I was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, neither of whom were particularly dedicated to their faiths, though they both brought certain religious customs to the table by way of their extended families. I started life with a menorah next to our Christmas tree, visits from the Easter bunny and Passover Seders at my grandparents’ home. After my mother passed away, I was raised by my Catholic aunt and uncle, who did their best to maintain a connection to my Jewish roots, including one ill-attempted Seder meal.
My adoptive mother knew that, as a Catholic of British and French ancestry, this was not her tradition, and yet she wished for me to experience it because the untimely death of my birth mother had robbed me of the practice. She consulted a Jewish teacher at our local school, who spent hours walking my mother through each step of the meal: the preparation, the prayers, the food. The end result was nothing short of disastrous and never again to be repeated (the rancid horseradish, complaining siblings and the stench of burnt gefilte fish — a seemingly impossible feat that requires the evaporation of all stock — are now the stuff of family legend), but I admire my mother’s dedication to accuracy and respect.
These days, I’m baptized, and a practicing Catholic, so I no longer attend family seders. But a growing number of churches are, indeed, offering “Christian Seders” — meals that adopt the Jewish tradition and add some Christian flair and language, and that don’t always seem to be guided by the same deference that my mother displayed. The Christian Seder was first introduced in the 1970s by way of the evangelical movement “Jews for Jesus,” comprised of Jewish converts to Christianity. Preserving Jewish traditions while practicing Christianity has long been their platform, teaching that Jews need not give up their cultural practices to accept Jesus. Evangelicals have readily accepted this new tradition, commingling their own Christianity with the Jewish practice. A Washington Post reporter observed a Seder at one Maryland church in 2006: “It was just like a traditional Jewish Passover Seder. Except: The Seder meal was served before the Seder service started, instead of two-thirds of the way through. There was dancing. And Jesus was everywhere.”
The Jewish tradition of Passover is a beautiful one, and it’s no wonder the practice attracted non-Jews. But as someone with roots in both Judaism and Christianity, I wish my fellow Christians would resist the urge to spice up the Seder with a hearty dose of the New Testament and Jesus.
Jews do not recognize Jesus as the messiah. The early church took great efforts to separate from the Jewish tradition. For centuries in Europe, this season was especially dangerous for Jews, who were often accused in the Middle Ages of slaying Christian children to use their blood to bake matzoh, or attacked around Easter for their ancestors’ alleged role in the crucifixion of Christ. Today’s Christians are obviously not motivated by the same murderous impulses as the Crusaders were, and they might feel strongly connected to Judaism through Jesus. But chances are the feeling is not mutual.
At best, adding to a very specific and established ritual clumsily dismisses the importance of thousands of years of traditions around the Seder.
The Christian Resource Institute goes so far as to offer a guide to “Recovering the Passover Meal for Christians.” The cringeworthy title is followed by pages of instruction on how to take this Jewish custom and claim it as Christian. In the midst of defining all of the Hebrew terms for the Christian reader, the guide recommends altering sacred elements of the Seder, including Elijah’s cup. In a Jewish seder, this full cup of wine is left untouched, symbolizing the prophet who announced the Messiah’s coming. The Christian Resource Institute tells Christians to use the cup to symbolize the Christian Eucharist. The afikoman, a piece of matzoh broken off and hidden until the end of the meal, is Christianized into the Eucharist. Even the act of breaking the matzoh is now creatively reframed to symbolize the breaking of Jesus’s bones in the crucifixion. Regardless of how well-intentioned the practitioner may be, all of this disrespects the deeply rooted symbolism of each Seder element.
Several Catholic websites encourage a celebration of the Passover Seder on Holy Thursday, the end of their Lenten observance and the beginning of what is known as the Easter Triduum. CatholicCulture.org, an resource for Catholic practices, suggests that since Jesus was celebrating the Passover Seder with his disciples, this is the appropriate moment for its observance. But many scholars now believe this to be impossible, as the elements of a Seder did not come into existence until well after Jesus’s death, in 70 CE, when the second temple of Jerusalem was destroyed.
In the United States, some elements of Jewish culture have gone mainstream: Many people enjoy bagels and know a few Yiddish words. But the true value of the Seder isn’t the matzoh ball soup. Judaism isn’t just a bunch of cultural artifacts, it’s a living religion, with customs that are sacred to millions of people. To appreciate Jewish culture is one thing; to borrow the rites of a major holiday for a completely alien purpose is another. It disrespects the Jewishness of the seder — a painful irony for a festival that’s centered around the early days of the Jewish history of marginalization, persecution, even extermination.
To be fair, there are churches that agree. Addressing the growing interest in Seders among Christians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America strongly cautioned its members “to consider how it might be perceived by our Jewish neighbors. While it is an admirable and truly Christian practice to be open and welcoming of other religious traditions, taking a tradition that does not belong to us and practicing it in our congregations could be an imitation that is not welcomed at best and very offensive at worst.”
So what is an admirer of Jewish culture to do? Perhaps be invited to a friend’s Seder meal in their own home. The Passover haggadah specifically says anyone who’s hungry is welcome to join, and many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer public Seders, particularly on the second day of Passover, where any and all may come celebrate and learn.
I am considered a Jew by virtue of matrilineal succession, and I have been the target of anti-Semitic slurs, although nothing like the suffering endured by my ancestors. I embrace and honor my heritage and share it with my children; I love nothing more than visiting my Jewish family and celebrating with them, sharing the food and prayers of our common blood. But I am also a practicing Catholic, so the Seder is no longer my birthright. Sure, I spend the month of April stocking up on matzoh, coconut macaroons and Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, but maybe those cravings for Passover food are linked to my very DNA. As for the gefilte fish? I suffer no longing for this gelatinous delicacy of my past.