Christian Passover, Yes or No?: A Response to Rabbi Moffic

I read with deep dismay and rising concern the suggestion by my colleague Rabbi Evan Moffic [and read the essay to which Rabbi Moffic was responding here – eds] that it is appropriate for a Christian community to conduct a Christian seder. With all due respect to his experience the past seven years, my twenty-plus years of commitment in interfaith dialogue and education leads me to a vastly different conclusion. His assertions (in bold) and my responses follow.

Who decided the seder is only a Jewish ritual? […] We do not hold an exclusive claim on it. The parallel with communion does not work. Communion is a sacrament, meaning it is ordained by God and must be facilitated by clergy. Passover is not a sacrament. It is a ritual meal centered around a story whose message is universal. It is not under the authority of one person or group.

First off, we’re not talking about the role of shared Scripture; we’re talking about Jewish observances.

The biblical commandment to commemorate the liberation out of Egypt understood that the non-Israelite community who joined the Israelites were required to undergo circumcision before eating the paschal offering. So, clearly the Bible in Exodus understands that this is indeed an exclusive, even tribal, celebration and experience. More importantly is that the seder itself is a rabbinic institution, not a biblical one.

Suggesting that the seder is anything BUT a Jewish ritual, and one with particularly rabbinic origins, is at least uniformed and disingenuous if intentional.

Depending on your understanding of the origins of Jewish Scriptures, one can indeed suggest that the commemoration of Passover is Divinely commanded. Further, even a cursory reading of the rabbinic literature in the final chapter of Mishnah Pesachim reveals that the table ritual was indeed often facilitated by knowledgeable lay people who would travel from house to house helping those who did not have the capacity to conduct the seder themselves. Finally, while the seder meal might not be a sacrament per se, it is still a uniquely Jewish telling of a particularly Jewish experience.  While “not under the authority of one person of group”, the ownership of Jewish rituals and practices can safely be claimed by the committed Jews who engage in them.  If the logic of the claim to the contrary is viable, then Yom Kippur could be defined by Sikhs, Shavuot by Buddhists, Sukkot by pagans.  If we could not imagine those possibilities, then why would we pretend to imagine that Christians could define Passover?

All religions interpret. We each take items and stories from one era and discern their meaning for us in our day. Jews do not have to agree with the Christian interpretation of the Passover symbols. […]  To live in a time when Christian can find their own meaning in Jewish ritual is a blessing we should celebrate, not a practice we should bemoan.

The early Christian church authorities from the first through the fifth centuries were vehement in the protestation against Christian incorporation of, or participation in, Jewish rituals.  While it is true that all religions engage in the act of interpretation, it is equally true that all religions have drawn lines delimiting between acceptable interpretations, and those that violate core understandings of belief and values.  Reinterpreting earlier expressions of beliefs and values found within a faith-tradition by members of that tradition is one thing.  Appropriating wholly different interpretations and practices from other faith-traditions is at best syncretism.  At worst, it is a violation of the integrity of all faith-traditions.

A Christian seder, some suggest, crosses […] boundaries.

The way to address this concern is not to condemn the seders. It is to bring in rabbis and other knowledgeable Jews who can help facilitate them […] President Obama has held seders at the White House every year of his Presidency. It is no accident Church seders have grown throughout this period. The deepest learning does not come through lectures or books. It comes when we experience the rituals and traditions of one another. Passover is wonderful opportunity to do so.

There are good reasons why many feel that a Christian seder crosses the boundaries of appropriateness. Perhaps the most significant is that the appropriation of Jewish practices is itself a practice of supersessionism—the theological idea that Christianity has superseded Judaism. It implies strongly that the raison d’être of the seder is the celebration of Jesus as messiah, and not the Jewish celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt.  The application of Christian supersessionism has had disastrous effects for Jews throughout history.

In his book Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll writes as a former Catholic priest that this very supersessionism created a trajectory that started with Constantine and culminated with Carmelite nuns putting up crosses at the gates of Auschwitz.  Any suggestion that Judaism exists for any reason other than the religious identity and expression of the Jewish people feeds this pernicious dynamic.  While much of the Christian world has moved beyond this theology, much of it has not.  Delegitimizing Judaism under any motive is problematic, even if it is a well-intentioned one.

The best way to address the desire of faithful Christians to connect with the Jewish roots of Jesus is not facilitating a Christian seder.  Far better would be first to teach the reality of Passover observances in the Land of Israel during the First Century. Then the educational experience is extended by inviting Christians as guests to a Jewish seder, to give witness to the fact that Judaism has been a vibrant and evolving religious culture and not simply a precursor to Christianity.

The deepest learning is indeed experiential. Experiencing the traditions and rituals of others as an honored guest is a wonderful way to recognize what we hold in common, and celebrate what makes each tradition a unique voice in the chorus of a universal song of praise to the Creator of us all.  Passover is indeed a wonderful opportunity to accomplish these holy goals.  The challenge is to do so in a way that reflects and respects that Christianity and Judaism might in many ways be closely related and connected, but at the end of the day are not part and parcel of each other.  Respecting the unique gifts each offers the world is impossible otherwise.