In my community of interfaith families, we do not avoid confronting and contemplating the concepts of Jesus that we hold, as Jews and Christians. In our Adult Group this morning, we wrestled with Jesus, and at times, with each other.
Years ago now, a member of our community, Lance Flitter, contributed an essay to the compilation Seeing Jesus Through Jewish Eyes, about how his interfaith marriage transformed his attitude towards Jesus. Like many other Jews, Lance admits that he did not think about Jesus very much until he married a Christian woman. He compared Christianity to the air: something pervasive, all around him, but rarely acknolwedged. After his intermarriage, he began exploring the historical Jesus, and came to appreciate him as a religious reformer who stood up for what he thought was right, as other Jewish prophets had done before him. Lance also discovered Jesus as a social egalitarian, willing to hang around with women, lepers, the outcasts of the time. As we continue to build our interfaith families community, without much support or acknowledgment from religious institutions, Lance notes that “Jesus as a breaker of social barriers resonates with me in the context of an interfaith community.”
Longtime Adult Group leader Ian Spatz, also Jewish, then described his positive attitude toward a Jesus whom he sees as standing for inclusion. He noted, “To become a Christian, you don’t have to be part of a certain tribe, or be born from the right mother.” These issues of tribalism sit heavy on the hearts of many intermarried, interfaith and converted Jews. Another Jewish partner talked about what I think of as Jesus Envy: a sense that Jesus brought peace and inspired spirituality in a way that is inaccessible to Jews.
But then a Jewish woman admitted to being frightened in childhood by the idea of Jesus, of being uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus even now. Others nodded, finding her fear familiar. Lance pointed out that this fear is logical after two thousand years of some Christians labeling Jews as Christ-killers. A Jewish man said, “So much is done in the name of Jesus that is antithetical to his social justice teaching.”
A Catholic talked about growing up with the idea of Jesus as love, and being shocked to discover that Jesus could cause fear and discomfort in her partner, in others. A Protestant woman described growing up in the Bible Belt, where she experienced Jesus as a “weapon of exclusion” rather than inclusion, explaining, “I understand the fear, because I see how Jesus was used to exclude people who did not accept him as a savior.” A woman raised in Orthodox Judaism talked about being taught to believe that Jesus was a heretic, a false prophet, and that Christians were lazy for believing that Jesus died for their sins, rather than taking responsibility for their own sins. Sitting beside her Christian partner, she now calls this attitude “arrogant.”
Another woman raised as a “Trinitarian” says she can no longer subscribe to the idea of Jesus as a personal savior, but that the historical Jesus is “what keeps me calling myself a Christian” and that the attempt by religious historians and theologians to understand what Jesus actually said and did, as opposed to the later evolution of Christian dogma, is potential common ground for Christians married to Jews. Another Jewish woman, married to a Catholic, concluded the discussion with these wise words: “I don’t think we can or should smooth it all over.”
A similar conversation is taking place now all over America, in what I think of as small “i” interfaith dialogue. But here in capital “I” Interfaith Families, there is no retreating from this topic into separate corners at the end of the discussion. No matter how hard these conversations sometimes are, we must wrestle with them continuously, in order to create a healthy environment of mutual respect for our children. This does not mean we wish to solve or dissolve the differences, or erase the experiences we bring to our families as Christians and Jews. In raising children together, we share a common goal of presenting a Jesus who is not feared or forbidden, who preached on the subject of love, who inspires to this day. To do this, we do not need to aspire to or pretend to consistency within our families, or within our community, on the question of his divinity.