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Don't Try This At Home

Don't Try This At Home

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Why Christians should not try to host their own Passover Seders
Why Christians should not try to host their own Passover Seders

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Published by: Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor on Oct 05, 2010
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Don’t Try This at Home
by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
 America Magazine
, April 17, 2006
More than 15 years ago I received a telephone call from a young rabbinic colleague whoclearly found herself in a situation of great discomfiture. At the time, I held a position for theReform Jewish movement not unlike the position I hold today at the Anti-Defamation League,directing interfaith relations. As a newly ordained rabbi serving solo in a rural community, myyoung colleague had received an invitation from a local church to come and explain thePassover.As she walked into the church basement, she found the room filled with round tables set in fullPassover regalia, with seder plates, matzos, glasses of wine and church members holdingacopy of the Passover prayer book at each seat. At the front of the room was one long table,13 chairs filled by 12 people wearing white tunics and a large empty chair at the center of thetable. Her host pointed to the chair and asked the rabbi to take her place.The church members wanted to experience a Passover “just like the one Jesus experienced.” The young rabbi did her best to stumble through the event, but was clearly caught up inanxiety produced by the feeling that her holiday had, somehow, been co-opted. She knew thatthe way that the Passover had been celebrated 2,000 years before was quite different from itsmodern iteration. She needed my reassurance that she had done the right thing by telling theparticipants so.
Beyond ‘Getting to Know You’
In the past 40 years, since the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s document
Nostra Aetate
(“Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”), there hasbeen a great explosion of interest in the “Jewishness” of Jesus. Much effort has been put intounderstanding the religious environment in which Jesus and his disciples began their ministryand mission. The revolution reached its zenith under the church stewardship of Karol Wojtyla,Pope John Paul II, whose formative years in Poland were shaped in part by his friendship withthe Jews of his town and his personal love for the cantorial music of Jewish liturgy. Thisinterest has been maintained by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, whose keenscholarship and theological writings have daringly taken on the difficult issues that arise whentrying to balance the belief expressed in
Nostra Aetate
(recalling Paul in Rom 11:28-29) that “God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues,” with the belief that thechurch has become the “New Israel.” Indeed, the growing dialogue of the past 40 years may have finally allowed Jews andChristians to move beyond simple platitudes and “getting to know you” sessions to take on, asPope Benedict said to the Jewish community in Cologne (Aug. 19, 2005), “those areas inwhich, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed precisely in thoseareas, we need to show respect and love for one another.” Church documents since
Nostra Aetate
have addressed these issues in serious ways. Even the way the Bible itself has beenread and studied was taken up by the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s
The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible
(2001). It is vitally important to understand howthe writers of much of the New Testament employed language, imagery and textualknowledge to create works that could be heard and understood first by their almostexclusively Jewish audiences. It is also critically important to study how the church fatherslater read the texts without knowledge of the Jewish people and their beliefs and practices,and created a new overlay of understanding, which helped to found a church quite separateand distinct from the religious community from which it sprang.
 
The Passover Seder
It is this religious dynamism that creates the greatest of challenges at this Passover-Easterseason. The dramatic events of Jesus’ final hours set against a backdrop of the pilgrimagefestival of Pesach blurs the lines between the traditions, and of late we have been witness toincreasing numbers of faithful Christians partaking in the Passover ritual as a means of discovering Jesus’ roots. While well-intentioned, many of these ersatz or “model seders” heldby and for Christians without authentic Jewish participation create more misunderstanding of Christianity and Judaism, not less. (It must be noted that there have been “model” sederswhose educational purpose is to create understanding of shared experiences of disparatecommunities—for example Latino-Jewish seders or black-Jewish seders. These, which have adistinct educational purpose, are not the kind of seders to which I am referring.)The Passover Seder is the pinnacle of religious ritual and drama. Like great opera, all theessential elements must be present for the “magic” to occur. I have been to more than myshare of lifeless and meaningless recreations of the Passover Seder to know what it is likewhen it does not work. The Passover Seder is, in sum total, essential Jewish faith andexpression. We read the same script year in and year out. We know it so intimately that itsings through us. The participants at the seder are not trying to remember a historical eventthat helps frame their identity, but to live out the experience themselves of being redeemedfrom servitude and pointed toward freedom. It is not enough to feel what it “might have beenlike” to be a slave tasting freedom for the first time—we must feel our feet burning in thedesert sands, as the price of redemption. The symbols are not reminders but reality. We eatthe bitter herbs and have a bitter taste on our tongues. We eat the dry and almost tastelessmatzo, as the food of desperation and flight. We experience the joy of community as weembrace family and friends. Finally, we express a communal desire to return to the land of ourcovenantal promise, the goal toward which we marched for 40 years. For that evening, we arethe slaves, and we are the redeemed.This is the core of the Jewish soul—our identity is expressed as, “Once we were slaves, nowwe are free.” And at the center of this drama stands the main character—not Moses, as in theBible’s accounting, but God. Moses is absent, because for us God is incorporeal, and we shouldnot pin our hopes of redemption on anything else but our covenantal partner.
The Passover and the Passion
But the seder as we know it today is dynamic—it has changed over time. From a historicalpoint of view, the Passover celebration finds its roots in two separate biblical festivals thatbecame conflated. There is the springtime Festival of Matzot—the first bread from new grain,which gains new meaning as the bread baked as we fled from Egyptian slavery. And there isalso the Paschal offering—first done to mark the doorposts of the homes during the tenth anddarkest plague that resulted in the Exodus from Egypt.During Second Temple times, Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals that swelledJerusalem, and the offerings were young lambs, which were sacrificed and sharedcommunally. At this communal meal, matzo was the biblically mandated food, which was to beeaten with bitter herbs (Num 9:11, Ex 12:8). In the Mishna, compiled more than a centuryafter the destruction of the Second Temple, we see that Rabban Gamaliel has made the threefeatures of Paschal sacrifice, matzo and maror(bitter herbs) the sine qua non of the ritual. Wealso learn from the Mishna that after the second cup a child must ask his father about thesymbols. (Originally there were five questions. The fifth, which was removed by Maimonides inthe 12th century, was “Why on this night do we eat meat that is only roasted?”) Thisquestioning—the didactic, educational experience—is what frames a story that moves fromdegradation to redemption and then to joy. But in the end, it is not a universal story, but aparticular one—so particular that it is, ultimately, one’s personal story, one’s Jewish identity.

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