Ask A Rabbi: How Do I Explain Jesus to My Kids?

“What should I tell my kids about Jesus? I’m looking for a way to make it clear that we don’t believe in Jesus without sounding offensive or judgmental. I don’t really like the explanation that Christians believe the Messiah has come but that Jews are still waiting; summarizing all of Jewish history, culture and thought as ‘still waiting’ just doesn’t appeal to me.”

By Rabbi Jillian Cameron

The name “Jesus” can be polarizing. For a huge portion of the world’s population, it represents faith, belief, God and love. Yet for those who do not subscribe to a belief in Jesus beyond a historical figure, the simple name can be the proverbial elephant in the room. Amidst larger questions of what we think about Jesus and how we understand the man and all that came after him, the seemingly simpler question is how we talk about Jesus. This task does become increasingly daunting when talking with children who haven’t necessarily developed reasoning skills and don’t yet have the historical context to grasp the nuances of the figure of Jesus and what the idea has come to mean in a Christian context.

I commend you for taking the time to think about this; so many parents are afraid of broaching the topic, and as a result their children can end up not really understanding, or, as you intimated, repeating things that might sound offensive. I think the best way to approach this with your children now is to keep it simple; instead of talking about what Jews or Christians don’t believe, talk about what we each do believe. I agree with you that putting all of Judaism in the “still waiting” category is less than ideal. If you have a family where beliefs are different, perhaps because parents come from different faith backgrounds or just simply believe different things, take the time to talk with your partner about how you want to talk about Jesus before providing your children with this vocabulary.

When you really boil it down to its most simple form, Christians and Jews both believe in God but understand God in different ways. “Christians believe that Jesus is God” is a fine statement. “Jews believe in God too, but we think about God and talk to God differently” is also a good way to explain it. Depending on the ages of your children, you can also begin to add different details as they develop and are able to understand more about the differences and similarities between religions.

As far as the discussion of “the Messiah” goes, I would refrain from that initially because it’s a difficult and complex concept, one that is unnecessary to bring up if not asked about specifically. If it does come up, I would offer something like: “The story of the Messiah was originally a Jewish idea that someday someone will help bring a time when the world is better for everyone, where everyone will have enough food, a place to live and water to drink, and where there will be no war, but a world at peace.” I tend to shy away from the idea of a human being as a Messiah, and think instead about all the things we can do in the world now to bring about this kind of Messianic Age, although depending on your beliefs you may feel differently. But we can teach our children about how every good thing we do to make the world better will help get us closer to a time when there is true peace for all.

This is a great learning opportunity not only for children, but for parents as well; it gives parents a reason to clarify for themselves what they think about Jesus and other big topics. Don’t be afraid to tell your children what you think and how you understand these ideas. Bring them into the discussion and perhaps all of you will learn something about what you think, how amazing the minds of children are, and how you as a family understand belief, faith and values.