This may be a bit of an awkward read for some of you as I am pointing a finger at a number of kind-hearted and well-intentioned Christians taking part in Jewish appropriation and erasure. So I’ll just flat out say it:
Seders are not a part of Easter.
Christians, please stop having Christian Seders.
A lot of people think that Easter and Passover, and therefore seders, are all one holiday spread across two religions. This is not true. For all practical purposes, they are two completely different holidays, despite what many people believe. And so brings us to the first bit of background to cover;
let’s talk “Christian appropriation.
Whether you’re Christian or simply not versed in some of the layers of Judaism beyond surface knowledge, there are some fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity. For instance, Christianity loves dogma. There are statements and they are biblical and they are immutable and they are never changing. In Judaism there biblical statements, also eternal and true, but we still need to debate what they really mean. And once that’s settled, we may revisit it and debate if that interpretation of that eternal truth still holds. So where Christianity generally holds up the Christian bible as the word of truth, Judaism really regards the Talmud as the book of law. The Talmud is essentially commentary that ends up superseding literal word (the Hebrew bible) to become legal word. While there is more to it, it essentially results in (a highly legalistic and long-debated) tradition supersedes original texts. This may seem like a bit of a tangent, but it’s a core value in understanding how Judaism functions as a culture of debate. It will also be important to understanding why you may be able to point to a Jewish practice that seems to overlap with a Christian one, but that practice may not fit in to the Christian narrative the way you may expect it to.
So back to Passover. There’s a great historical breakdown over at My Jewish Learning, but I can give you a historical cheat-sheet to catch you up.
Passover has been many different things over the years, being shaped and remade to reflect the situation of the Jewish people. In the Hebrew bible, was a harvest festival. Then, with the Temple eras, it shifted to a pilgrimage holiday, since there was a central location to travel to for the sacrifice. The second Temple period overlaps with when Jesus would have been around (dying around 30CE). And while many Christians try to pin down when Passover and Jesus death line up, it’s worth noting that the earliest gospel was written around 70 CE, decades after Jesus’ death.
After that we move into the Talmudic period. Since the Temple was the central location of worship, once it was destroyed there is a shift in focus. With no centralized place to practice traditional holy rituals, exegesis becomes increasingly important. Delving into the texts to find deeper meanings and new, acceptable ways to practice, are how Judaism continued to grow, rather than accepting the Temple destruction as the end of permissible practices. This is, and overlapping with the
Medieval era, is when the Haggadah was created. This is when Passover became about telling the story of an ancient exile and finding parallels in their contemporary status. And during the Medieval era is also when the seder , the festival meal as we know it, began to become set. It was also a time of great persecution for the Jews, so the exile, rebellion, and stories of sacrifice continued to be interpreted as personal stories.
Now that we have the history down, it should be easy to hit up why Christian seders are hugely problematic. First of all, many Christians look at a modern seder and then look at (let’s be honest, Leonardo da Vinci’s) the last supper and are like “Hey, that’s a meal. And Jesus was at a meal. I bet it was the same meal!” But the current seder is a practice started at least half a millennium after Jesus died. Then there’s the historical context that also creates a rift. Throughout history, Jews living under Christian rule haven’t had that great a go of it. Looking back at the Medieval era, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews to use white wine instead of the traditional red in order to avoid accusations of blood libel, or using Christian blood, often from babies, in Jewish rituals. Even Matzoh has a sordid history with Christian appropriation. The blood libel extended to accusing Jews of using blood in the process of baking Matzoh, though apparently there’s also been a claim that the three matozh used during the seder represent a story from the gospel of Luke, even though the number of matzoh used has shifted over the centuries. So already there’s a bit of a conflict of interest in Christians adopting the very festival celebration that they persecuted Jews over.
So we have the fact that the last supper wasn’t a seder. We have the fact that Christians historically used Passover as a time to persecute and inflict violence on the Jews. But there’s also the plain old fact that Judaism and Christianity are completely different religions. I know, many people will tout the “different paths to the same god” line (which is another issue all together). But the fact of the matter is that Passover is a celebration of movement from bondage to freedom that doesn’t belong to Christians. Jews will look back on various times in our own past that echo the biblical story. Often, we also look to contemporary people also seeking freedom, be they an economic class, social class, marginalized minority, or literal refugees leaving their home for a better life.
So what should Christians who want to participate in Passover do? Great question! We’ve already established step one: don’t hold a Christian seder. Step two should probably be to seek out Jews in the area. College campuses have Chabad or Hillel houses, and you can always look for a synagogue or temple. Talk to them and see if you can join them for a seder, either at the synagogue or they may even set you up with a family to host you. If you’re looking for something with a group form your church, reach out to have seder. But please be careful with your wording and your expectations. While there are many Jewish communities that would be happy to do something jointly, I know a lot of Jews who balk at the idea of co-hosting, as that puts too much responsibility on the part of the gentiles. You may find yourself with someone eager to co-host, a group willing to hold a mock-seder so it would be educational but not necessarily fulfill the religious aspect of the meal, or maybe only comfortable enough to have gentiles present but not in any sort of leadership capacity. The important thing to remember is that Christians at a seder are being invited in to another religion’s ceremony. It’s a time to learn from others, not teach others how you view them. I love Passover (I think it knocks the socks off of Thanksgiving), and I love have gentile friends and family over. Part of that is joy comes from openly sharing my time and customs, and on a selfish level it does feel good to get to be at my Jewyiest and feel seen. The last thing I would want at that moment of tradition and outreach would be to hear someone write my people out of our own history by way of supersessionism.