Just as I am preparing for the last minute thoughts and interpretations for the Seder and the festival services of Passover, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how Christians are and have been reshaping the Passover Seder and using a Christian lens to redefine it as Christian ritual. Most of the interpretations surrounding this new practice relate to the Christian attraction to the age old belief that Jesus’ Last Supper must have been a Passover Seder. Thus by reenacting the Seder in this context, Christians are actually growing in their appreciation of the Jewish roots of Jesus. In addition the writer of the article, Diane Cole, wrote that some Christian groups really resonate with the symbolism of the four cups of wine and the matzah as symbolic hints to the blood and body of Jesus.
I have to admit that reading these kinds of articles really nags at my heels. It is the classic dilemma for the modern rabbi. We want to create an inclusive environment for interfaith families and we want to share the teachings of Judaism outside the walls of the congregation to the community at large. Yet I find myself shaking my head saying that there are consequences to sharing. I remember a Christian colleague and good friend of mine calling me up one day asking if I could lend him a chuppah for an interfaith wedding he was performing. These kinds of situations remind us that America is all about sharing culture and religion. Isn’t that a good thing? Is it a good thing when one day we will adapting Muslim holidays like Ramadan and calling them Christian and Jewish feasts?
This can only happen in America. Is it a good thing? Maybe, if keeping the peace is the issue. But resorting to that kind of diversity at the cost of losing our roots and religious continuity cannot be a good thing. Surely there must be a middle ground to learning about other people’s religious traditions and respecting them as they are versus deciding that one has the right to do whatever they want to reshape them regardless of what they mean to the religion itself.
There should be a sense of integrity and respect for diversity without having to take these rites and hurl them into a completely different cultural and religious milieu. For example, I used to lead model Seders for Christian churches and they loved learning the history and the rich symbolism of Passover. But that did not mean that they and their minister would say, “We can do this and then turn it into the moment of Jesus’ Last Supper. Yea, that works!”
But in America that is exactly how it does work! It is sad in some regard because I realize that Jews who want so desperately to fit in to American life and fear doing anything that would cast us into outsider status will stay silent. The fact that interfaith marriage has changed the religious landscape of American Jewry is another factor to consider in achieving a balance for families who practices both religions. I would hope that Christians married to Jews and raising Jewish children will educate their Christian families and friends to think about what it means to take someone else’s religious traditions and then substitute a completely different meaning for the rituals that took thousands of years to develop. I hope that is not too much to ask. The same obligation should be said as applying to the Jewish partner for their Christian spouse’s religious heritage.
I can certainly understand how my Christian colleagues get upset when they see how American commercial culture has turned Christmas into a secular holiday and extracted out of the holiday all the religious content that went into making it sacred for Christians all over the world.
Let me give you another example. I am not an American Indian. That does not mean that I do not respect the rituals and traditions of Native American religion and culture. I do. I can sit and read their poetry and be inspired and listen to their sages tell stories of their world view and feel enriched. That does not mean I will go out and actually redefine their rituals as Jewish ones that should be part of my synagogue’s liturgy.
You see the issue is not just about the Passover Seder or Hanukah or Christmas holidays staying true to each religion’s own traditions. It is, however, about teaching Americans to understand and respect these holy days and ceremonies in their own historic and theological framework. I also believe that people of faith should learn the history of their own faith tradition and its connection to the Jewish faith before unilaterally and sometimes impulsively deciding to incorporate such rituals into their religious systems. And that goes for any religious institution considering adopting a new ritual from another religion into their own community’s religious practices. A bit of humility and respect for history goes a long way.