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Originally published May, 1999. Republished April 3, 2013.
It's not easy for Jewish parents to talk about Jesus. Many of us possess sketchy knowledge of Christianity and know even less about the very real theological differences between our two religions. We want our children to be respectful of other faiths, but what we Jews do know about Christianity is often shadowed by historic anti-Semitic experiences. It can get quite complicated to explain to a young child who Jesus was and why Jews don't believe in him.
"We're nervous about talking about Jesus," says Rabbi David Wolpe, "because we live in a Christian society and we're afraid that we'll lose our kids to Christianity. It's hard talking about Jesus Christ because throughout history, relations have been so charged and difficult. It doesn't evoke the same reaction to have your child ask, 'Who was Buddha?' But it's not fair to put our nervousness onto our kids."
Wolpe advises parents to give as simple an answer as possible. "For parents of real young kids, it's enough to say, 'Jesus was a Jewish man who lived 2000 years ago and taught a number of things about Judaism and faith. Some we agree with and some we don't. After his death some of his followers created a religion around his personality, Christianity.'"
Particularly in families in which one parent is not Jewish and the decision has been made to raise the children as Jews, parents may want to explain that, while some other people have different beliefs, Jews believe that Jesus was a truly great, wise and kind human being, yet still a man with faults and virtues. The discussion can get knotty when children try to sort out the issue of Jesus, the person and Jesus, the Messiah. Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Jews do not. As Rabbi Wolpe phrased it, "The difference is that Jews believe that when the Messiah comes the world will be different. We believe that if the Messiah had come, the world wouldn't be as messed up as it in fact is. That is the central difference."
Rabbi Barry Diamond, educator at Temple Emanuel in Dallas, Texas, advises parents to listen closely to make sure they understand what their children are asking. A Jewish parent can say that from what we know, Jesus was a teacher who sometimes agreed with the rabbis and sometimes argued with the rabbis. He may have thought he was the messiah, but in Judaism the messiah is not the son of God, but is more like a king or ruler."
Professor Paula Fredricksen, Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University, explains that "Even though Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah," she says, "and has come once, it's clear that the age of peace didn't come. They believe that the second time will be the time of peace."
Another confusing aspect is some Christians' belief that Jesus is a child of God. But as Professor Fredricksen notes, "There is incredible variety in Christian churches as well on this point. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Jesus is a second divine entity. But there are other Christian churches who believe that Jesus is an exceptional person and because of that was granted extra divinity."
For parent Don Cohen, his daughters' questions about Jesus surface around Christmas time and even, he says, "when they see someone wearing a cross or when we drive by a house with a Madonna on the front lawn." Cohen approaches the issue from two directions. First, he tells his daughters that, "just as some Jews use the phrase HaShem for God's name, Christians use the name Jesus for God. I also explain that for Christians, God came in a human form and had a name, but that this is not a Jewish belief.
"I am loath to say one religion is superior to the other," Cohen adds. "I do say that Christianity needs to be respected, but it is not our belief. It gets tricky when my daughters want to know which one is right. I say that one is right for Christians and one is right for us.
Rabbi Diamond sometimes takes the discussion in another direction by making this distinction: "Christians believe that God lives in Heaven and people live on earth, and that God gave Jesus to the world to save it. Jews also believe that God is in heaven and people are on earth, but for us, Torah is our main connection to God, and it's for instruction, not salvation."
And how might a parent handle the Jews-killed-Jesus issue, should this age-old accusation rear its head? Even though the Catholic Church has finally recanted on the belief, it is a lie that perseveres. Professor Fredricksen, a Jew-by-choice, offers a clear-cut reply should your children bring this home from school or the playground one day: "Jesus died on a cross, and when he died, only Romans were killing people like that." It might help to explain to children, she adds, that sometimes when we're mad at someone we say bad things about them. "A lot of Christians blamed Jews for Jesus' death because the Jews didn't want to be Christian."
The very name Jesus Christ can make some moms and dads very nervous, but it might help to keep in mind that talking about Jesus does give parents the opportunity to talk about Jewish values and Jewish identity. In that light, questions about Jesus become not a threat but the door to greater Jewish awareness. And every Jewish parent can use more of that.