More than 15 years ago I received a telephone call from a young rabbinic colleague who clearly found herself in a situation of great discomfiture. At the time, I held a position for the Reform Jewish movement not unlike the position I hold today at the Anti-Defamation League, directing interfaith relations. As a newly ordained rabbi serving solo in a rural community, my young colleague had received an invitation from a local church to come and explain the Passover.
As she walked into the church basement, she found the room filled with round tables set in full Passover regalia, with seder plates, matzos, glasses of wine and church members holding a copy of the Passover prayer book at each seat. At the front of the room was one long table, 13 chairs filled by 12 people wearing white tunics and a large empty chair at the center of the table. Her host pointed to the chair and asked the rabbi to take her place.
The church members wanted to experience a Passover “just like the one Jesus experienced.” The young rabbi did her best to stumble through the event, but was clearly caught up in anxiety produced by the feeling that her holiday had, somehow, been co-opted. She knew that the way that the Passover had been celebrated 2,000 years before was quite different from its modern iteration. She needed my reassurance that she had done the right thing by telling the participants so.
Beyond ‘Getting to Know You’
In the past 40 years, since the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate (“Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”), there has been a great explosion of interest in the “Jewishness” of Jesus. Much effort has been put into understanding the religious environment in which Jesus and his disciples began their ministry and mission. The revolution reached its zenith under the church stewardship of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, whose formative years in Poland were shaped in part by his friendship with the Jews of his town and his personal love for the cantorial music of Jewish liturgy. This interest has been maintained by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, whose keen scholarship and theological writings have daringly taken on the difficult issues that arise when trying to balance the belief expressed in Nostra Aetate (recalling Paul in Rom 11:28-29) that “God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues,” with the belief that the church has become the “New Israel.”
Indeed, the growing dialogue of the past 40 years may have finally allowed Jews and Christians to move beyond simple platitudes and “getting to know you” sessions to take on, as Pope Benedict said to the Jewish community in Cologne (Aug. 19, 2005), “those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed precisely in those areas, we need to show respect and love for one another.” Church documents since Nostra Aetate have addressed these issues in serious ways. Even the way the Bible itself has been read and studied was taken up by the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001). It is vitally important to understand how the writers of much of the New Testament employed language, imagery and textual knowledge to create works that could be heard and understood first by their almost exclusively Jewish audiences. It is also critically important to study how the church fathers later read the texts without knowledge of the Jewish people and their beliefs and practices, and created a new overlay of understanding, which helped to found a church quite separate and distinct from the religious community from which it sprang.
The Passover Seder
It is this religious dynamism that creates the greatest of challenges at this Passover-Easter season. The dramatic events of Jesus’ final hours set against a backdrop of the pilgrimage festival of Pesach blurs the lines between the traditions, and of late we have been witness to increasing numbers of faithful Christians partaking in the Passover ritual as a means of discovering Jesus’ roots. While well-intentioned, many of these ersatz or “model seders” held by and for Christians without authentic Jewish participation create more misunderstanding of Christianity and Judaism, not less. (It must be noted that there have been “model” seders whose educational purpose is to create understanding of shared experiences of disparate communities—for example Latino-Jewish seders or black-Jewish seders. These, which have a distinct educational purpose, are not the kind of seders to which I am referring.)
The Passover Seder is the pinnacle of religious ritual and drama. Like great opera, all the essential elements must be present for the “magic” to occur. I have been to more than my share of lifeless and meaningless recreations of the Passover Seder to know what it is like when it does not work. The Passover Seder is, in sum total, essential Jewish faith and expression. We read the same script year in and year out. We know it so intimately that it sings through us. The participants at the seder are not trying to remember a historical event that helps frame their identity, but to live out the experience themselves of being redeemed from servitude and pointed toward freedom. It is not enough to feel what it “might have been like” to be a slave tasting freedom for the first time—we must feel our feet burning in the desert sands, as the price of redemption. The symbols are not reminders but reality. We eat the bitter herbs and have a bitter taste on our tongues. We eat the dry and almost tasteless matzo, as the food of desperation and flight. We experience the joy of community as we embrace family and friends. Finally, we express a communal desire to return to the land of our covenantal promise, the goal toward which we marched for 40 years. For that evening, we are the slaves, and we are the redeemed.
This is the core of the Jewish soul—our identity is expressed as, “Once we were slaves, now we are free.” And at the center of this drama stands the main character—not Moses, as in the Bible’s accounting, but God. Moses is absent, because for us God is incorporeal, and we should not pin our hopes of redemption on anything else but our covenantal partner.
The Passover and the Passion
But the seder as we know it today is dynamic—it has changed over time. From a historical point of view, the Passover celebration finds its roots in two separate biblical festivals that became conflated. There is the springtime Festival of Matzot—the first bread from new grain, which gains new meaning as the bread baked as we fled from Egyptian slavery. And there is also the Paschal offering—first done to mark the doorposts of the homes during the tenth and darkest plague that resulted in the Exodus from Egypt.
During Second Temple times, Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals that swelled Jerusalem, and the offerings were young lambs, which were sacrificed and shared communally. At this communal meal, matzo was the biblically mandated food, which was to be eaten with bitter herbs (Num 9:11, Ex 12:8). In the Mishna, compiled more than a century after the destruction of the Second Temple, we see that Rabban Gamaliel has made the three features of Paschal sacrifice, matzo and maror (bitter herbs) the sine qua non of the ritual. We also learn from the Mishna that after the second cup a child must ask his father about the symbols. (Originally there were five questions. The fifth, which was removed by Maimonides in the 12th century, was “Why on this night do we eat meat that is only roasted?”) This questioning—the didactic, educational experience—- is what frames a story that moves from degradation to redemption and then to joy. But in the end, it is not a universal story, but a particular one—so particular that it is, ultimately, one’s personal story, one’s Jewish identity.
The events of the Passion of Jesus are recalled against a backdrop of the Passover celebration, but we do not learn about how Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover from the New Testament. The Synoptic Gospel writers place the night of Jesus’ supper with his disciples on the eve of the Passover. As we read in Luke 22:7, Jesus wants a Passover (paschal sacrifice) to be prepared so that he can share it with his disciples. The early Jewish listeners would have understood what this meant, and so we have no precise description of the Jewish ritual as practiced by Jesus and his followers. We learn how Jesus innovated a religious event to recast it through association with him and the events yet to unfold. According to the Gospel of John, which seems to place great stock in getting chronology exactly right, Jesus’ meal takes place the night before Passover (hence there would not have been anything that smacks of a seder). Whatever has been reported in the Synoptics and John is authentically a religious event in the life of Jesus and his disciples, but does not—nor is it intended to—accurately depict a Jewish event. If anything, the writers are demonstrating how Jesus innovated religious ritual, not how he fulfilled one. The Eucharist is a distinctly Christian event that first played on a Jewish stage.
Therefore, those well-meaning folks who want to understand the vital Jewish community from which Jesus and his followers sprang would do well to study the history of the time and the literature of the intertestamental period, as well as the early rabbis and early church fathers. It is through that examination that a clearer and more accurate understanding of the foundational culture of the followers of Jesus might be divined.
Beyond Simplistic Dialogue
Of late, I still hear of seders held by Christian groups—some even try a form of religious syncretism—applying new meanings to Jewish symbols (Why are there three matzos? Why are the matzos scored with holes? Why is the middle matzo broken?). Imagine how a faithful Christian would feel to see the intensely meaningful Eucharist appropriated by another religious group and changed by new explanations of the essential symbolic elements.
I welcome this new interest that we Jews and Christians have expressed in each other’s faith and tradition. And I welcome opportunities to move beyond the simplistic dialogue to a dialogue that is profound and troubling and elevating. I want to welcome Christians to my family seder so that they may understand my personal Jewish religious experience, as I have been lucky enough to share in religious rituals of my Christian friends. But when it comes to using my religious event to understand your own—please, don’t try this at home.