(This article originally appeared in my Mixed and Matched column for the J-weekly on Sept. 30, 2020)
Dear Dawn: I am a Christian man married to a Jewish woman. We are raising our children Jewish, and I am very comfortable with that decision. However, things are so terrible right now and I feel like praying. But for me that would be “in Jesus’ name.” I would be praying to Jesus, and I don’t know whether I should do that. I’ve never really been a religious person, and I don’t have to, but I’d like to. Should I tell my wife? What should I say to my kids, ages 7 and 9? A religious friend of mine told me I should “get right with God” because this may be the end of times. I don’t believe that, and it made me doubt my motivation to pray. Maybe I’m just reacting to fear. — Struggling as a “Jewish Dad”
Dear Struggling: Yes, these are very terrible times, and it is moving many hearts to reflect on the big questions in life, including God. It is human to be fearful now. Our environment, our country and our loved ones are threatened. To pray seems to me to be a very natural reaction.
Years ago I asked a local Orthodox rabbi to teach a class that included one session on God. About three-fourths of the class participants were non-Jews, and the last fourth were doubting Jews. There were many, many questions.
At one point, the rabbi lowered his eyes and said, “I don’t want to look up because I don’t want anyone to think I am speaking to someone specific: We are all in our own conversation with God, and I don’t know what your conversation is about.”
He wanted people to feel strong in their own faith and own views. He was not there to alter their personal view of God.
When we debriefed after the class, he told me he had prayed before class that he would not undermine any student’s faith.
My friend, your personal conversation with God is completely valid. Praying “in Jesus’ name” is meaningful to you. You should absolutely do so. Do you need to discuss it with your wife? No. You owe no one the contents of your conversation with God. That is between you and HaShem (God).
If you want to tell your wife you are feeling anxious and it is pulling you back to a consciousness of God, you can. I would say to consider whether it would make her more anxious and what you hope to gain in telling her. You may become closer. Or you may decide to save it and to talk about your view of God when things are not so tense. You know your wife best; use your own judgment.
What should you say to your children? Traditional Jews refer to God as HaShem, which means The Name. Other names for God mean The Place, Transcendence, Indwelling and more.
In other words, God doesn’t have a name. We all call God what feels right to us.
A female friend of mine is a Reform convert to Judaism and loves the term HaShem because it has no gender. Her Reform rabbi is less comfortable with it, but accepts it as valid. For you, Jesus is a name for God, maybe the best name. Jesus is the name you heard for decades.
But someone could call God “George” — and God would know whom you meant.
A name for God, a term, a label, a designation — any of those are for the sake of the human uttering the prayer.
Should your children understand that Jesus is commonly considered a name for God? Definitely! At 7 and 9, do they need to know you are praying differently than them and using that name? No. You can have that conversation when they are older and have the ability to understand the nuances of names and beliefs. At this age, they want to be like you and their mom. Being different from parents can be distressing for a child. Now is not the time to add to the distress in their lives.
Finally, I want to remind you that no matter what name any person uses for the Eternal One, we are all directing our thoughts, hopes and fears to the same Source. Very few religious traditions today believe there are multiple gods competing for dominance.
I hope you will consider learning more about Jewish views of God, ways of praying and finding comfort. At the least, it could make attending synagogue with your wife and children more meaningful for you.
NOTE: Several people have been disturbed that I did not “correct” this man and tell him that Jesus is not a name for God. I don’t tell people what to believe. If he sees God this way, that is his right.
Fun Fact: There are Christian denominations that believe (and teach) that whenever one reads the word “Lord” in English in the Hebrew Bible, AKA Old Testament, that the original word in Hebrew is Jesus. Obviously this would cause a number of people to believe that Jesus is another name for God.