Dialogika Resources

Christian marking of Passover concerns some Jews

Symbols of Jesus at traditional meal degrade its context, they say

From the Houston Chronicle

More of Houston's 45,000 Jews will celebrate Passover — which begins at sundown today — than any other Jewish holiday. But they won't be alone. Some local Christians are holding their own versions of the symbolic Jewish meal, adding Jesus' redemption as the Passover lamb to the traditional exodus tale.

The Christianized Seder initially became popular about 30 years ago and seems to be experiencing a resurgence across denominations. About 20 churches in the Houston area will host Passover celebrations this week.

Some in the local Jewish community, however, fear their traditions are being used out of context.

“They take our symbols, our holiday, our ritual and start investing them in Christian meaning,” said Rabbi Stuart Federow, who leads Congregation Shaar Hashalom and speaks out against the evangelization of Jews on his Web site, “It's spreading out through the more liberal Christian churches. The Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians are doing this without understanding the hurt it causes to their Jewish friends.”

The Seder meal, held on the first and second nights of Passover, commemorates the Israelites' biblical exodus from Egypt, retelling the story of Moses with song, script and symbolic foods.

Passover represents the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery, which brought them together as a people and led to God giving them the Torah.

“It's a newer thing for churches to celebrate on their own. That's where it can get controversial,” said Rabbi Mark Miller, president of the Houston Rabbinical Association and associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue. “If a non-Jewish group wants to celebrate a Seder, I'd prefer they do so in a Jewish setting.”

Last Supper seen as Seder

Because many of the churches work with Messianic evangelist groups such as Jews for Jesus, Seder meals and presentations held at churches can be perceived as efforts to convert Jews to Christianity and to correct their traditions by adding Jesus to the Passover narrative.

“Some churches are learning the history, but most are interested in bringing together Jews and Jesus,” said Karol Joseph, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who will lead Jews for Jesus presentations at churches across Texas — in Austin, San Antonio, Tyler and Houston.

Christians may see it as their mission to proclaim the truth of the gospel to this community, just as Christ reinterpreted Jewish tradition before his ancient audience.

“We're one of the few denominations that actively promotes the evangelization of the Jewish people,” said Doyle Theimer, associate pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Kingwood, which will host a Jews for Jesus model Seder on Tuesday. “I understand if Jews for Jesus is controversial. I also understand their ministry is also born out of a love for God and a love for their culture.”

Churches like Theimer's often incorporate communion into the tradition because they consider Jesus' Last Supper, commemorated on Maundy Thursday, to have been a Seder meal. Unlike at Jewish Seders, Christians read from the New Testament, add verses about Jesus to Passover songs and reinterpret the meal's symbols to represent his salvation.

Jewish critics say it's wrong to assume Passover celebrations in Jesus' time would resemble today's version of the Seder. Most of the meal's traditions have been added in the past 500 years or so, but Christians still use them to represent Jesus, Federow said.

For example, three pieces of matzo are stacked in the middle of the Seder table, and during the meal, the middle piece is broken and hidden. During dessert, children hunt for the missing piece, called the afikomen, and the one who finds it gets a prize. Christian Seders may present these matzot as representative of the trinity, the middle one being Jesus, the son, who is broken (killed), hidden (buried) and resurrected (returned to the table).

“When we hide the afikomen and the children go and find it, that represents Christ,” said Suzette Caldwell, associate pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church. “They receive a prize, a treat, because they looked for him and they found him, so they are blessed.”

Since 2007, Windsor Village has held three nights of Seder meals, each selling out with 1,000 people attending. Caldwell and her husband, senior pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, say they don't see the celebrations as Jewish-specific but as a fulfillment of their congregation's call from God.

“It's an educational process because most people believe these festivals are for the Jews,” said Kirbyjon Caldwell. “It's biblical. The Lord says honor the feasts … . Jesus' Last Supper was a Passover meal. This is an expression of the real deal.”

Rabbis encourage sharing

Their motivation, like that of some other local churches, is a deeper understanding of their own Christianity.

“It's never been our intention to see Christian traditions in every Jewish tradition or to try to usurp anything,” said Frank Varro, pastor of Westchase United Methodist Church in Houston, which held its second Seder last week. “I value personally, and for my flock, the significance of the Passover” as the basis for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Nearly all rabbis welcome Christians who are curious about Judaism to participate in Passover celebrations sponsored by Jewish groups. It's a mitzvah, or good deed, to invite guests from outside the community to a Seder.

Beth Israel has hosted an interfaith Seder for five years, and the event draws about 160 community members from across religious backgrounds.

“It's a nice way to share the tradition and share the message,” said Miller, one of the congregation's rabbis.

“We all go through times where we feel enslaved, so the story of liberation still rings true.”