The trouble with ‘Christian Seders’

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Episcopal Cafe blogger Ann Fontaine is not alone in questioning whether it is appropriate for Christian congregations to hold Seders during Holy Week. J. Mary Luti, a retired seminary professor and pastor in the United Church of Christ, is troubled by the idea also. She writes:

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.

She goes on to say:

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.

Read her full essay, titled “No Christian Seders, Please,” here. Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy, a practicing Christian married to a Jew, has this to say at Religion Dispatches:

Christians celebrating their own Passover do unwitting harm to the Jewish people because they ignore centuries of persecution of Jews—and they do harm to themselves by ignoring their real-life Jewish neighbors, treating them as relics rather than people.

3,500 years of persecution, much of it by Christians, is not negated by the relative freedom from discrimination that Jews in America has experienced in recent decades. The horrific fear that so many Jewish people have felt cannot be understated. From Easter traditions that involved hunting down Jews to pogroms to ghettos to the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, history is rife with this violent legacy.

Christians mounting their own reading of the Haggadah almost always want to discuss how Jesus is like the paschal lamb, using the occasion to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies. This theological exercise, known as supersessionism, is problematic enough in a purely Christian context, but as part of a Jewish ritual it is deeply out of place.

What do you think? Is it appropriate for Christian churches to organize Seders as part of Holy Week activities. If your parish has scheduled a Seder or is contemplating one, here is a helpful 2011 post from Ann Fontaine, in which she speaks with Meredith Gould, author of “Come to the Table: A Passover Seder for Parish Use.”

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Paul Woodrum
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Paul Woodrum

How many reading this blog have been invited by a synagogue to celebrate a Christian mass so our Jewish friends can learn Christian tradition?

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William Gilders
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William Gilders

I have distinctly mixed feelings and thoughts about this issue. I understand the concerns of those who send out the annual "no Christian Seders" message. On the other hand, Christians can gain a great deal of benefit from participating in a properly conducted Seder, led by someone with good knowledge of the authentic Jewish form and sensitivity to the fraught issues. As a Christian Jewish Studies scholar, I have led an instructional Seder in my parish three times and once for another parish in my diocese. My goal was NOT to "Christianize" the experience, but to help Christians to learn about and enjoy the Jewish practice -- both so that they could better appreciate its meaning for their Jewish friends and so that they could learn about the sources of our own rituals, as someone else put it here, our own Seder, the Eucharist. I should note that we have never done it during Holy Week, but a week or two before-hand, during Lent, as part of our education leading up to Holy Week. I don't think the Seder should be integrated into Holy Week itself -- doing so, in my view, fails to do justice either to Seder or to the existing pattern of Holy Week observances.

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Mary Anne Chesarek
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Mary Anne Chesarek

When my husband and I were in college, his Newman Club and the campus Hillel organization gave a Seder dinner. I looked forward to it, but was disappointed to find that any time the rabbi tried to explain the significance of the readings or the foods, the Roman Catholic priest jumped in to tell us what the Christian interpretation was. I'd still like to attend a Seder, sans subtitles.

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Priscilla Cardinale
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Priscilla Cardinale

My family fled to America as Jews seeking refuge from German persecution before the Civil War. Later generations converted to Christianity so I have Jewish ancestry and am a Christian myself.

My church (Roman Catholic) invited our local Rabbi to lead an educational seder this past Thursday, which he has done for years. It is an occasion of learning, creating goodwill, and renewing friendships and vows of mutual respect and support.

Appropriating someone else's culture is always problematic but the author of this article and some of the commenters are being a bit solipsistic it seems to me.

Some of us participate is Christian "seders" by ancestral right, some by invitation of the local Jewish rabbi, and some because they honor the Jewish heritage of our faith.

It isn't simple or easy to answer these concerns but I am glad the discussion is taking place because it shows that we truly are thinking about and caring for each other.

Namaste!

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Meredith Gould
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One might think I'd have nothing more or new to say but this year (2014) it's this:

I believe Christians should be *way* more concerned about the cringe-worthy anti-Judaism and antisemitism within the Palm Sunday and Good Friday liturgies.

After years of attending and participating as a choir member and lector -- ask me about the year I was assigned to read the part of Pilate -- I don't go. Too painful and not in an illuminating way.

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Meredith Gould
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One might think I'd have nothing more or new to say but this year (2014) it's this:

I believe Christians should be *way* more concerned about the cringe-worthy anti-Judaism and antisemitism within the Palm Sunday and Good Friday liturgies.

After years of attending and participating as a choir member and lector -- ask me about the year I was assigned to read the part of Pilate -- I don't go. Too painful and not in an illuminating way.

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Tim Sean
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Jesus was profoundly Jewish. Our origins were Jewish. One could make the argument that Christianity's slow pull away from the Jewish framework and ritual was a move too far past those early adjustments of optional circumcision and kosher food observance that created a hospitable welcome to gentile followers.

The call of Abram and Sarai was to be "blessed so that all the people of the earth would be blessed." And the Hebrew theological narrative arcs toward a global invitation, through Jesus, to follow the spirit of Torah and worship the one G-d. Jesus opened up Judaism for the whole world and invited them universally to come along.

Following J. Mary Luti's line of thinking, we shouldn't internalize the Hebrew scriptures or sing the Song the Song of Moses at the Vigil.

We are at our roots Jewish. Be respectful, but Seder away...

Tim Sean Youmans+

Diocese of Oklahoma

Casady School

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grace for all
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grace for all

My husband is Jewish and one thing I can tell you from hanging out with Jewish people is there is a very diverse opinion among them about Christianity. The euchrist just baffles them, but they figure it is a Christian thing and in their nonjudgmental way just let it go. John's gospel uses the Passover meal for the last supper. This coming week both communities will be celebrating the central themes of their faith. As Christians we should be sensitive to not use our litguries as triumphal proclamations of superiority. However,our roots are firmly rooted in the Jewish community. If we stopped "imitating" we would have nothing left. Why print this article now when congregations have already set their schedules? Maybe a thoughtful piece on this subject six months earlier could give some thought to the process of what congregations might do. I just think the liturgy police should take the next week off so that people of faith both Jewish and Christians can live out their traditions without the sour milk that comes from articles like this.

Tim Lusk

Tucson, Az

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Palazzolo1
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Palazzolo1

At St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Elyria we invited the Rabbi from the local synagogue to come and lead us in an authentic Seder last Thursday. She brought her family with her and a few members of her congregation. We provided all of the ritual foods (she brought a Seder plate and Miriam's cup and other ritual items as well as the haggadas.) we had about 60 in attendance in total. After the Seder we shared a dinner of traditional Pesach foods from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. Everyone learned alot and had a great time. Afterwards the Rabbi talked about "next year" so I think that she felt her traditions were honored and respected.

[Palazzolo1 - please sign your name when you comment - thanks, editor.]

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Bob McCloskey
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Bob McCloskey

This discussion has been going on for at least 45 years +. At times there have been official pronouncements by TEC interfaith commissions discouraging this. I agree with all of the sentiment expressed in this article and reply.

I would offer one suggestion. Some parishes have invited Jewish Rabbis to celebrate a Seder meal outside of Holy Week for/with them. Some Jewish congregations I am aware of have also invited their Christian neighbors to join them in their legitimate observance. I for one, am not interested in discouraging that sort of thing and in my experience has helped Christians to comprehend more fully the faith legacy and tradition of our Jewish heritage enshrined in Hebrew scripture.

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Gregory Orloff
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Gregory Orloff

We already have a Christian Seder. It's called the Eucharist. Let's put our time, attention and energy into celebrating that Seder to its fullest potential, rather than mimicking somebody else's, inspiring as it is.

Can you imagine Jews or Muslims holding a Eucharist out of the Common Book of Prayer to show solidarity or neighborliness with us? Without faith in Christ Jesus, the gesture doesn't make much sense.

One can appreciate the faith of one's neighbors without mimicking specific expressions of it.

Besides, there's more than enough to do in church during Holy Week, if we look at our own liturgical treasure trove. And traditionally it is a week of fasting -- no need for a heavy meal during it.

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