Jewish Questions about Jesus
Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, my Jewishness was such a big part of my identity that I didn’t even really think about it—it was just who we were. As a child, my life revolved around events at the synagogue and the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, which I attended until 8th grade.
I loved all the holidays, the traditions, everything about being Jewish. It was like being part of a club. Even in 9th grade, when I started going to a public high school where there weren’t many Jewish kids, I still felt “cool” or unique, because my non-Jewish friends frequently asked me questions about Judaism and they thought it was so great when I invited them over to celebrate the holidays with my family.
At times some of my friends talked to me about Jesus. Of course, I’d heard of Jesus; I knew that my mother’s parents believed in him. She had converted to Judaism to marry Dad. We saw my grandparents often and I knew they prayed in Jesus’ name. I didn’t really know what that meant. I remember asking my father once about it.
“Dad, who is this Jesus that Grandma and Grandpa talk about when they pray?”
“Jesus was the son of God just like all of us are God’s children,” he replied. That answer satisfied me at the time, but as I made more non-Jewish friends, I decided to ask my rabbi to be sure.
My parents were best friends with our rabbi so I felt comfortable going to him. Rabbi M. talked about lots of things as I sat in his office. He knew I had made Christian friends so I don’t think he was surprised when I asked,
“What do we believe about heaven and hell?”
“Jews don’t believe in hell, Leah.”
“Well, what happens if we’re bad?” I implored.
“We believe in heaven; we don’t believe in hell.”
That settled it for me. Hell was a “Gentile thing.”
Then I asked him, “Is Jesus the son of God?” And he replied as my father had before: “Yes, he’s the son of God, just like we’re all God’s children.”
And so that became my answer to anyone who ever asked me what I thought of Jesus. I didn’t really have a problem with him; I just knew that Jews didn’t believe in him. No more explanation was necessary.
I graduated from high school, went to college and began working as a personal financial coach. I met and fell in love with Michael. He wasn’t Jewish but was willing to convert in order to marry me. My dad was so happy—the fact that Michael would become a Jew so that he could become part of our family touched him deeply. Michael started taking conversion classes. In the meantime my best friend Stacy told me she had become a believer in Jesus. “What are you talking about?” I asked her, “You’re Jewish; Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” Stacy and her husband Antoine tried to talk to me about their new faith but I wasn’t buying it. I reasoned that she was never really strong in her Jewish identity anyway; she just decided to believe in Jesus because her husband was a Christian. I thought, “I’m so much better off—at least Michael is willing to change for me.” Even though I was struck by Antoine’s conviction, so much of what he and Stacy said just didn’t make sense to me. They would begin, “If you’d just look here in the New Testament…”
I’d cut them off with remarks like, “Look, what do I care about the New Testament! Jews don’t read that.”
And I didn’t get their idea of “sin.” I knew that I had done some things that weren’t so good, but I was used to going to synagogue during the High Holidays and atoning for those things and moving on from there. I remember writing out prayers and asking God to forgive the things I’d done that were wrong and to please inscribe my family and me into the Book of Life. Sure, somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if it was really enough, if I really was being put in the Book of Life like the rabbis say, but I dismissed these nagging thoughts. I was happy and secure in who I was.
Then my dad became very ill. It was one of those crazy, unexplainable things. He was having heart problems so the doctors put in a pacemaker that was supposed to last about ten years. But he started feeling really bad, just tired and weak and sick. So we took him to the hospital and the doctor who examined him was horrified. He said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” According to the physicians, it looked like the pacemaker had been in use for about ten years already. My father died of complications soon after. This was in October of 1998.
It would be a huge understatement to say that my father’s death left a void in my life. We had been so close, as close as father and daughter could be. I was devastated. Our friends at the synagogue really helped us out during this time. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive community. Everyone turned out for his funeral and dozens prayed with us at home during the week that followed. We felt so loved and cared for. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
Michael and I moved into my parents’ house. My mom wasn’t feeling so well so we took care of her. It was a hectic and tiring time for all of us.
One day the phone rang and I answered. The woman on the other end of the line asked to speak to my mother. “She’s sleeping,” I said. “Can I take a message?” The woman told me her name was Nici and she said she’d been talking to my mother off and on for the past few months. “About what?” I inquired. Then she told me that she was Jewish and believed in Jesus and that my mother had been asking her questions about Jesus. I kind of laughed—my mom would basically talk to anyone about anything so I wasn’t too surprised.
“But how can you be Jewish and believe in Jesus?” I asked Nici.
“Well maybe I could come over sometime and try to explain it a bit to you. We could have coffee or something?” she answered.
“Sure.” I was pregnant and at home a good deal of the time anyway, so I figured, what harm could it do? Besides, I had to admit I was curious.
Nici came over and I liked her immediately. We chatted about all sorts of things and she told me how she had come to believe the way she did:
“I grew up around lots of Christians. When they asked me why I didn’t believe in Jesus, the only answer I could give them was, ‘My mother said I can’t.’ So one day I asked my mother why we can’t. She kept trying to dodge the issue, but I pestered her so much that she began to look into the matter for herself. She actually began to believe in Jesus before I did.
“The tough part,” she continued, “was telling my grandparents. I was so afraid of what they would think. But when my mom and I told my grandfather, he said, ‘Mazel tov!’ As it turns out, he’d believed that Jesus was the Messiah since 1949, but he’d been hesitant to tell us!”
I listened intently to Nici’s story, but I still had my guard up. “Do you think you could ever believe in Jesus?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s not that I have anything against Jesus—I just don’t see how he matters to me as a Jew.”
Nici asked for a chance to show me just that. I thought, “Well, what have I got to lose?”
Nici and I started meeting about every week. She showed me things in the Tanakh about the promised Messiah and we talked about how Jesus seemed to fulfill these expectations. I had to admit that it looked like a very clear picture of Jesus, from what I knew of him. I was kind of blown away by the fact that things that the Bible said would happen actually happened. I’d never realized that before. I’d studied the Hebrew Scriptures some, but going through them with Nici, I began to see the Bible as one great story, and realized that Jesus had a big part to play in that story. He was a much larger figure than I’d ever assumed. According to what was written, he died as a sacrifice to atone for our sins once and for all. As a Jewish person who understood the notion of sacrifice being necessary for atonement, the idea was incredible to me. So was the prospect of knowing for sure that I was truly forgiven for my sins.
My meetings with Nici went on for about a year. We prayed together quite a bit, that God would show me what was true. Finally one night, she asked me straight out what was really keeping me from believing that Jesus was who he said he was.
So I told her: “If what you are saying is true, if I accept that Jesus is the Messiah, then I have to deal with the fact that my father, who I loved more than anything, didn’t believe this. So he died without his sins forgiven, so where is he now?
“I mean,” I continued, “my dad raised me, he taught me everything I know, he made me who I am. It would be different if I could ask him about all of this, but I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Nici was quiet for a minute. I knew she understood what I was saying. After all, she had dealt with similar questions and fears. She said, “Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. But I do know that if something is true, then it’s true, whether we want to believe it or not, whether others we love believe it or not.” Then she asked me simply to read the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah. “Just read it,” she said, “and pray about what it says and I’ll come over soon and we’ll talk more.” I said, “Alright.”
After she left, I went and found my dad’s old Tanakh. I held it in my hands and prayed, “Oh God, I’m just so confused. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to believe. Please just help me.”
Then I opened his Bible and turned the worn pages until I came to Isaiah chapter 53. My heart jumped as I saw my dad’s handwriting. I looked closer at the page.
Written in the margin near the beginning of the chapter were the words, “Messianic chapter—Y’shua.”
“Oh my God,” I cried. I started flipping through the Bible. There were no other markings anywhere else, just there. It was as if God himself stood in the room with me and he had shown me personally just what I’d needed to see. In that instant I knew that it was true, that Jesus was the Messiah.
When Nici came over the next day, we prayed together and I told Jesus that I believed in him. And then I began to remember things. I remembered asking my dad about Jesus, and his vague reply: “He’s the son of God…” and adding, “But you know, we’re all God’s children.” There had been other times when I’d asked him about Jesus and he’d replied quickly, never denying that Jesus was the Messiah, but never answering me directly. I wondered if I’d pressed him more, what he’d have said.
A few months later, my uncle, my father’s brother, came for a visit. I noticed something around his neck that I think I’d seen before but never taken much notice. “Is that a star of David with a cross inside it?” I asked him. He replied, “Yes.”
“Why are you wearing that?” I asked him. “Do you believe in Jesus?” He told me he did.
“Did Dad believe that, too?”
“Yes, yes he did.”
“Why on earth didn’t anyone tell me?” I asked.
“You know, I don’t know. It was something we just didn’t talk about,” he responded.
One day, as I was going through some of my father’s things in the basement of our house, I found several old copies of ISSUES. I don’t know how he managed to be put on the mailing list for the messianic Jewish publication without our knowing. Then again, there’s a lot I still don’t quite understand.
I know, it all sounds unbelievable. To this day I’m not sure why my father never shared his belief with me. Maybe he was afraid of hurting his very religious family. Maybe he thought that if he admitted he believed in Jesus, he’d have to give up the heritage and the tradition that he loved so much. I don’t know. I only wish he could see me now, raising my children as Jewish believers in Jesus—kids who treasure their tradition and love their Messiah.
I’ve been a believer in Jesus for over two years now. And I have to say that even though my father and I had much in common—even much more than we realized—unlike him, I haven’t kept silent about what I believe. I couldn’t help sharing the truth I’d found with my brother Lowell and my husband. Both are now believers in Jesus.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to be upfront about my faith and risk so many of my relationships. I attended the same synagogue for over twenty years. But given the choice between what I believe to be true and everything else, I choose the truth. Life is full of difficult choices like that. And even though there are people who won’t be my friends now that I’ve told them what I believe, I’ve been able to connect with other Jewish people who do believe in Jesus. We’ve joined them for holidays and Shabbat dinner. I’ve discovered a mishpochah that I didn’t even know existed.
I really feel like so many of us grow up not really figuring out what we believe for ourselves. We’re told, “Jews do this” or “Jews don’t do that.” But sometimes our parents don’t have all the answers. And that goes for our religious leaders as well. It’s up to us to search the Scriptures for ourselves.
In the end, I’m not sure how helpful it is to speculate about why my father kept his faith a secret. I suppose I’ll ask when I get to heaven. Maybe. But I have a feeling I’ll just be so happy that I might forget to ask.
Isaiah 53:1-12 The Suffering Servant
This is the passage that Leah found marked in her father’s Bible after he died.
1 Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
3 He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face,
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living,
For the transgression of my people to whom the
stroke was due?
9 His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
10 But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper
in His hand.
11 As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.
(from the New American Standard Bible)