Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent's Perspective
"Daddy, you know everything, don't you?" is something you would think a guy likes to hear from his kids. At first, my head swelled to fill the interior of the minivan I was driving on the way to preschool. My five-year-old daughter Gabby had just floated this softball of a statement as a distraction to catch me off guard for what she was about to ask.
As I tried to explain to her that, while I do know a lot, I do not know everything, she couldn't wait to interrupt me with her first question.
"Daddy, when does water become ice?"
"When the temperature gets to 32 degrees or colder, the water freezes to form ice."
"Daddy, why are leaves green?"
"Well, that's because they're full of chlorophyll, which is used by the tree to convert sunlight into food." (This is easy. Maybe I do know everything, I thought.)
Then came the sneak attack. "Daddy, what is God?"
GULP! As I fumbled my way through the best impromptu answer I could think of, I couldn't help but wish that my wife were there to help me field this one. My daughter had suddenly become the press corps, and I was the White House Press Secretary.
I knew that whatever I told her needed to be good because she would take this information and use it as a building block to form her images of God and her Jewish religion. If I failed here, I could give her a warped sense of what or who God is. Or worse, I could turn her away from religion and a belief in God forever. Where was my parenting manual when I needed it?
To top it all off, I, as the Christian parent of the family, had to give my daughter an explanation that would be satisfactory according to her Jewish religion. In addition, it would have to meet her mother's own image of God. My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.
I guess I had envisioned Gabby, at a much older age, scheduling an appointment to see my wife and me to discuss the meaning of God. "Mom, Dad? I want to have a chat about God with you. How does next Tuesday at 9:30 sound?" This would have given us plenty of time to prepare our answer. Then, we could have presented a united front with a consistent message.
Unfortunately, I was alone with Gabby in the minivan at that moment, in the middle of traffic on Eisenhower Parkway. I had to hope that what I was about to tell her, without any preparation, would be not only correct, but also what her mother would want her to hear.
At least I had already made the decision to tell our children something that would be consistent with my wife's faith, and not mine. I had decided that it would not be appropriate to try and discuss my belief in Jesus and how He relates to God. If there's one thing that my wife and I had previously agreed upon, it was to make sure that our daughters receive a Jewish education, and to know that they are not both Jewish and Christian. One day, they're going to be curious and ask me about my religion, and I'll tell them. After all, the more they know about other religions, the more educated and tolerant they'll be.
Fortunately, my wife and I have always believed the Jewish and the Christian God to be the same God. From this viewpoint, I found I could simply relate my view of God, as my parents and ministers had taught me, and as I had molded it over the years. I had to laugh as I briefly thought of what an ancient Roman and Jewish interfaith family would have gone through. At least one of us was not polytheistic. So, instead of focusing on the differences between Judaism and Christianity, I kept my discussion to the commonalities of our belief in God. There is only one God. God is everywhere. God is a loving God.
In the end, I found the discussion was not as difficult as I thought it would be. What turned out to be most challenging was taking a step back and examining my own view of God. While I have always believed in God, I don't think I have ever tried to explain the concept to anyone, especially not a five year old whom it was my duty to teach. It was, therefore, hard to put into words. Somehow I managed to find a way, and each day I get a little better at it.
My daughter's religious education will not end with that one discussion we had in the car. It will continue throughout her life. In fact, since then, Gabby and I have had a couple more talks about God. I find the experience refreshing and rewarding, not just in teaching her, but also in reaffirming my own belief.