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One stylish young mother, a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage, signed up for my Jewish parenting workshop. One day she confessed sheepishly, "I was driving my three-year-old daughter past a creche scene and she asked about the baby in the manger. She said 'what's his name? Why is he there?' I just didn't know what to say. I didn't want to talk with her about Jesus. From then on I avoided that road so we wouldn't see the nativity scene again."
Another mother in the workshop said, "We have Christian neighbors with two little girls, ages four and seven. They are just figuring out what it means to be Christian so they talk about it all the time. My little girl who is two and a half hears them. And now she says, "God and Jesus," all the time. I've told her we don't believe in Jesus, but she keeps saying it. Now she knows I don't like it so she'll shout out in the supermarket, 'God and Jesus.' I don't know what to do."
A third mother chimed in, "I've had the same thing. My kids overheard the nanny on the phone saying 'Jesus' and 'Oh my God,' and now they say it all the time. I explained that they can say 'Oh my Gosh,' so now they do that. I'm wondering what kind of influence the nanny will have on them. She's really respectful of us being Jewish. She even knows how to pack kosher lunches because my son goes to kindergarten at the synagogue's school. But you have to pick your battles. I don't want to criticize everything."
Because Jewish people in this society usually don't live in a Jewish ghetto, our families will encounter Christian symbols and Christian teaching again and again. So what do we do about Jesus?
I think it is fine to tell all children, Jewish children included, the story of Jesus' birth and life. This is one of the great stories of Western civilization and it won't hurt our children to know the story. I have also read my children Greek myths, African Anansi stories, Russian folktales and the Mayan story of creation. Especially for children in interfaith Christian/Jewish families, the story of Jesus is part of their personal heritage.
When it comes to explaining the difference in Jewish and Christian perspectives on Jesus--a conversation that is appropriate and maybe even fascinating for children as young as age four--I recommend something along these lines: "The Christian idea is that Jesus is so special that he is God. The Jewish idea is that Jesus was an important, good man who was a great teacher. But in the Jewish view, Jesus is not the only one who is God because there's God in every human being."
Some Jewish and Christian leaders feel that a child must have an either/or attitude about Jesus. Either Jesus is Christ and is the way to salvation or Jesus was a historical figure and is not God. I think a child can hold more complex truths than this dichotomous thinking allows. There is room for multiple truths, for mystery that is bigger than any simplistic understanding. Mommy has one relationship with Jesus, Daddy has another.
Children know that there are many different kinds of relationships and that one relationship does not disqualify another. Each parent relates to each child in the family and to each in-law in a unique way, and the fact of one relationship doesn't make the others any more right or wrong. Children can hold the truth that each parent has his or her own past, own ideas, own commitments, and own relationships religiously, as well.
As long as theology is not an area of bitter contention between parents, such that children feel torn and compelled to take sides, differences in parental relationship to Jesus are not harmful to children. Hearing neighbors, nannies and friends say, "Jesus!" is also not very significant; in fact, paying any attention to it will probably only create a problem out of the issue for the child, making it of greater interest.
The fact that the parents in my group were so concerned about the Jesus story and about Jesus language illustrated for me the need to have many more discussions about what Jesus means to us. Because of the sad history of Christian persecution and proselytizing, many Jews are Jesus-phobic. We aren't comfortable thinking about or talking about Jesus. This dis-ease makes it hard to calmly discuss Jesus with our children. It is time for us to work through our discomfort and to regard Jesus as the good Jewish teacher that he was.
Resolving Jesus-phobia will strengthen a path of Jewish integrity as it strengthens Jewish-Christian interfaith family life.