Last year before Christmas I got a Facebook message from my church-going high school sweetheart. (We still write, yes, and don't worry folks, my wife knows about it.)
"My sister has just converted to Judaism. My children are very interested in this. They'd all learned the dreidel song and dance in their elementary school. My eldest daughter "schooled" them on what she knows about Judaism. She reminded them that Jesus was a Jew. Anyway, she also asked a poignant question: "Do Jewish people still believe in the Christmas story?" She said," I know they believe he was a great Prophet, but not the son of God. However, do they believe in the manger story?" I thought about what you might say, especially to children, and I replied, "Yes."Whereas, my sister at dinner last night, replied with an emphatic, "No!" Could you answer these questions for them?"
What follows is my letter to her children:
Dear Children with Adorable Names,
Hi. My name is Daniel Brenner and I am a certified rabbi. I've been a rabbi for about 15 years. Twenty plus years ago, back when I was in high school, I was friends with your mom and we have communicated on the "book-face" as I like to call it. So when your mother sent me your questions about Christmas and Jews, I thought:
Good questions! Smart young minds, indeed!
And now I will try to answer them.
Do Jews believe in the Christmas story?
I begin my answer with a question: What does the Christmas story aim to teach us? My sense is that the Christmas story is about the idea that a single human, even one born to a homeless mother, has the potential to teach us about what it means to care for one another and to bring peace to our planet. The word we use for that care is unconditional love, a word that describes deep inner feelings that are hard to capture in words.
So, do Jewish people believe that a single human is capable of teaching the world about unconditional love and bringing about a time of peace? Yes, we do. We pray that we will be ready to hear the teachings of such a person. But we do not think that this person has been born yet.
What? (you may be asking) That person hasn't been born yet? What about Jesus???? What do Jewish people think about Jesus of Nazareth?
Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish boy born to a homeless Jewish woman in the area of Israel known as the Galilee. (I've been to Nazareth ... it is a beautiful place.) He grew up and because of his spiritual nature, he began to teach many parables. These parables were also taught by other teachers of the time. These parables speak about God and love and forgiveness and suffering and the spiritual life. He was well loved by his followers and later on his teachings were recorded and made popular by one of his students, Paul.
What about the miracle of his birth?
Jewish people do not think that Jesus was the son of God or that God was his father. We think that he was a regular boy who likely had a special personality that drew others toward him. We do think that he was born in a manger to a homeless family and that he was recognized for his ability to heal others. At the time of his birth, there were other men and women who were considered healers and miracle workers. But it is clear that Jesus of Nazareth stood out as one of the important teachers and healers in the Galilee.
So, do Jews believe in the Christmas story?
Not exactly. We believe in the story behind the story -- that one day humans will be ready to hear the message of a great teacher who will share with us a new vision that brings us all closer to one another and to God. But while we feel that there have been wonderful teachers throughout history, the one who brings us into a new way of being with each other, and brings peace to our world, isn't here yet.
So, I hope this all makes sense. Please feel free to ask me any questions if it doesn't!
P.S. Enjoy this little Hannukah song that I wrote.