From Dovetail December 1999

By Lance Flitter

When it comes to Jewish-Christian relations, Jesus tends to be the main stumbling block. This is true in a marriage between a Jew and a Christian as well. Like many Jews, I had, and still have to some degree, uncomfortable feelings when it comes to Jesus. However, over time, I have found ways to make Jesus more accessible to me.

Why would I want to do this at all? I think it benefits my marriage and, most important, will help in raising my children. My wife and I plan to expose our children to both Judaism and Christianity. Part of our philosophy is that we want to be a parenting team, both involved in all aspects of raising our children, including giving them a grounding in religion. When my child asks me about Jesus, I don’t feel it’s adequate to say simply “This is what Christians believe,” or “Go ask your mother, I can’t answer that.” I’m sure he’ll want to know what I think as well. I need to have some thoughts of my own about how I relate to this central figure of Christianity.

Discomfort with the Topic

Many Jews feel uncomfortable having their kids learn about Jesus, despite the fact that they have married Christians. Why is this? In our open society, we feel it is OK for others to believe what they want, especially when it comes to abstract, personal things like religious beliefs. I had to ask myself, if I feel it is OK for my wife to believe what works for her, why wouldn’t I feel the same way about my kids? If I am accepting of my wife’s beliefs, how could I be unaccepting of her sharing those beliefs with my child?

Like many Jews I had some visceral, emotional reactions. But they weren’t very rational. So, I thought about the issues and worked through the emotions. Part of being interfaith parents is figuring out what are and are not acceptable doctrines of your respective traditions. The idea that Jesus is the only way to God, for example, is an article of faith for many Christians, but it seems reasonable to agree that this is one doctrine you won’t teach in your household.

If you are Jewish, like me you probably feel some cultural guilt if you have virtually anything to do with Christians or Christianity. It’s a sad fact that Judaism has become defined for many Jews largely by what it’s not rather than by what it is: Judaism is not Christianity. And, from persecution and prejudice through the centuries, some anti-Christian sentiment has crept into Jewish culture. Ask a typical Jew whether he’d mind teaching his kid about Buddha and he probably would say no. But Jesus? That’s a different story. Christianity has become the bogeyman of Judaism on an emotional/cultural level, not just a theological one. If you’re married to a Christian you have to come to terms with feelings that may have been ingrained in you as part of the culture. 

Positive Approaches

Aside from the anti-Christian sentiment it can generate, focusing on what Judaism is not rather on what it is just isn’t useful. I try to think about what is important about Judaism and being Jewish to me, and I’ll try to pass that on to my kids. I will define my Jewishness positively rather than negatively as much as possible. 

But that’s another article. The question here is: how can you, as a Jew, take a positive approach to Jesus? One thing to keep in mind is that there are many aspects to religion aside from theology. When I study the Bible I look at it from a religious point of view but also from historical, social, cultural, spiritual (not the same as religious to me), and even literary perspectives. I got very interested in reading about some of the modern research on the historical Jesus. Looking at Jesus from perspectives other than theological might help you deal with the Jesus problem.  

Also, there is your perspective on religion. My wife and I will take the same approach to teaching religion to our kids as our interfaith group takes. That is, teach don’t preach. I generally don’t think of religion in terms of cosmic truth, but rather in terms of what it does for you. Traditional reason and logic don’t work very well when dealing with something as abstract and mind-boggling as the nature of God. Different people are bound to view this subject in different ways.

While I don’t share my wife’s beliefs on this topic, I don’t necessarily think she is wrong. If my kids were being taught that Jesus is God in a literal sense, then I would have a problem since I don’t believe that. But that’s not what they will be taught. They will be taught several different viewpoints on the nature of God. They will learn about the commonalities and the differences in these viewpoints and be encouraged to think about the subject for themselves. Given that approach, I have no problem with my kids learning about Jesus, even from a theological point of view.

There are also quite a few liberal Christian theologians such as Bishop John Spong. His views are controversial in traditional Christian circles, but they are more accessible to non-Christians than many more conventional views. Reading perspectives from the non-traditional Christians such as Spong, John Crossan, Marcus Borg, and others, may give you a way to think about Jesus that is acceptable to you as a non-Christian.

Keep in mind that the reason you are doing this is to gain personal perspectives on Jesus. You should not be trying to figure out what your spouse believes by reading this kind of book. If you want to know what your spouse believes, ask your spouse. You should also be careful not to develop the attitude that your understanding is what the Christian understanding should be. You must respect your spouse’s and other Christian’s beliefs and not try to convince them that some other form of Christianity is better. The purpose of pursuing alternative lines of thought about Jesus and Christianity is to give you a personal perspective, not to help you figure out what you think other’s perspectives should be. You should also familiarize yourself with traditional Christian viewpoints. 

These are some avenues of exploration that have worked well for me. Having spent several years thinking about and exploring the issues related to interfaith marriage and raising interfaith children, I don’t have nearly as much discomfort as I did. Rather, I’ve become enthusiastic about raising the kids in both. I think it will be a great opportunity for learning and growth for our kids. You can’t change ingrained attitudes overnight. But if you take the time to think about these issues, over time you will probably become more comfortable with them.