On Thursday, March 23, Regent University hosted a symposium on the subject of “The Theology of Land: Why is a specific land important to God’s universal purposes?” Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, the executive director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish–Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Jerusalem, organized the symposium in cooperation with the Regent School of Divinity.
In a recent podcast, Rabbi Wolicki explained.
“God’s purpose is for the whole world to believe in Him and the nation of Israel was supposed to spread the light of faith to all the nations of the world,” he said. “So why didn’t he send us all over the world, scattered among the people, to spread God’s light wherever we are? Why is a particular land important for universal purposes? That’s the question.”
At the symposium, the question was posed to Orthodox Jewish rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm, Professor Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University, and Christian professors Dr. Gerald McDermott, former dean at Beeson Seminary, and Dr. Darrell Bock, the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Dallas Theological Seminary.
“This type of conference was groundbreaking,” Rabbi Wolicki explained to Israel365 News. “This was a major event in Jewish-Christian relations. This event brought together two prominent Orthodox Jewish intellectuals and two prominent Christian academics, at Regent University, one of the premier evangelical colleges. They devoted the day to talking about Israel and sharing our theologies on the matter.”
The dialogue was so significant to both sides that at the conclusion of the symposium, it was agreed to make it an annual event.
“Despite the growth of Christian Zionism, the world of academia, both Christian and Jewish, has been left behind,” Rabbi Wolicki said. “Academics have not been engaged in the same way. Going forward, the CJCUC will work to have more meaningful engagement between Jewish and Christian academics, and bring the meta topic of Israel more front and center in the conversation on Christian seminary and college campuses.”
Rabbi Wolicki explained that the symposium was sponsored in part by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, founded by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in 1983.
“The conference was named the Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein Memorial Symposium because engaging Christian academia was something that he cared deeply about near the end of his life,” Rabbi Wolicki said.
Rabbi Berman compared the symposium to a personal experience he had while serving in the IDF.
“I recall that we were once on patrol on the border when we crossed tracks with a jeep from another unit also on patrol,” he related. “None of us knew anyone from the other unit, but there was an immediate bond of camaraderie in the middle of that night, as we were bonded by the common cause of defending our country from hostile enemies nearby.”
“And so it was at the symposium. For me as a Jewish scholar and a rabbi, the encounter with the Christian scholars there — “the other unit” — engendered the same sense of camaraderie. Here we all were joined by our religious and spiritual commitment to defend the State of Israel from its detractors, all committed to a high view of Scripture in an environment of secular skepticism.”
Dr. Bock spoke enthusiastically about the interfaith dialogue.
“I think there is great value in dialogues like these where there are significant shared values and various angles given to a key topic,” he told Israel365 News. “Both what we share and where we differ becomes clear but in a context where there is respectful discussion as we think together about how to address people who do not even share what we share in terms of approach.”
More specifically, Dr. Bock emphasized that the dialogue produced meaningful answers.
“The amount of significant overlap we share in thinking through why Israel is important in God’s plan and in our world was vividly displayed in our conversation,” he said. “That was significant in a world where anti-Semitism is common if not growing in intensity.”
“Also there was time given to understanding how within each of our groups, some of these same tensions exist and why.,° he added. “So we became more aware of one another in ways that are hard to determine without such gatherings. Important to all of this was considering how to communicate with someone who may not appreciate why Israel is important regardless of their religious or ethnic background.”
Rabbi Lamm emphasized that a Bible-based Christian-Jewish dialogue was essentially American.
“If you wish to understand the American experiment—its origins and growth; its culture and institutions; its challenges and triumphs—you simply must have an intimate familiarity with Biblical texts and ideas,” Rabbi Lamm said. “If the Constitution is our legal founding document, then the Bible has been our moral founding document. This is essential to recall as we look to our nation’s future. For this country to heal its wounds, and for ‘we the people’ to recover a sense of shared values, purpose, and destiny, it is time to re-discover the ancient wisdom that can inspire us to be better.”
“The first step in doing so is to retrace our steps to the narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean that bequeathed this tradition of wisdom to the world,” Rabbi Lamm said. “Why did the Bible’s story begin here? Why did God Himself consider this land holy? And why did the Hebrew prophets foresee its restoration as a crucial element of the hoped-for redemption of all humankind? In exploring these questions, this symposium advanced the project of renewing the American civic spirit for a new generation by anchoring it in the great Hebraic civilization from which our society first emerged.”
Dr. McDermott emphasized the universal significance of the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
“Nearly all the world agrees that the Hebrew Bible states that God gave the land to His Chosen People; the Jews,” he said. “But they may disagree on whether and how that applies today.”
“This extraordinary conference showed that major Jewish and Christian scholars agree that it still applies today. They all concur that the God of Israel is just and therefore blesses efforts to share the land in just ways. But they also agree that both the Tanakh and the New Testament accept the land promise made to Abraham – and that Christians should realize that the New Testament four times calls Jerusalem ‘the holy city’.”
Dr. McDermott had high hopes that this was a trend that would only become stronger in the Christian world.
“There is a new momentum among Christian scholars to assert the continuing theological significance of the land of Israel,” he said. “They are joining hands and hearts with Jewish scholars and leaders like never before.”
“My major takeaway came from Rabbi Ari’s showing us that while formal and traditional religion is in decline in the Global North (not Israel), interest in God and spirituality are booming. We should be optimistic and not pessimistic, and take advantage of new ways to connect to Generation Z”.
Dr. Cornelius Bekker, dean of the Regent School of Divinity, emphasized that there is a consensus among scholars regarding Israel’s role.
“Jewish and Christian scholars increasingly recognize that a unified theology of the land of Israel exists in the Scriptures that they share in their respective theological traditions,” Dr. Bekker said. “This conversation is essential in assisting Christians to have an informed and theologically grounded understanding of the land of Israel and her people. It is also an important tool for addressing the scourge of anti-Semitism in our world.