The holiday of Passover is coming up— for good reason, I don’t know the exact number of days because it is a deadline that inspires a lot of anxiety. But it’s soon.
This year, on FaceBook, one of my friends is hosting a preparatory screed against Christian Seders. That is to say, she is angrily and passionately posting articles intended to let her Christian followers know that while Christians may ethically and graciously accept an invitation to attend a Jewish Seder, they should NEVER EVER EVER host their own.
Now, there are some very good reasons that Christians might want to pause before conducting a Seder. This article is a really good assessment of many of them, but it’s long, so I’ll distill them here.
1) The Passover Seder is almost certainly not the context of The Last Supper, so conducting a Seder will not help Christians understand more about Jesus. At best, it is anachronistic.
2) Reinterpreting Jewish rituals as Christian rituals might further a (wrong) belief that Judaism was an ancient and obviated prelude to Christianity instead of a thriving and worthy religion in its own right in modern times.
3) There is a profound and horrible history of anti-Semitism around Passover and Easter in Christian Europe, so Christians should not assert religious meanings that previously led to tragic violence.
All of these things are true, and worthy of taking into consideration. In conducting and celebrating a Christian Passover Seder, Christians might not be doing what they think they are doing (particularly in the effort to draw close to the practice of the historical Jesus).
But the point sharpens to come close to a critique of cultural appropriation in general. This is what the author writes:
To put it even more pointedly, a Christian Seder is a kind of theft. We may justify it by saying that the Jewish story is also our story; and in terms of origin, texts, and traditions, there is indeed much we share. But it is not only our story. It is first and forever also the ongoing, defining story of a people, a people we are not. We cannot do with this story whatever we please. We especially may not dilute or denude it of its specifically Jewish character to make it mean something Christian. We Christians urgently need to understand and accept that Jewish practices have vitality and meaning beyond their relationship to Christianity. We would do better to advance the project of understanding not with a Christianized Seder, but rather through building sincere relationships with Jews to discover together how best to learn with honesty, care, and respect.
These cautions, about what it means to respect another faith and not take it as one’s own, is a lovely articulation of what it might mean to respect the integrity of another faith.
But I’m troubled by it anyways. It assumes a kind of pure singularity of faith where sharing is inappropriate, and that just doesn’t strike me as very human. It also doesn’t strike me as very Jewish. I get that I am supposed to believe that cultural appropriation is very, very bad. But I don’t think that. If we’re not allowed to blend traditions, borrow, share, and be influenced by minority and majority cultures around us, then we’re going to have to give back an awful lot of Judaism.
Do I think that waving a lulav on Sukkot, as I do, is some novel innovation of worshipping a single God, and not originally a pagan fertility ritual? Do I think that purity rituals came out of nowhere, and not in conversation with other Near Eastern cultures? Do I think that Jews in America spontaneously believed that Chanukah would be a good time to exchange gifts and not because their Christian neighbors were doing it? Do I think that Jews just decided one day that they would wear masks and costumes on Purim, just coincidentally as their Christian neighbors were celebrating Carnival before Lent?
Of course not. (To all of them).
Jews didn’t draw boundaries around those foreign practices and believe that they had an authenticity that should never be diluted or denuded. We just fully adopted them, reinterpreted them, made them our own, gave them our own new meaning within Jewish practice. Jews did the same things that the non-Jews around them did, and infused them with specific meaning that reflected Jewish ideas, needs, or meaning. In addition to the rabbinic idea that we should have matzah, maror, and Pesach on our Seder plate, we also have an egg. Sure, it is about rebirth, about the possibility of spring, it’s roasted for all sorts of good reasons. But go ahead and tell me that it didn’t develop and coalesce around some of the same ideas and impulses that led to the celebration of Easter and the symbols of spring and rebirth. No way.
Sharing traditions is practically what humans were made to do. Syncretism is how religions develop, and continue to serve people: by taking what is important to them and fusing them with familiar objects, ideas, and rituals. In education, this is called “induction” and it’s supposed to be an outstanding way to teach, layering new material on top of what is already familiar.
If Christians want to infuse the Seder with Christian meaning, to bring Communion into the service, to believe that the lamb on the table represents the sacrifice of Jesus, or that the greens represent his resurrection, that would be consistent with how humans throughout history have interpreted and re-interpreted religious traditions to bring meaning to their lives, and to help them undergird their own faith.
Do the greens really represent the resurrection of Jesus? What does that even mean? What person of both faith and intelligence can afford to be an originalist? Obviously, at a Jewish Seder, that is not their meaning. But to claim that there is some pure Jewish meaning that is true, that only a Jew could possibly understand, and that a non-Jew has no business interpreting a ritual to better suit their own beliefs strikes me as policing boundaries that everyone would be better off dropping.
Go ahead and ask most Jews what that greenery represents on their table. “Springtime,” will probably be the best that you can get. “How is it meaningful to you in the context of your faith?” would be, in my view, a great question to ask at a Seder. And if someone wants to answer that it reminds them of the re-birth of their great spiritual teacher, should we tell them that their impulse towards meaning is incorrect?
Since most of my audience probably would answer with a resounding, “yes” to that rhetorical question, I guess now is a good time to get around to the question of Jewish messianists, which perhaps I have been dancing around all of this time. Jewish messianists, or people who identify both as Jews and as followers of Jesus, are fairly despised within Jewish circles, often accused of being Christians who are disguising themselves in order to confuse or convert Jews. And I don’t mean to comment on (or appear to defend) specific organizations which might or might not be doing that.
But the idea of being a Jewish messianist has no actual theological incoherence. There is no reason that it might ever be an invalid belief to be Jewish, to hold that Jesus was Jewish, and to believe that he meant to change Judaism in ways that a modern person could now follow. To want to revere Jesus and pray in Hebrew, and to observe the Jewish Sabbath the way that Jesus would have— I have yet to find a person who can explain to me why that is incoherent.
Is it counter-cultural? Obviously. In the many centuries since Jesus was alive, those communities have split and diverged, developed in contradistinction to one another. Judaism rejects Jesus, and Christians accept that Christianity divorced itself from Judaism. But if you rewind to the 2nd century, or 3rd, there were almost certainly many people who considered themselves Jewish and followers of Jesus with no thought of contradiction. Why should it be incoherent now?
Again, I mean theologically incoherent. Sociologically, it is lunacy. But it would be a little less so if we realized that whatever enriches peoples lives with meaning and purpose is probably a net good, and as long as they’re not bothering anyone*, we can create more opportunities for all of us to shower on others the acceptance we’d like for ourselves.
There is something that strikes me as a little ironic that a Jewish community that worries that it is being targeted with intolerance would then turn around and insist in the name of diversity and tolerance, other people must stop their private ceremonies of meaning.
It is my hope that people who find meaning in Passover will find it again this year, and that people who seek to draw close to divine energy will find the rituals, ideas, and ceremonies which help them do so. Happy Passover!
*Obviously this overlaps with concerns of anti-Semitism, which I haven’t addressed here because this is already too long, but I’m happy to in the comments if anybody wants.