Image: A Seder in a private home. People are talking animatedly around a large silver Seder plate, books and papers everywhere. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.
I recently received a very nice letter from an Episcopalian friend asking why her bishop had banned the practice of Christian Seder meals. This is my reply, with a few edits:
Dear Friend, great question.
I have mixed feelings about bans, too, but I appreciate your bishop’s support on this matter. The issue is that “Christian Seders” have become fashionable in some circles and too often are performed by people who are ignorant about Seders and Judaism and in some cases hold beliefs that are antisemitic.
Before 70 CE Jews observed Passover with Temple sacrifices. Each household traveled to Jerusalem, and each head of household took a lamb to the priests to shecht (butcher.) Some parts went on the altar for God, some went to the Temple workers, and the largest part was taken back to the hotel or camp where the family was staying. Then, as the lamb roasted, the story of Exodus was told as the family munched on greens and matzah.
When Jesus observed Passover, that would have been what he did, too, because the Temple was still standing.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, there was a huge problem for the Jews: without the Temple we could not observe the holiday. We needed a way to keep the commandments, the intent of which was to create a learning experience that would keep the story alive for each new generation.
What the rabbis did was look for the top educational methods of the time for models. Ultimately they chose the Greek symposium banquet as their framework. It combined learning and food and questioning. Hence the reclining, the fixed order of events, and the Afikomen. For the Greeks, the Afikomen was a dessert course accompanied by tasteful music and dancers.
Unfortunately the Romans had already copied the Greeks, but where the Greeks used it for scholarly inquiry, the Romans turned it into a gluttonous display of wealth and decadence. Each such Roman banquet ended with the Afikomen, a dessert/orgy combo.
The rabbis carefully set boundaries on the Seder so that it would be a learning event. They composed the outline of the Haggadah to keep us on track with plenty of room for improvisation. They designated some elements to encourage questioning. Finally, they prescribed that the final course of the meal, the Afikomen, was to consist of a broken piece of matza and a cup of wine. Those, and ONLY those, would be the close of the banquet. Later, singing became part of that final course as well.
(I teach this in the name of Rabbi Noam Zion, from whom I learned about the origins of the Seder in 2002 in Jerusalem.)
For Jews, this is one of the holiest events of the year. It is the cornerstone of Jewish education. We practically deconstruct our kitchens and our homes to observe it properly.
For someone to partially copy it feels to some of us as if this holy event has been used as a toy or a curiosity. A real Passover Seder is made in a home that has been prepared for Passover: if there’s any chametz left on the premises it has been confined and ritually nullified. The ritual is a combination of ancient traditions, family traditions, and this generation’s experiments. A real Seder requires real Jews.
(Imagine a group of non-Christians playing baptism or communion.)
Many Jewish congregations offer interfaith Seders or learners’ Seders at which participants learn about the Seder and about Judaism. Christians are welcome there. Christians are welcome at many real Seder tables. It’s only a problem when it is a pretend Seder, with no Jews involved, and especially when it is used as a vehicle for teaching a fantasy about “Jesus’s Seder.”
I’m sorry for the long winded reply; I hope I’ve answered your excellent question.
I wish you and your family a blessed Easter!
5 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbi: Why did my bishop ban Christian Seders?”
Thank you so much for the explanation, Rabbi! I’ve been asked by (well-meaning) Christian friends and acquaintances about Christian seders: whether it’s okay, or why shouldn’t they have them, and that it could only be a good thing. I’ve struggled to find the words to explain that it does feel like a play or a parody.
Now for me to stop procrastinating, and to get back to work to prepping the house.
Chag Pesach sameach!
It’s good to see increased awareness about this in the Christian community. If we are concerned about honoring people and their requests in life in various ways, then we would do well to care about it regarding these matters as well.
Here’s something I wrote about this a couple of years ago:
“Why don’t we educate our people to understand our Jewish roots?”
I thank you for this.
In my opinion we are in an area of sacred and cultural subtleties. The appropriation of another’s cultural rituals must always be done with great sensitivity. Think Kwanza or the indigenous tradition of Pow Wow. This sensitivity is all the more heightened when the practice is appropriated by the dominant group that may have actually been involved in the persecution of the group. There is also the danger of romanticizing a culture other than one’s own. All of this may well apply to the Seder, but there is also the disquieting fact that Christians worship and follow the teachings of a Jewish holy man and healer. Jesus’ context and teachings are entirely Jewish and all of his original followers were Jews as well. Alas the early Christ-followers began to scapegoat the Jews to their shame and Greek influences began to shape the Pauline and post Nicene Church. My point is that the Christian Church itself is a development. The desire to know the world of and understand the teachings of Jesus requires that Christians learn about and understand the culture and practices of 1st century Palestinian Judaism. So I am grateful for the Rabbis, scholars, and compassionate Jews who are willing to share their rich culture to help us understand and in some way to participate in the traditions that nurtured our Lord.
I am happy to educate pretty much anyone about Judaism as long as they are not going to use my classroom as an opportunity to proselytize, and as long as they are willing to be respectful of Jewish boundaries.