The J-Word: Why Jesus Is Taboo in Polite Jewish Conversation

Though we may not admit it, Jews are fascinated by Jesus. Some are now reclaiming him as a devoutly Jewish sage. But old wounds aren't healed by a couple generations of cultural acceptance.
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Growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt of the American South, my Judaism was always a point of pride. But it brought questions. Throngs of questions. (Seriously, "Shit Christians Say To Jews" is remarkably true-to-life.) The most common, and the one that required the most diplomatic answer, was simple: Do Jews believe in Jesus?

"Well, no," I'd say. "We believe he existed, but we don't believe he was or is the Messiah."

But I always felt a twinge of guilt even conceding that Jesus the Person -- not Jesus the Prophet or Jesus the Savior -- could've walked the earth. His possible historical existence, and my acknowledgement of this, seemed to justify all Jews had endured over the ages.

When "The Passion of the Christ" came out in 2004, I remember a subtle wave of terror passing through my community. After decades of virtually complete acceptance in American society, many Jews feared this movie would topple our good standing. Some were sure pogroms would erupt and engulf us, as if we'd never left the Old Country. As if it had all been some fantastic dream.

While Christian revenge for perceived Jewish deicide never materialized, I can't say the existential fear truly fizzled.

For me, the Jesus thing just wouldn't go away. Walking around New York City with two-years' worth of hair on my head and a sizable beard, every day without fail someone asked if I knew that I looked a lot like Jesus. And in a room full of Jews, I wasn't immune either. The Jesus jokes followed me everywhere. I didn't like walking into a room of people because I knew what was coming. I knew I stood out. I didn't want to. I cut all of my hair off.

Though we may not admit it, we are fascinated by Jesus. The latest trend has some reclaiming him as a devoutly Jewish sage -- or at least someone Jews can learn from today. "The Jewish Annotated New Testament," published in November 2011 and written from a Jewish perspective, re-contextualizes Christian Scripture and provides an opening for increased Jewish-Christian communion. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's "Kosher Jesus," to be published Feb. 1, argues that Jesus never claimed that high celestial throne and seeks to give Jews foolproof, text-based responses to "Jews for Jesus" and other Christian missionaries with conversion on the mind. The debate aroused by Boteach's book -- responses range from positive to reasonable to overblown and sensational -- shows that old wounds aren't healed by a couple generations of cultural acceptance. In Orthodox circles, some rabbis have called for "Kosher Jesus" to be banned, with at least one rabbi asserting that Boteach should be excommunicated.

None of this is surprising. The Christian savior elicits emotional (and knee-jerk) responses from Jews across the spectrum of interfaith (mis)understanding. But one post of the many about "Kosher Jesus" was eye opening. Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, responding to Boteach's response to the elder Rabbi Immanuel Schochet's public ban of the book, described how Jesus was nonexistent in his childhood home:

One of the things my father was consistent about was never using certain terms in our family home. Whereas my father would have typically used the name "J" in lectures, in what would be termed as horoat sha'ah (a need for the moment), G-d help any of us, his children, if we dared ever utter it in our own home. Even as kids we understood the distinction between exceptions when necessary and when not.

The name Jesus? Don't even think about it. The initial J? Even this abbreviation is a line that should rarely be crossed. (Pun unintended.) Thus, a mere man who preached universal love is turned into He Who Must Not Be Named.

The shocking part? In the same post that Boteach's book is referred to as "Kosher J...." -- seemingly to avoid giving spiritual power to a false messiah by invoking his name -- the author brandishes the oldest trick in the superstitious book, writing "G-d" to avoid taking the One And Only Lord's name in vain. All argument aside about whether the English word "God" has anything to do with the many Hebrew names of the Jewish Creator, I was struck by the juxtaposition.

Using words wisely -- and respectfully -- is a noble endeavor. Honoring the sanctity of sacred names is even more important. What, then, does it mean when you resort to the same tactic to avoid acknowledging the existence of a perceived enemy?

The same thing that made me feel guilty about admitting that Jesus might've existed. The same thing that got Jews going about "The Passion." The same thing that made me cut off those hard-earned locks.


We're scared that maybe this time of unprecedented Jewish acceptance in the world is an illusion. We're afraid that the Christian embrace is just a trick. We're afraid that learning -- or just talking openly about -- the Scriptures of other people will somehow devalue our own or embolden theirs. We're afraid that they are right. We're afraid that maybe we're both right. We are afraid because we were raised this way. We are afraid because we don't know the answers. We are afraid because we do know the answers, and still the world remains broken.

We must stop being afraid.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a Jewish Hasidic teacher who lived in a time and place of real fear of pogroms, and who had his own messianic qualities, said: "If you believe you can break something, believe you can fix it."

In 2012, the topic of Jesus should not be a Jewish taboo. If we believe so much that our relationship with Christianity is based on deceit, tragedy and senseless hatred -- that it has broken us -- then we are obligated to believe it can be based on trust, opportunity and boundless love -- that it can be fixed.

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