Should Christians have seders?

Yes, it's a thing. And no, it should not be. And yes, the larger story is complicated.

(RNS) — It was almost 40 years ago, and a local Christian minister invited me for lunch on a cold December day.

The conversation was friendly. Then, I noticed that there was a Hanukiyah (a Hanukah menorah) at the far side of the table.

I must have looked quizzical; having a poker face has never been one of my skills.

My colleague said to me: “Oh, right. That. I think it’s cool.”

I said nothing, which is unlike me. But, for the rest of that lunch, many thoughts were churning around inside my head, and my gut.

Thoughts like: “You can’t just have that. You can’t just borrow that. That’s mine.”

That memory came back to me the other day, when I read a statement from the Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

In that statement, he bans the Episcopalians in his diocese from having Christian Seders.


His words:

Ours is a faith deeply rooted in the soil of Judaism. Jesus’ earthly ministry was grounded in the religious expressions, traditions, and practices of Judaism which influenced the early Christian communities. We continue to draw much nourishment from our Jewish roots. Reflecting on the impact of Jewish practice, the early generations of Christians quickly recognized that Christianity was not a superficial rebranding of Judaism.

In our own time, the proliferation of Christian Seders on Maundy Thursday has taken root in parts of Christianity. These recastings of the Jewish Seder seek to connect Jesus’ crucifixion to the fulfilling of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophesies surrounding God’s covenanted people. These Christian Seders cast Jesus not only as the messianic paschal lamb but seek to replace or supersede Judaism’s covenant with God. Christians celebrating their own Haggadah outside of Jewish practice is deeply problematic and is supersessionism in its theological view. Christian communities hosting Seders is additionally problematic because it contributes to the objectification of our Jewish neighbors.

The Bishop is saying that such Christian Seders distort the message of Pesach. Such Seders portray Jesus of Nazareth as the paschal lamb; this might be good Christian theology, but it is not Judaism, and it is not Pesach. (Leaving aside the ongoing conversation as to whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, which it was not, but that is a much longer, nuanced conversation.)

I applaud the Bishop’s words, and his generosity of spirit. He writes as a true friend of the Jewish people, and of Judaism.

Moreover, he says: This practice “contributes to the objectification of our Jewish neighbors.”

He is talking about making Jews into cardboard cutouts in a Christian liturgical drama.

He is also talking about cultural appropriation.

What is cultural appropriation?

As I have learned from Lionel Shriver:

In “Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law,” Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines “cultural appropriation” as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

But, wait. Lionel Shriver continues, in her mischievous tone:

The felony of cultural sticky fingers even extends to exercise: at the University of Ottawa in Canada, a yoga teacher was shamed into suspending her class, “because yoga originally comes from India….” Students at Oberlin College in Ohio have protested “culturally appropriated food” like sushi in their dining hall… Seriously, we have people questioning whether it’s appropriate for white people to eat pad Thai.

I agree with Ms. Shriver; this is absurd. Do we really want a world in which no one ever sampled someone else’s culture?

Or, in literature, in which no one could imagine someone else’s inner life? You mean that Truman Capote, not being a murderer in Kansas, should not have written “In Cold Blood?”

Or, in music, to never use a genre or a musical structure from a world that is not yours? The Stones should not have used the blues?

Or, in art, wherein Picasso could not have used African motifs?

Do we want a world that narrow?

Let’s go to religion.

In “Hamlet,” Polonius counsels his son, Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

Sorry, Polonius. We Jews have borrowed from other religious cultures — without diluting our essential message — and we have lent out as well.

Here goes (in very simplified form):

  • Let’s start with God. At least one ancient name of God starts as a foreign name. El/Elohim was the name of a Canaanite deity. And then, the Jews “gave” monotheism to Christianity and Islam.
  • And while we are thanking the Canaanites, the ancient Israelite festivals contained Canaanite elements.
  • Shabbat “began” as an accursed seventh day in ancient Babylon, which ancient Israel transformed into a blessing.
  • The names of the Hebrew months are all Babylonian.
  • The idea of an afterlife — olam ha-ba, the world to come, aka heaven — borrows from Egyptian, Persian, and Greek ideas.
  • The sages used Greek methods of textual interpretation.
  • Jews “gave” the text of the Hebrew Bible to Christianity.
  • Jews “gave” the idea of heaven to early Christianity, and beyond.
  • Jews “gave” ethical ideas to Western civilization.
  • Visit Beit Alpha in the Galilee, and you will see how Jews in the land of Israel used astrological symbols.
  • The yahrzeit (memorial) candle might have begun as the votive memorial candle, as still seen in Christian churches.
  • The Jewish poets of medieval Spain borrowed heavily from their Muslim poetic colleagues – who themselves borrowed heavily from Greek poets.
  • All Jewish theologians borrowed from their gentile neighbors – whether from Islam, German existentialism (Buber), or American pragmatism (Kaplan).
  • Synagogues routinely borrow architectural styles from the surrounding culture. They had no choice. There is no native “Jewish” architecture.
  • Not to mention Jewish music and liturgical tunes that freely adopted and adapted external melodies.

Join me in a drive around my community. Check out the churches with names like Zion Tabernacle, or Jerusalem Baptist, or Bethel Pentacostal.

I have never felt that the Jews were the victims of cultural (or theological) appropriation. I sense that my story, even “my” historic homeland, contains lessons and geographical/spiritual touch points that are valid for many different people, and for many different peoples.

In other words, my people has rarely stayed in its own lane. Neither has any other people. Deal with it.

Which leads me to Pesach.

On the one hand, some observers agree that yes, Christian Seders are cultural appropriation.

As food writer Dina Cheney wrote:

The ritual foods and prayers that encompass it are also specific to that history; for instance, the haroset (fruit and nut paste) represents the mortar used by the (Jewish) slaves as they labored. So, overall, I would say it’s strange for anyone who is not Jewish to conduct a Seder. Instead, I think it would make more sense for them to devise a ritualistic meal that speaks to their own cultural experience.

And, yet, the way we tell the story — the Seder itself might have started as a kind of cultural appropriation. The sages adopted and adapted the Graeco-Roman symposium and transformed it into the Passover Seder. At the Seder, that word afikoman is probably a Greek term.

But, more than this: Perhaps we should be as generous as possible with the Passover story.

Because it is that big.

As Michael Walzer wrote in “Exodus And Revolution” (one of my favorite books on Jewish thought), the story of the Exodus serves as a template for (a short list): Leninism, liberation theology, the German peasants’ revolt, John Calvin, John Knox, Boer nationalists, Black nationalists in South Africa — and, of course, the civil rights movement in the United States. The Exodus from Egypt is the classic example of national liberation, and it is therefore useful for people and peoples telling their stories of liberation.

(Which is why we sing the Black spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” at our Seder. Black slaves “borrowed” the story of our slavery, and our hope for deliverance. They internalized that story. They identified with that story. And, in return, we sing their musical rendition of our story. It’s all good, I think).

A postscript.

At this season, I always wish my two dearest clergy friends, both Episcopalians: “May Christ rise for you.”

To which they respond: “And may you get out of Egypt.”

So, yes, to my Jewish friends: May you get out of Egypt.

And to my Christian friends: May Christ rise for you.

And to my Muslim friends: May this season of Ramadan nourish your soul, your families, and your communities.

That is the kind of religious world I want to live in.

Not of cultural appropriation. And certainly not of syncretism, of reckless combinations of theology and rituals.

But, yes: Joint appreciation for each other’s stories and narratives.

I appreciate yours.

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