The Truth Between Us #9 – On April 6, Rabbis David Sandmel and Yehiel Poupko argued in Christianity Today against the idea of Christian seders, a practice that has spread among many Christian groups.The trend – and the article – kicked off a spirited debate both within Christian and Jewish communities, and across the religious divide.
The piece touched something deep among some Christians, as many rushed to offer responses, some agreeing, some taking issue with Sandmel and Poupko. “Why Christians can celebrate Passover, too,” read a headline responding in the same publication. A variety of Christian and Messianic Jewish writers and bloggers offered their defense of Christian seders.
The issue of Christian seders gained prominence over the last decade, as former US president Barack Obama famously held a seder in the White House every year of his presidency. Some Jews were enthusiastic about the practice, while others were more circumspect about a seder hosted by practicing Christians. In the first Passover under President Trump, there was a seder in the White House for Jewish staffers, but the president and first lady did not attend.
In this post of The Truth, Catholic scholar Murray Watson considers the implications of Christians celebrating the Passover seders, and its impact on Jewish-Christian relations.
Murray Watson: You can’t undo history, or pretend that what happened, didn’t happen.
To me, that is a key principle in the ongoing discussion over whether Christians should be hosting “Passover seders” in churches this week.
One of the positive fruits of the modern Jewish-Christian dialogue has been a renewed awareness of how deeply the Christian Eucharist (Communion) is rooted in Jewish prayer-forms—and a remembering of how closely it is linked to the Jewish Passover in particular. Of course, for anyone familiar with the Christian Gospels, that shouldn’t come as a surprise: the four evangelists emphasize that, over and over again, and it should never have been a question for Christians.
But, after the eventual “parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians (probably in the second century in some places, and considerably after that in other places), Christian theology often sought to distance itself from Judaism, and “de-Judaize” itself. One of the forms of that de-Judaization lay in “supersessionism”—the theological belief that the coming of Jesus had essentially rendered Judaism and its rituals superfluous, and that key elements of its life had been “replaced” by Christianity, which was its “completion” and “fulfillment”. This understanding has deep roots in Christian theology, and can already be found in portions of the New Testament.
Part of what the early Christians chose to leave behind, as surpassed and passé, was the celebration of the Passover seder, and many early Christian texts make the point that, for us Christians, the Eucharist is our Paschal meal, in the same way that the seder is the Paschal meal of Judaism.
That history happened, and it is well-documented. There is no undoing it, as if events 1800 or 1900 years ago didn’t take place, as if the rupture between Christianity and its Jewish matrix didn’t occur.
All of that, I think, provides an important perspective on the practice (growing since the 1970s) of Christian churches and groups organizing and hosting their own “Passover seders”. The renewal of Christian interest in all things Jewish has, overall, been a really good thing, and has inspired Christians to rediscover the Jewish roots of Jesus and Christianity, and to engage with the Judaism practiced today by their Jewish neighbours. Back in 1982, Pope John Paul II said that “the faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practised still today, can greatly help us to understand better certain aspects of the life of the Church. Such is the case of liturgy”. But there are limits to how far that goodwill can take us, and there are lines that should not be crossed, in the interest of a respectful and honest Jewish-Christian relationship.
Christians hosting their own Passover seders is one of those lines.
In their article, Rabbis Sandmel and Poupko argued against the growth of this practice. They argued that the seder (as celebrated today) is not the seder of the first century that Jesus would have known (and so romantic efforts to “re-create” Passover as he would have celebrated it are inevitably misguided and misleading). And they argued that the Passover seder is such a distinctly Jewish ritual that it cannot be “imported” into Christianity without doing violence to its meaning. Re-framing it within a Christian theological context inevitably distorts what Passover has meant to Jews over the millennia, and displays an insensitivity to this key moment of the Jewish year that undermines—rather than strengthens—healthy Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Admittedly, some of these efforts are born out of goodwill and genuine naïveté. During Holy Week, many Christians seek to “draw close to Jesus” in their prayer and reflection, and so taking part in a seder “as an insider” might seem to be an effective way to enter into those events, which were centred around Passover in Jerusalem. The exact relationship of the Last Supper to the Passover is, however, a hotly-debated point among scholars: even Pope Benedict XVI argued that the Last Supper probably was not the standard seder celebrated by his contemporaries in Jerusalem: “One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover” (my italics).
And, as Rabbis Poupko and Sandmel emphasize, the seder as it is generally celebrated today is the end result of a centuries-long evolution, and includes many medieval and post-medieval elements that would have left Jesus scratching his head in confusion. Today’s seder—although in historical continuity with all the centuries of seders before it—is not the Passover ritual of the first century. Using a modern haggadah to get a sense of the Last Supper is hopelessly anachronistic, and ultimately misleads us, if we believe that “this is what Jesus would have said and done”. Even for Jewish liturgical scholars, reconstructing the details of a first-century seder is a nearly impossible task, given the very limited sources at our disposal.
What is even more problematic is the growing practice of “Christian seders,” in which the ritual words and actions of the haggadah are interspersed with Christian Scripture and commentary, “applying” the details of the Passover to Jesus, and drawing out connections between the life of Christ and the celebration of the Exodus. Beyond the question of appropriating a central ritual of another faith’s prayer, is the fact that many of these seders draw upon an explicitly supersessionistic understanding: the Passover is viewed as a merely “temporary” ordinance, which has now found its “fulfillment” in Jesus and his message.
Ironically, such efforts to “honour” our Jewish roots ultimately end up de-valuing Judaism, which is portrayed as something transitional and superseded, a stepping-stone toward something greater, which has “flowered” in Christianity and is therefore unnecessary today. Perhaps the Christians who take part do not reflect on that understanding, but it is inherent in almost every “Christian seder” I have looked at. Judaism is the “foreshadowing,” and Jesus is the reality it prefigured. Such ideas are ultimately dismissive of Judaism, which is valuable only insofar as it “sheds light upon” Christianity—and not in and of itself. It is not respectful, and could be seen, in fact, as exploitative.
Christians cannot pretend that the split between Judaism and Christianity did not happen all those centuries ago. We cannot attempt to reverse history and somehow “reclaim” the Passover as ours today, and ignore the more than 1700 years during which Christians did not celebrate the Jewish seder. Very early on, Christianity adopted liturgical and theological elements of the Passover into its celebration of the Eucharist, thereby radically transforming them. From that point onward, our two sacred meals took dramatically different directions, and they have evolved in very different ways.
As much as we may wish to undo the painful history of that split, and simply “be one big happy family” again, we cannot. While we share a tremendous spiritual, Biblical and historical patrimony with Judaism, modern Christians cannot, and should not, pretend to be Jews. The trajectories of our two faith-communities have gone in different directions for too many centuries for Christians to be able to “reintegrate” the seder into our religious practice. We can invite rabbis to our churches to do a “walk-through” of the seder and its ingredients. We can be guests of Jewish friends and neighbours at their Passover tables. But we cannot “re-appropriate” the Passover into 21st-century Christianity without harming both the seder and the Jewish-Christian relationship. History moves in only one direction, and we cannot “recapture” the first century C.E. We can, however, understand it better and more accurately, so that our 21st-century interactions will be healthy, respectful and loving. To me, that (and not play-acting the Last Supper) is what best honours Jesus, in his humanity—and in his Jewishness.
A blessed and kosher Pesach to all of my Jewish friends and colleagues!
Watson: Lazar, as an observant Jew, how do you feel when you read about Christian churches organizing their own Passover seders (either following a traditional haggadah, or developing their own “Christian seders”)? Do you seen any benefits in it? What questions does it raise for you?
Lazar Berman: It is hard to think of another Jewish ritual that is more personal and particular for the Jewish people, and less tailored for non-Jewish participation. This is the holiday when we Jews tell our history and the story of our relationship with God. “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternal our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” We start with our ancestors being idol-worshippers and tell the story of our descent to Egypt. We eat a commemoration of the Passover sacrifice, which only Jews could partake in. We re-enact the exodus of our ancestors. This is intensely personal.
Indeed, this story is so important and personal that it determines whether or not someone is included in the Jewish nation. We say about the wicked son, who excludes himself from the Passover seder, “had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
I wonder what Gentile participants in a seder would do the paragraph we recite when we open the door for Elijah: “Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name; for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Thy rage upon them and let Thy fury overtake them. Pursue them in answer and destroy them from under the heavens of the Eternal.” That kind of plea to God, in which you can hear the centuries of pain and oppression at the hands of the nations, is appropriate for an intimate, exclusively Jewish ritual, in which everyone understands the context. It could easily lead to misunderstanding and resentment among non-Jewish participants, or could lead to Jews editing such portions out.
That is not the model for Jewish-Christian understanding.
Watson: Do you think the idea of large “interfaith seders” (sometimes organized by synagogues) is a good idea–or is Passover primarily a family celebration that should be experienced in the home?
Berman: I see a place for synagogues to educate their Christian neighbors on Passover and the seder, if they are curious. But, again, the seder is a participatory event in which we consider ourselves having been taken out of Egypt by the Lord: “And thou shalt tell thy son on that day, saying, it is because of that which the Eternal did to me when I went forth from Egypt.” That experience is deep within the Jewish DNA, and is something we mention many times a day in our prayers, and in the Kiddush of Shabbat. The whole experience is not built for those without the deep national memory of that seminal event.
As for the appropriate place for the Seder, it is best to celebrate it in the home, as the Passover sacrifice was shared by each household. Of course, unfortunately there are those without family nearby, or without family at all, and synagogues and hotels provide important services for them. But for those who can, the seder is meant to be experienced with the family. I personally fly out of Israel every year to the United States so I can hear my own father recount the tale of Exodus, as it it written, “You shall tell your son on that day.”
Watson: As you look around our world today, what message does Passover offer that speaks to the situation in 2017?
Berman: The Exodus story, which has inspired so many, including famously, African-American slaves in the US, continues to resonate with those who are oppressed and who cry out from their suffering. It is a reminder that God will hear their voice, and see their affliction and their burden. As German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”
With so many bad actors in the world – from Assad to ISIS to Kim – the message that God is a God of justice who will execute judgments on modern-day Pharaohs is also an important reminder that though it may wait, justice will come.
That is why it is important for Jews and Christians to talk about the Exodus story itself…but the seder is not the only way to do so, and is not the appropriate way for Jews and Christians to discuss the implications of God taking the Jews out of Egypt.
In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.