No “Christian Seders,” Please!

155NOTE: In March 2013, I posted a series of Facebook Notes about so-called “Christian Seders” and the special obligation Christians have in Lent and Holy Week especially to be vigilant about the way our observances may have an impact on Jews, Christian understandings of Judaism, and related matters. I have been asked by several colleagues to re-post these reflections this year. I am happy to do so. I need to make it clear, however, that I am not an expert on these matters. What I say below is my take on controverted questions, born mostly of my own reading and of my interfaith relationships. Please take them as such.

No “Christian Seders,” Please!

With Holy Week on the horizon,  many Christian congregations have started announcing “Christian Seder” meals to observe Maundy Thursday. People of good will recognize this as a devout and well-intentioned attempt to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish roots of the Christian communion meal which was, Christians say, instituted by Jesus on the night he was handed over–a night that fell, according to the gospel accounts, during the annual Passover observance. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians would desire to commemorate this institution with a nod to its original context.

There are many difficulties attaching to the practice of a Seder meal by Christians, however (the biggest being that a Seder is simply not for Christians, but we’ll get to that later). Some of them are historical. For example, we really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ so-called Last Supper was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came generations after the time of Jesus

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose after the destruction of the Temple, and developed through Late Antiquity into Middle Ages. It is a still-developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the Haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal, the Eucharist. If that is true, Christians celebrating a Seder in the form their Jewish neighbors are using are celebrating, at least in part, a meal that was meant to criticize them and establish the distinctiveness of Jewish rites over against Christian ones. This anti-Christian critique is no longer prominent in most contemporary Seders, but this curious history of the Seder still makes for a polemical mish-mash that, if known by the organizers of “Christian “Seders, might take away some of the romance of the night!

So for starters, to hold a Seder as a way to commemorate the “background” meal Jesus shared with his disciples and which he “turned into” a Communion meal (as I have heard some Christians say) is anachronistic—it is a tradition Jesus did not know. More precisely and significantly, however, it is a tradition that developed into its present forms after Jews and Christians had taken separate religious paths. It’s a tradition, therefore, that Jews and those who became Christian never shared in the first place. It belongs to Jews only and distinguishes them as Jews in ways that make any Christian usage of it seem presumptuous, especially given the fraught and violent history of Christian usurpation and replacement of all things Jewish that we call supersessionism.  Given this history and this ongoing supplanting of the Jewish covenant, I wonder if we would do better to spend our time reflecting on what often befell Jews in Holy Week in many places in medieval Western and Eastern Europe—the pogrom—than to spend time appropriating one of their characteristic rituals and making it our own.

Holding a Seder in a Christian church as a Christian event during Christian Holy Week is dicey. Dicier still is  celebrating a Eucharist in the course of the Seder meal or finishing the Seder with a Communion service. This  sends an unintentional but real message that the important thing about this Seder is what Jesus did to transform it and make it into something else. In other words, what we imply is that the Seder’s real value is to point towards or usher in Communion– that Communion is really what it’s all about, when all else is said and done. This is to write Jews out of their own story. We have already succeeded in often writing them out by the way we often use “Old Testament” texts in preaching and teaching—let’s not turn their meal into our meal for our devotional agendas, just because it feels more authentic or rootsy for us to do so.

Ritual is, after all, lodged in and arises from a community’s corporate experience; and in this case, it is the experience of suffering and liberation, slavery and salvation that Christian share with Jews in a kind of mythical and mystical sense, but not in fact: we are not Jews (the vast majority of us, anyway) and we cannot and do not celebrate a Seder out of anything remotely resembling the lived experience of Jews, or with the theological and spiritual worldview such experience generates. We can and must appreciate it, revere it, admire it, learn about it, even participate in it (for example, when invited into a Jewish home during Passover), but it is and never will be ours, and we ought not treat it as if it were. Just because we are a “successor tradition” doesn’t mean that everything that “they” have is or should also be ours.

There is a danger that in a well-intentioned attempt to honor the church’s Jewish origins, and (we think) do what Jesus did that night, we may end up caricaturing the Jewish ritual we claim to honor. It can be a kind of pious play-acting that is a very far cry from the profound communal anamnesis that is proper to “this night unlike any other night.” Only Jews can experience Passover in such a way that those who ate in haste and fled the Egyptians through the Sea have no spiritual  advantage over those who sit at the Seder table today.

Beyond all this is the basic question of why some of us feel we need to hold a Seder in Holy Week in our Christian congregations in the first place. The treasure chest of Christian liturgical ritual that pertains to the Paschal season is so enormously rich that one wonders why we would turn to someone else’s. Perhaps it is because so few of our churches celebrate this range and depth of options that we cast around looking for something meaningful and rich like we imagine a Seder to be.

What could Christian do instead during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection that a “Christian Seder” is anachronistic, a contradiction in terms, and a potential offense to Jews today for whom the Passover rituals are a living tradition, and not a sort of curious antiquarianism?

If we really want to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ last days, we might consider participating in the classic liturgies of the Triduum, the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. It is there, in the experience of those ancient liturgical traditions that we encounter the meaning, depth, and power of our salvation. In the rituals associated with Passover, Jews recount their story of redemption. In the liturgies of the Great Three Days, and especially in the Easter Vigil, Christians recount and relive our own.

In the end, congregations that hold “Christian Seders” may simply desire to learn about Judaism, better understand their Jewish neighbors, and grapple with the Jewish roots of Christianity—all of which is commendable, even urgent. They should go ahead and do so, not with a Christianized Seder, but with a visit to their local synagogue for a talk with the Rabbi about how best to facilitate that understanding with respect. Perhaps the Rabbi would come and talk to a group in that congregation about what a Seder entails and what it means to Jews. Or perhaps a Jewish friend might have an extra place at their Seder table for some folks from the Christian congregation this year.

And if Maundy Thursday still cries out for a meal, hold a potluck, an agape meal, a love feast, an elaborated Communion service—choose from the Christian repertoire of feasts to celebrate with— but let the Jews have their feast. No Christian Seders, please!

More on “Christian Seders”

At the risk of overdoing it (I am not in fact persuaded that we can ever overdo this), I want to add to my previous Note about “Christan Seders” the following precision:

On Maundy Thursday, many Christian congregations hold “Christian Seders” in conjunction with Tenebrae, Holy Communion, and other liturgical commemorations of the night Jesus was handed over.  They give various reasons for doing so, but in general they use the Seder as a way to recall and explore the Jewish roots of our faith, to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, to lend historical context to the institution of the Christian Eucharist, and to learn about Jewish ritual practices (i. e., “teaching Seders”) in an open, interfaith spirit.

In some cases, these Seders are led by Jews—a local rabbi, or Jewish friends of the congregation—but the majority are not. They are a wholly “in-house” affair, for Christians by Christians. My objections are directed at these in-house kinds of  “Christian Seder” celebrations.

Congregations that borrow or adapt the modern Jewish Seder for their own devotional purposes on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week need to understand that what they are doing is not a neutral act. Apart from other significant theological and historical objections that should be made to a “Christian Seder,”  [see my previous “Note”] the long, violent and painful story of Christian appropriation of Judaism itself—replacement theology or ‘supersessionism’—should be enough to make us think twice about doing it.

It is no accident that many a medieval pogrom erupted during Holy Week. It was a time rife with anti-Jewish preaching that placed the blame for Jesus’ death on Jews—not just on the ancient Jews, but on all Jews— and, in some cases, directly called for unsparing violence against them. Whenever Christians celebrate a “Christian Seder” that includes or culminates in Holy Communion, it is also chillingly instructive to recall that one of the great medieval slanders against the Jews is that they routinely committed sacrilege against the communion wafer in all kinds of horrific and bloodthirsty ways. This is the history we ineluctably carry with us whenever we do something like celebrate a “Christian Seder.”

My objection to the “Christian Seder” is not about the potential it has for offending Jews. It has that potential, and it does offend many Jews, and avoiding this offense is a good thing to want to do, and I do want us to avoid giving it! But the bigger issue for me is the insidious impact it can have on us Christians.

Let’s face it, despite years of interfaith  efforts, many Christians continue to assume reflexively that Christianity has supplanted Judaism in God’s plan and affections. We might not say it that way, but it shows in the way we use certain biblical texts, talk about a God of Love (Christian) and a God of Wrath (the “Old Testament God”), and juxtapose Law and Grace—in these cases and others, the clear implication is that Christianity has not only succeeded Judaism, it has superseded it.

In their everyday dealings with Jews (if they have such connections), most mainline Christians probably don’t regard the religion of their neighbors, friends, and coworkers as inferior to their own; but in church, in the course of hearing scripture and sermons on scripture, during certain liturgical seasons, and in devotional conversations, an old reflex asserts itself. Our inner Marcionite emerges, and as long as no one corrects us, we continue to operate in the universe of stereotype and slander that for centuries made it possible for Christians to see it as a religious duty to defame and slaughter Jews. And the fact that we do so often unwittingly makes it all the worse.

This is my point: not only because we have a long history of appropriating Judaism for Christian  ends, making of it a mere preparation for the true faith and regarding its characteristic practices as mere foreshadowings and symbols of the real things, we are still doing it today. The practice of a “Christian Seder” is a good example of just how unexamined this fraught relationship remains, and thus how easily its consequences could be visited on our neighbors again, even in our enlightened, interfaith, tolerant, and inclusive age.

That it could never happen here, that it could never happen again, that we would never do that—these are the lazy assumptions that allow us to meander through Holy Week up to our necks in the dangerous waters of supersessionism, playing out again and again the old patterns of reflex disdain.

Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder by Christians and for Christians for our own Christian agenda is one of them. It may seem devout and altogether benign, even constructive, on the surface; but it is just one more in a long sad line of things we have tried to steal from Jesus’ people in his name, as we have systematically written Jews out of their own story because, we say (not without truth), it is also in a deep sense our story too. And if it is also our story (and here we go wrong) we can do with it whatever we please.

Although holding a Seder (for Christians by Christians for a Christian agenda) may seem like a devout and constructive thing to do, and no doubt for many Christians it lends meaning to the Holy Week journey, it is an unavoidably fraught activity. Our anti-Jewish history has earned us a particular responsibility to make sure that our embrace of the Jewish heritage is serious, respectful, self-conscious and well-considered. We may not borrow, play-act, adapt, or otherwise appropriate anything Jewish like a Seder without carrying with us into that activity this whole history.

Remembering and telling the Jewish story is one of the Seder’s most characteristic features. Maybe instead of holding a Seder we should make time in Holy Week remembering and telling our own story, lamenting and repenting the sad history that haunts us still, and looking to Christ for the grace to change it, once and for all.

Postscript on “Christian Seders,” supersessionism, and reading Scripture

Some of you asked me to make more widely available this comment I left in a thread about the “Christian Seder” business. It concerns supersessionism and the Bible. Here it is:

I do not mean to say that we Christians cannot read texts from the Bible (”Old Testament”) and find in them Christological meaning. I think it is perfectly appropriate for us who hold (and have tenaciously held since the days of Marcion) to both ‘testaments’ as one Bible to read ‘backwards and forwards’ in this way.

Within the household of the Christian church, I believe we can own and interpret Hebrew Scripture faithfully, without  contempt, even when the meaning we find in the texts is not its “original” meaning for the people who gave the world the Bible.

I don’t think it is necessarily a usurpation of a supersessionist variety for us to cherish, for example, the suffering servant text in Isaiah as having something to do with the way we think about Jesus, or the text about the young woman conceiving as having something to do with the way we think about Mary, as long as at the same time we also know that it doesn’t in fact have to do with Jesus or Mary, and that it has a meaning of its own not only for the Jews “back then,” but also for the ongoing community for whom the Book is a living testament.

What we cannot do is say ‘This (Mariological or Christolical reading) is THE meaning of the text.” We must say instead, “This is the way we (Christians) read it in the light of our religious experience and tradition.” There’s a difference, I think, between reading the ‘Old Testament’ in a Christian way and circumscribing its universe of meaning to the Christian reading.

In short, no Christian in the pew should ever come away from a sermon on the suffering servant text thinking it is a Christian passage, even if they’ve been helped to see that, while it does not refer to Christ, it can and does help us think about, know, and love him.

To avoid “writing Jews out of their own story” when we engage in a “Christian” reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, then, we need to operate on two levels at once: on the level of the text as an expression of a particular people’s religious experience, which is not ours; and on the level of the text as the Church hears it in the context of its its particular experience of Christ.

This double-vision may oblige us, for example, to refrain from a too-easy juxtaposition in liturgy of certain texts, “OT” and “NT,” that suggests that the NT text explains or fulfills the OT text in a way that exhausts all other possibilities of interpretation (this happens way too frequently in some lectionary pairings).

It may oblige us to speak of certain figures and events in the Hebrew Scriptures less as archetypes, allegories, or foreshadowings of Christ and his ministry, and more as evidence of the consistent pattern of God’s activity throughout ”salvation history,” with which our Christian experience of God in Christ is wholly consistent .

It may simply mean that we take the time to put a short note in the bulletin giving the original context of  the text, or explaining the way the texts are used in, say, The Messiah or other Christian sacred music.

Before all else, however, it means that we have to spend more time as pastors,  educators, leaders in and of Christian congregations helping people to love the Bible, read the Bible, and to read it with prismed glasses, since for Christians, no one lens suffices.

Of course, this is a super-challenging activity for many contemporary Christians who barely know the Bible at all any more, let alone its hermeneutical complexities, but we can’t expect anyone to read “without contempt” if we don’t teach with urgency.

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108 thoughts on “No “Christian Seders,” Please!

  1. Michael Harvey

    Dear Pastor/Professor,
    I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful writing. With Pesach just around the corner, many of us in the rabbinate fear the upcoming “Christian Seders” with less than pure intentions. I’m wondering if you’ve read a book by my professor at Hebrew Union College, Dr. Michael Cook, called “Modern Jews Engage the New Testament.” He devotes an entire chapter to this subject and does it quite well. You hit on many of his points, and I think you’d enjoy reading it. As a soon-to-be Rabbi (this may I am ordained) and one who is heavily passionate about interfaith dialogue and education, I am very grateful and touched by your intelligent words in this post. Many thanks!
    Best,

    Michael Harvey

    Reply
    1. sicutlocutusest Post author

      Michael, thanks so much for your comment, and for the reference to Dr. Cook’s book. I have not read it, and look forward to doing so. Congratulations on your upcoming ordination! And have a blessed happy Pesach! M.

      Reply
  2. Ùr-Fhàsaidh

    The celebration of the Eucharist is (to the Christian) the paschal mystery – the feast and the anamnesis of our delivery from the darkness of sin, alienation, suffering and death. Christianity simply does not exist without this ‘Christian’ seder. Yes, the present Jewish and Christian rituals are different, and these differences must be respected. They are not the same, and nor should they be, but they do find their historical root in the same (or very similar) rite.

    Reply
  3. David Simon

    The problem with too many Christian Seders is we seek to overlay them with our expectations or liturgies, rather than discover the richness and fullness of a tradition which has endured through not centuries, but through millennium. Christians short-circuit the Seder by making one cup all important; to the Jews there are four (or five!) which are all required in order to tell the whole story.
    If Christians attend the meal with the question of the second son, “What does this ceremony mean to you;” (Ex 12:26) rather than the inquiry of the wise son: “What are the testimonies, the statues, and the judgments which the Lord our God commanded us;” (Dt 6:29) the meal only becomes an event to reinforce a practical practice of shallowness experienced by many Christians. [Some ideas on how a “Wise Son” can prepare for the Seder are found under the blog tab of http://www.KosherCopy.com beginning March 7, 2015, please read and comment.]
    The Passover meal is ancient! Although the earliest Haggadah date merely to eighth century AD, the order of today’s service is related in the Mishnah of the second century AD. Hints of the service are found in the book of Psalms (800 BC) and in Exodus 12-13. Through the Passover (when presented correctly) celebrants can find motivation for thanksgiving, celebration of freedom (and salvation), proper perspectives on treating the alien (who might reside illegally in the US), a method of passing our faith through the generations, and the compassion to reach out to the poor.
    A great lesson for Christians, who in this day and age practice their faith often solely in the church building led by ordained clergy could be taken from Exodus 12, where Passover originated in the home led by a non-ordained facilitator called “father.” The lesson is staged for children (not adults) in order to pass on the heritage, with fantastic teaching tools (Salt water = tears; through bitter herbs we can taste the feelings of a slave).
    To hold a Christian Passover as a “well-intentioned attempt to honor the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish roots of the Christian communion meal” misses the point. Great spiritual lessons can come through Christian and/or Jewish observance of this meal … and these lessons are multiplied when holding the meal becomes an annual tradition (Is it Biblical to make this an annual tradition?).

    Reply
  4. Ginna Watson

    While I understand your comments about respecting the origins of the Seder, I think any chance to find a shared ground between religions should be celebrated, not discouraged!

    –Respectfully,
    Ginna Watson

    Reply
  5. erin

    I love this and your thoughtful and careful comments about our clumsiness in usurping Jewish traditions for our own benefit. Too many ordinary Christians are sloppy in their exigetical work when preaching from Hebrew scriptures. They all too easily hijack passages like Isaiah 53 and say they were prophecies about Jesus, the suffering servant, when they are nothing of the kind, as you say. We make the passage fit our preconceived notion about the fortelling of Jesus and the suffering he would endure instead of doing the hard work of study. I preached recently on Is 53 and made a point to say this was about Israel, not Jesus. I appreciate you nuancing this issue and being diligent strident about your cautions. I have attended both a “christian seder” and a seder at a synagogue, explained by a rabbi and elders of the church. The difference was night and day. To listen to our Jewish friends explain their faith and tbeir rituals helps, but you sense you are just stratching the surface. Jews are people of the earth and by that they embody the word in a way I don’t think we ever can. We live in our head, not our heart, per se. There’s a big difference. Well done. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Bowman Walton

      Since readers of scripture in Second Temple Judaism were not polarized to messianic or rabbinical poles as they came to be in later centuries, neither were their readings of the prophets. At the very end, for example, the rabbi Akiva could say things about his messiah Bar Kochva that would have been strange to most sages of the Babylonian Talmud. Thus such Jewish scholars as the Berkeley talmudist Daniel Boyarin argue reasonably that the ordinary midrashic exegesis of readers concerned with Daniel 7 probably found the ‘representative suffering messiah’ reading of Isaiah 53 before the lifetime of Jesus. Indeed, because the person/people ambiguity that you mention is a feature of both texts, they were a quite logical match for midrashic interpretation. Read Daniel 7 and Isaiah 53 together yourself and you will find a messianism more robust than that of the contemporary Christian preaching you mention. What those preachers retroject into Isaiah 53 is not so much their weak messianism, as a modern, culture-bound way of reading the scriptures of ancient Israel foreign to their authors and first readers. Of course, if that much of Christianity actually preceded Jesus, then many commonplace suppositions need reconsideration.

      Reply
  6. Jamie

    I get this. I think a church near my parents holds a “seder,” and I don’t know how closely it strives to uphold Jewish seder traditions. I also know lots of Jewish families that celebrate Christmas, in a commercial and shallow way that has nothing to do with the Christian rite. Appropriation is everywhere.

    Reply
    1. thathat

      Jewish families celebrating Christmas “in a commercial and shallow way” isn’t appropriation–it’s assimilation. If you look at early 20th century immigrant history, you can see it taking root, but even now, just imagine how much Christmas is a part of the entire American culture from November through December. It’s inescapable. And in America, at least, it’s as much a secular holiday as it is a religious one. Santa, elves, and Christmas specials (that inevitably talk about the vague-but-warm “Christmas Spirit”) about, but have very little, if anything, to do with Christianity as a religion. They become part of the American culture, and are generally very difficult to avoid.

      Participating in a dominant culture’s practice isn’t appropriation because when a practice becomes so pervasive, it’s sort of socially enforced. Whether or not someone’s Christian, in America, celebrating Christmas with gifts or parties or visiting is just “the thing you do” during December, and anyone who doesn’t do those things is seen as strange. Adapting to a dominant culture because of social pressure is very different than seeking out practices from a marginalized culture and adapting them to fit your own lifestyle.

      Reply
  7. george613

    I am a Jewish educator who is often asked to conduct Seders in church settings as an educational tool. One of the first things I say is that the Last Supper looked nothing like the modern Seder and we go from there. I conduct a Jewish Seder and I focus on the changing aspects of the ritual and its importance to Judaism and why it resonates will so many Jewish people who may not do any other ritual. It is a perfect teaching medium for learning about the Jewish experience historically, the Jewish ancient history and connection to the Torah but also the modern Jewish experience.

    Reply
    1. sicutlocutusest Post author

      This is the sort of thing I am heartily encouraging. So different from a Christian appropriation of the Seder, and so useful for the education of Christians who often bring a lot of (mistaken) assumptions to these things because we think we know all about Jewish stuff because of what’s in the gospels. Thanks for this beautiful work!

      Reply
  8. Melanie Lee

    Now are you going to say the same thing to the African-Americans whose slave ancestors “usurped” the story of the Exodus and sang songs like “Go Down, Moses” and “Oh, Freedom”?

    Reply
    1. sicutlocutusest Post author

      Of course not! There’s a big difference between using the text to illumine and make sense of your life and condition– i. e., to see your story in that story–and using the texts and rituals of Jews to erase them from their story–i. e., to say that their story only has meaning (or that it acquires ‘the true meaning’) when seen through a Christological lens. This is what Christians do when they celebrate a Eucharist as the culmination of a “Christian Seder.” It’s as if they’re saying that the Seder (and the Jews) is a mere foreshadowing of the real thing, and that now that we have the real thing, the old thing is rendered essentially obsolete.

      Reply

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