What Jews Want Christians to Understand About Passover | Sojourners

What Jews Want Christians to Understand About Passover

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Christians have long been curious about the Jewish custom of Passover.

Passover, a major Jewish holiday that remembers the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, is an integral part of the events of Christian Holy Week, with the gospels recounting how the meal known as the Last Supper happened around the beginning of Passover that year, right before Jesus was crucified. 

But Judaism has changed a lot since the days when Jesus broke bread with his disciples, and Christian curiosity about Passover has often resulted in misunderstanding about the Jewish pilgrimage holiday — along with persistent antisemitism and even outright violence against the Jewish people.

So how can Christians better understand an important part of the story of Holy Week, while respecting Jewish religious practices? According to Jewish scholars, rabbis, and adherents, a good place to start is for Christians to learn to be better neighbors, while also gaining a deeper understanding of how both faith traditions have developed since Passover and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ overlapped more than 2,000 years ago.

The Last Supper wasn’t a seder

Many Christians assume that the meal Jesus and his disciples shared in the upper room, as recounted in each of the gospels, was a Passover seder like what Jews still observe today: a ritualized meal of matzo bread, bitter herbs, and other foods symbolizing the Jewish exodus from Egypt. However, as historians point out, it’s unlikely that the Last Supper contained these elements: The Haggadah, or text that guides participants through a seder on the first two nights of Passover, didn’t begin to take shape until after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and exiled the Jewish people from Judea in 70 C.E. — well after the Last Supper described in the gospels.

As the tradition of the Passover seder developed in the first few centuries that followed Jesus’ death, Christians often spread disturbing rumors about the Jewish custom, including false allegations that Jewish people baked the Passover matzo with the blood of Christian children — early examples of antisemitism that contributed to anti-Jewish pogroms in 19th-century Europe.

Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, sees evidence that some practices of the modern seder may have been intended to quell the antisemitic rumors of curious neighbors. Levine points to a moment during the seder when participants open a door to welcome Elijah — even though Elijah doesn’t need a door opened for him in order to appear in spirit at the Passover table.

“One of the explanations is they’re opening the door to tell their Gentile neighbors, who were inclined to kill them, ‘We are not doing anything untoward here, you can look around, there’s no dead body that’s been bled out,’” Levine told Sojourners.

Think twice before hosting a “Christian seder”

Today, Christian curiosity about Jewish seders often stems from a genuine desire to understand a key moment Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. In response, some Christians host “Christian seders” that change the elements of a seder to reflect Christian teachings and symbolism instead.

For scholars like Levine, this is a misguided way for Christians to “get in touch with Jewish roots,” especially since Jesus didn’t celebrate a seder. “It becomes [a] cooptation since the Passover seder is post-biblical, it doesn’t get the Christian back to Jesus,” she said.

Aaron Rosen, a Jewish writer who co-founded a nonprofit art gallery alongside his wife, Carolyn, an Episcopal priest, notes that there are risks in making the boundaries around a celebration so porous that people from different religious backgrounds may observe it together.

While the liturgical elements of Passover and their ritual dimensions are beautiful, Rosen emphasized that the point of a seder is to remember — to commemorate the Exodus story through discussion, dialogue, and a community meal.

“Storytelling and memory are so engaged in that,” he told Sojourners. “It’s really weird for me to think about someone who wants to participate in Passover, but where I’m not sure community memory is actually part of it. … You’d really be missing out on something that’s incredibly central to the meaning of Passover for Jews.”

Yet, as Rosen sees it, the risks and awkwardness are sometimes worth it.

“I think Jews have long understood, at least in the modern period, that some of this permeability, some of this risk, is also advantageous for Jews,” he said. “I’d rather be in a situation where I have an opportunity to answer questions and explain things and think collectively with people than think that there’s people going around holding Passover seders without Jews and just winging it.”

For Christians who want to avoid co-opting another religion’s tradition, Levine suggests getting to know your neighbors — talking to local Jews to learn about their traditions, and sharing the meaning behind Christian traditions, too.

“If you don’t know your neighbor, how do you love your neighbor?” she asked. “It seems to me that loving somebody requires knowing about that person’s cares and values and traditions.”

Understand the long shadow of Christian antisemitism

A modern-day seder is full of symbolism, memory, and fun, with kid-friendly hunts for matzo, lively songs, a delicious meal, and lots of wine. But what might surprise some Christians is how much fear accompanied this holiday throughout Jewish history. Or as Rosen puts it: The “primary concern through many centuries of Jewish existence was being murdered on Easter or being murdered on Passover,” he said. “Especially if there’s a confluence between Holy Week and Passover — you’d be in hiding.”

And the people Jews often feared most? Christians.

Because of harmful myths about the Jewish seder, Passover and Good Friday — which often overlap — were times when many Jewish people worried for their safety during their observance of the holiday. As far back as the medieval era, Christians would do everything from throwing stones at Jewish houses to massacring them; echoes of that violence are still present today in the Western world.

Contributing to this antisemitism and violence were depictions of Jewish people in the New Testament, especially the gospel of John, which is read in Christian services on Good Friday and repeatedly uses the phrase “the Jews” to describe the crowd that condemned Jesus to death. In recent years, Levine notes that some churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, are investigating whether the verses that are chosen for Good Friday services should be changed.

“Since not all words need to be read out, and not all verses need to be read out, I think changing the lectionary would probably be a good thing,” she said. “You’re going to pick and choose anyway. You might as well pick and choose things that are not harmful to Jews.”

Aaron Rosen remembers walking around his neighborhood in Takoma Park, Md., with Carolyn Rosen during Passover at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing people on their screened-in porches, singing songs and celebrating. 

“I turned to [my wife] Carolyn and said, ‘This is so precious. What a moment in Jewish history that Jews can be visible being Jewish in their own home,’” Rosen explained. “That was really special to me. And I don’t know that it’s a cultural moment [now] where people would feel as safe doing that.”

Consider other ways to connect with Jesus’ Jewish roots

Instead of looking only to the Last Supper, both Christian and Jewish leaders note that there are other ways for Christians to honor Jesus’ Jewish roots during Holy Week.

Levine points to other meals recorded in the gospels, including one at the beginning of Holy Week, where a woman anoints Jesus with an expensive oil (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8). “What would it mean if Christians began Holy Week with a big dinner as a celebration, where you’d invite friends to your home and everybody would bring something and you would tell the story of Jesus, just as Jews tell the story of Exodus?” said Levine. “That’s not co-opting the Jewish tradition, but it’s borrowing appropriate material and then making it usable.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center, a Jewish organization committed to social action, sees Palm Sunday as another opportunity for both Jews and Christians to celebrate each religion’s commitment to revolutionary change.

“Palm Sunday is still a Jewish march against the public government, the Roman Empire’s public government,” he said. Waskow has been a part of several marches that began on Palm Sunday, including at least one where the people who were marching then participated in a sacred service run by a Jewish organization.

“They were really closely connected, historically and spiritually connected,” he says.

Waskow imagines that Jesus in his role as rabbi, hoping to build a movement to force the public government out of power, was waiting for the right moment to act — a moment like the pilgrimage holiday of Passover.

“That’s the right time to do it,” he says. “It’s Jewish.”

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