Passover has a special allure for Christians. It is on the night of Passover, as all Israel is offering the pascal Lamb and eating matza (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs on the slopes of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that Jesus of Nazareth meets with his 12 disciples for the Last Supper. This may be the best-known Passover meal.
Both of these meals—Jesus’s Last Supper and the first Passover meal—are launch events. Each of them inaugurates a new religious civilization. Thus, for the believing Christian, it is no coincidence that Jesus convenes the disciples at the very moment of the Passover meal to signal that this meal is the fulfillment of and successor to that first Passover meal, and that like the first one, the Last Supper inaugurates a new faith community. For most of Christian history, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, replaced the Jewish Passover Seder. For Jews, however, the most important Passover meal is the very first, described in Exodus 12. It is the meal by which Israel celebrates its liberation from the pagan culture of Egypt/Mitzrayim by serving the One God and bringing an offering to the One God. That first Passover meal is eaten home-by-home, family-by-family. The guest list consists of all the members of the family, men and women, old and young, wise and foolish, learned and ignorant, boys and girls. In other words, present at that first Passover offering was the whole Jewish family in all of its delight and complexity. When Jews today celebrate the Passover, they are reenacting that moment and connecting with all Jews across time and space who have been celebrating the Passover Seder for millennia.
The re-emergence of Christian interest in the Jewish Passover and especially the Seder is due, in part, to the American context. Our social and political culture, where people are free to practice their faith freely as well as freely explore other faiths—has made it possible for Jews and Christians to satisfy their innate human curiosity and to come to know the other as never before. This ethos is felt nowhere more powerfully than in the encounter that takes place between Christianity and Judaism in Christian Holy Week and Passover, which fall in the same week approximately three out of every four years.
This interest can be traced to the emergence of post–World War II Jewish-Christian dialogue, in which the “model Seder,” led by a knowledgeable Jew, emerged as an opportunity to use the Passover/Easter connection to teach Christians about Judaism, but also because Christians wanted to better understand the Jewish background of their faith. But these well-intentioned goals were the victim of their own success. Increasing numbers of Christians wanted to have that experience, even if there were no Jews around to lead it. And so what began as an effort at interreligious and historical understanding morphed into a tradition for many churches’ Holy Week celebrations, so that in some settings the Seder has become a form of Christian worship. This trend has been exacerbated by the increased recognition of the Jewishness of Jesus and a desire among some Christians to do what Jesus would have done—good and faithful Christians want to experience a Passover meal like Jesus. In evangelical settings, the promotion of Christian Seders by those who identify as messianic Jews and other such affiliations has also contributed to its growth.
So this is a phenomenon that cannot be denied, but it is one that most Jews find particularly troubling.
The first reason is historical. The Seder ritual, as it is practiced today, did not exist at the time of Jesus. It was only fully developed by the rabbis in the years following the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., in other words, at least two generations after Jesus. Many assume that Jesus, at the Last Supper, conducted what we now know of as a traditional Passover Seder with the Pesakh (pascal) offering of the lamb, matza, bitter herbs, the telling of the tale of the Exodus from Egypt, and other rituals as found in the Jewish Passover Hagada. This is incorrect. To put it bluntly, Jesus certainly celebrated Passover, but neither he nor his disciples ever attended a Seder, any more than they drove a car or used a cell phone.
In the Last Supper, Jesus surely is making allusions to the Exodus, as does the Jewish Passover meal, but that event takes a back seat to his revealing himself as “the Passover lamb,” as the object of a new and revolutionary expression of faith. The Jewish Passover meal inaugurates the Jewish people into its history; it prepares them to fulfill the responsibilities of the mitzvot (commandments) given at Sinai. As such, it is an event designed for and limited to the Jewish people. Jesus of Nazareth, in the Last Supper, presents himself as the offering not just for all Israel, but for all of humanity. He is, in short, establishing a unique ritual. In our view, celebrating a Christian Seder to commemorate the Last Supper misses the point historically.
Second, adopting another’s ritual shows a lack of respect. Even when pursued with the best of intentions, taking another faith’s sacred ritual and transforming it into an expression of one’s own tradition displays a misunderstanding of the complex nature of faith traditions. Good relations between Christianity and Judaism, and by extension, other faiths as well, may begin with acknowledging common principles, but also demand a clear articulation of the profound differences that separate them. However, it is surely not the goal of good interfaith relations for Jews and Christians to co-opt or reshape one another’s rituals for their own ends.
On the other hand, for the Jew, the Passover Seder is not some quaint experience such as Thanksgiving dinner or a Fourth of July barbeque, which like other aspects of our American “civil religion,” Jews and Christians should and do share, readily and with ease. The Passover Seder expresses the belief that God who redeemed us once from Egypt will in the End of Days inaugurate the messianic era for the first time, redeem the Jewish people from the Exile in which we now find ourselves, and ultimately bring God’s eternal reign of peace and righteousness to the entire world. It is the meal that celebrates that Jews are God’s chosen people with a unique mission, and points back to what we believe is the first and only divine revelation, at Sinai.We like to think of rituals as the lovemaking between a faith community and God. They are unique, and they express utterly distinct beliefs that Jews and only Jews hold, or that Christians and only Christians hold. In our experience, Jews who encourage a Christian adaptation of the Passover Seder view and naturally emphasize Jesus as a fine teacher, partaking of the Jewish culture of his times, interested in the same kinds of Torah learning as the Perushim, the righteous Pharisees whose teachings are foundational to rabbinic, and therefore, contemporary, Judaism. In doing so, such Jews do not realize they are showing profound disrespect and lack of understanding of Christian faith in Jesus. For the Christian, Jesus is not merely one more interesting and inspiring member of the Jewish scholarly community of the first century. Jesus was certainly part of that world, but for the Christian, Jesus is God incarnate, the risen Christ. For the Christian, the blood of the new Lamb of God on the cross is what atones not only for sin, but also brings salvation and life eternal.
Jews and Christians honor their traditions—and those of the other—best when we recognize that those traditions cannot be turned into something that they are not. We honor and respect each other when we do not trespass on the other’s most sacred ground, violating the very respect that love for neighbor requires. In our view, in the understandable Christian rush to embrace certain elements of the Jewish tradition, Christians far too often forget that rituals of any faith community are its most precious possession and that these rituals emerge from a unique set of beliefs, faith affirmations, and historical experiences.
Should a Christian want to know something of a Passover Seder, there is many a readily available Jewish host who would set a fine table for his or her Christian friends and neighbors. We have often welcomed non-Jewish visitors to our Shabbat dinner tables, our Passover meals, weddings, bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, and the like. In these settings, it is clear that the ritual is a wholly authentic Jewish experience. There is a world of difference between being a guest in someone else’s home or house of worship, and the expropriation of another’s ritual for one’s own religious purposes.
The Seder is uniquely Jewish, born of the Jewish reading of the Torah, shaped by the architecture of our magisterial Perushim-Pharisees and their rabbis, and given artistry and beauty through 2,000 years of Jewish experience. Christians best honor their Jewish neighbors, to whom they wish to express the love of Christ, by recognizing that the Seder meal is the unique spiritual heritage of the Jewish people and respecting it as such.
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is rabbinic scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Rabbi David Sandmel is director of interreligious engagement for the Anti-Defamation League.
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