Why Christians Should Have a Passover Seder: A Rabbi Responds

On Maundy Thursday many churches will hold a Passover Seder, a ritual meal recounting God’s freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.

For Christians it recalls Jesus’ Last Supper. It also reminds Christians of Jesus’ Jewish practices. Some Christians and Jews believe Church seders are inappropriate. They say it distorts the Jewishness of the Passover holiday. In RD earlier this week, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy argued that it “does unwitting harm” by treating contemporary Jews as “relics rather than people,” as a dead group from the past rather than a living community in the present

These concerns may seem compelling in theory, but having led seders at churches over the past seven years, I can say they are entirely misplaced. When done well a Church seder can deepen a Christian’s appreciation of the Jewish roots of Christianity and provide a meaningful spiritual experience.

What do opponents say?

1. The Seder is a Jewish ritual. Holding one in a church is like having communion in a synagogue.

Who decided the seder is only a Jewish ritual? The origins of the seder are the Passover meal described in detail in the Book of Exodus, which is also part of the Christian scripture. While the Exodus story is central to Jewish identity, it is also part of Christianity. 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.

2. The Christian interpretations of the Passover items are not authentic or appropriate. To equate Jesus with the sacrificial lamb or the wine with his blood distorts the meaning of the ritual items.

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. And, as I will discuss below, I think it is important for a rabbi or knowledgeable Jews to participate in a Church seder.

Yet, disagreement does not imply illegitimacy. We Jews interpret the Passover ritual items in dozens of ways. 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.

3. It just feels wrong—even insulting—for Christians to take a Jewish tradition and turn into a Christian ceremony.

Good fences, Robert Frost once said, make good neighbors. To apply his insight to the religious world, we might say boundaries between faiths help us preserve the integrity of them all. A Christian seder, some suggest, crosses over those 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. A church seder should not be led by a youth minister who printed out an article from Wikipedia. It should be done thoughtfully, in consultation with spiritual leaders committed to mutual respect.

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.

Read Rabbi David Greenspoon’s response to Rabbi Moffic here. – eds