile]. I know that Christian laypeople just do not know about these 18 centuries and don’t realize that Judaism formed into rabbinic Judaism during the exile," adapting itself to the reality of a diaspora existence.

By contrast, Korn said, Jews understand that "the land is the stage where ideal Jewish life plays out, because it is where we as a people can live out our highest values, the biblical values of [God’s] covenant [with Abraham]. If we really read the Torah honestly, it’s a story of us as a people, not as individuals, and we can only manifest holiness as a people when we have our own sovereignty. The public face of the Jewish people is Israel, not the diaspora, despite the enormous contributions of individual Jews [regardless of where they may live.]."

Calling Israel a "wonderful religious opportunity and experiment that has transformed Jewish culture, pride, and Judaism," Korn acknowledged how challenging it has been for the Jewish people to create a modern society that reflects biblical ideals amid the current political reality. "How do you deal with social justice as a people, how do you fight a war, what kinds of tzedakah do you allow, how do you treat a stranger?" he asked. Answers to such questions, he contends, lie in Israel’s existence as a sovereign state.

And, suggested Rusnak, validation of Israel and how Israelis handle these challenges is also to be found in what she believes Korn has accomplished with this book: "debunking the myth" popular among mainline Christians that Jews have simply moved in and taken over an Arab country, land to which they have had no organic or continuous connection.

"Christians are so pro-Palestinian," Rusnak charged, and therefore, do not comprehend that a Jewish state "never meant the exclusion of others. The majority [of Jews] want this to work, but instead of living out the ideals of the covenant, Jews have been forced to put energy towards just survival."

Korn will discuss "The Jewish Connection to Israel" at the Jewish Center of Teaneck on Saturday, May 10, when he will be the scholar-in-residence, and give another talk about the book, at a site not yet announced, on Sunday, May 11. That talk is being sponsored by the Teaneck Clergy Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Jews can learn, too

Although written primarily for a Christian readership, "The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians" is, according to its author, "very informative for Jews as well."

Not all Jews understand why the land is so important a part of the covenant with Abraham in the development of the Jewish faith and Jewish people-hood, said Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn. An Orthodox rabbi, Korn continued, "Even Orthodox Jews don’t understand what’s so important about Jerusalem, what’s not possible in Brooklyn or Teaneck."

In fact, explained Korn, Orthodox Jews were the ones to initially raise objections to the Zionist enterprise, although today "only a fringe refuse[s] to accept [the notion] that pragmatic and practical forces at work in Jewish history [allow] a Jewish return to Zion without messianic intervention."

In case biblical and rabbinic texts and the arc of Jewish history aren’t enough to convince Jewish readers to cherish their connection to the land, in the last several chapters of his book (Parts III and IV: "Returning Home" and "The Future and the Hope"), Korn offers them a concrete rationale, based on current realities and future possibilities: the moral high ground Israel occupies in the ongoing Mideast conflict. Three arguments, he asserted, make that claim plausible.

First, said Korn, "We try to fight according to international principles of just war, trying not to target innocent people. That’s the [Israel Defense Forces] doctrine, but not [the guiding principle of Palestinian] terrorists" who lob rockets into Israeli cities and carry out suicide attacks in the middle of crowded pizzerias at lunchtime. Second, since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel has taken in and settled all Jewish refugees forced from their homes in Arab lands, while, he noted, "Arabs have kept Palestinian refugees in camps for political purposes"; and finally, Israel’s "policy has always been to compromise, while Arabs have repeatedly refused negotiation and peace. With few exceptions, Arab leaders refuse to acknowledge Israel’s existence.

"It is a war situation there, and people get killed [in wars], unfortunately," Korn acknowledged. "[But], even though horrible things happen on both sides, we have the moral high ground."

–Jane Calem Rosen

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