Some Jews see trespass in Christian Seders

Washington, USA - The hall had been symbolically cleansed of all leaven, and now, over the hush, Meri Harris's voice rang out in solemn intonation: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Me lech Haolam . . . Blessed Are You, Lord Our God, King of the Universe . . . And as she lighted the festival candles, the Passover Seder began.

Over the next two hours, the ritual proceeded in order -- from the blessing of the wine to the washing of the hands to the symbolic opening of the door for the prophet Elijah. There were the questions -- "Why is this night different from all other nights?" -- and the answers, as the story of the Jews' deliverance from bondage in ancient Egypt unfolded.

It was just like a traditional Jewish Passover Seder. Except:

The Seder meal was served before the Seder service started, instead of two-thirds of the way through.

There was dancing.

And Jesus was everywhere.

The stripes and the holes in the matzoh represented his whipped and pierced body. The wine (actually grape juice) represented his blood. The matzoh was wrapped in white cloth, symbolizing the way Jesus's body was wrapped for burial.

You don't traditionally find Jesus at a modern Seder celebrating Passover, which began last night. But this was no ordinary Seder. The 250 people at Immanuel's Church in Silver Spring on Tuesday night were holding a Christian Seder, a phenomenon that's gaining popularity across the country -- to the consternation of many in the Jewish community as well as some interfaith leaders.

Although for decades some churches have held Seders to better understand the Jewish faith, many churches, especially evangelical ones, are now giving them a markedly Christian spin.

"The Seder helps us appreciate our roots and even out the rough spots that developed through past Christian attitudes toward Jews that were not godly," said Charles Schmitt, senior pastor of Immanuel's, an evangelical church he started in his living room 24 years ago that now has 4,000 members.

Connecting to Christianity's heritage

The thinking is: Since three of the four Gospels say the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, what could be more natural than for Christians to learn more about the ritual meal Jesus shared with his apostles before he died?

"Holding a Seder is a way to connect with the heritage of our religion and to see how the practices of the ancient world are still relevant to us as Christians today," said Thom Campbell, who led a Seder for about 20 at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax City last Saturday. It's also, he pointed out, a good family event.

But Christian Seders "set off great anxieties" in the Jewish community, says Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. "There's this fear that well-meaning Christians will end up confiscating Jewish liturgical property."

Even more, there's the fear that evangelicals are using the Christian Seder to proselytize among Jews. Objectors point to the involvement of Messianic Jews, those who believe in Jesus Christ, and Jews for Jesus, a missionary group that seeks to bring Jews into Christianity, in the growing popularity of the ritual among evangelicals.

Harris and her husband, Michael, who led most of Immanuel's Seder, are Messianic Jews. And they readily acknowledge that the Seders are "a major evangelistic tool," Meri said. "Lots of people bring their nonbelieving Jewish friends, to give them the idea that Christianity is really connected to the Jewish people."

The Jewish Seder celebrates the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. It follows a strict order -- the word "seder," in fact, means "order" -- and its symbols -- the special foods of the Seder plate and the four cups of wine drunk in the course of the meal -- bear deep meaning for Jews. The roasted shank bone, for instance, recalls the sacrificial lamb offered to God at Passover; the matzoh recalls the unleavened bread the Israelites ate in their flight.

"People should understand that it's a commandment given to the Jewish people to observe the Passover and tell the story of the Exodus," says Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac. "And that it is a Jewish ritual and not something they should try to make their own."

'Downright offensive'

Leighton, a Presbyterian minister, said the gradual transfiguration of the Seder in its passage from the Jewish dining room to the evangelical church hall can be "downright offensive."

"It's an underlying assumption that Jews have a rich tradition, but they don't really understand the buried treasure within," he said. "So it's up to Christians to extract the gold. It's energized by a feeling of contempt that Judaism has no spiritual integrity of its own."

Schmitt sees it differently. "It's unfortunate that some Jews view this as a threat and an infringement," he said. "I wish it were not that way, because I deplore all the horrible things that were said and done against Jews in the past."

This, in fact, is the original rationale for the church-held Seder, which Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and others have been doing as far back as the 1960s. A quest for interfaith dialogue led Christian churches to invite rabbis to perform demonstrations of Seders, as well as Jewish families to invite Christians to their Passover celebrations.

"It seems some people did them for a number of years with the Jewish community and then decided, 'Well, we can just do them ourselves,' " said David Sandmel, a rabbi and a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Instructions for holding a Christian Seder are available online and in bookstores. "Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians," by Mike Smith, a Baptist pastor, and Rami Shapiro, a self-described "postdenominational" rabbi from Tennessee, was put out last year. (A Haggada is the text read during a Seder ceremony.) The book declares that it "does not pretend to be in any way Jewish."

Some Catholic and mainline Protestant churches add a modicum of Christian spin at the end of the Seder "to make it relevant to the people who attend," said Fairfax Presbyterian's Campbell. But full-blown Christian Seders such as the one at Immanuel's Church play off the belief that the Jewish Seder is "full of symbolism pointing toward the Messiah," Schmitt said.

"Many things concerning Jesus were foreshadowed and prefigured in the Old Testament," he said. "Redemption in the Passover came through the blood of the lamb [sacrificed in the Temple]. Our redemption today comes through Jesus, who is our Passover lamb."

Shapiro believes the Christian Seder enriches both the Jewish and Christian faiths. "If the Jewish way is the only legitimate way of understanding a symbol, then it's a dead symbol," he said. "If it's living, then it's constantly being explored from a different angle.

"The history of religion is one of borrowing. . . . That's how we cross-pollinate, and I think that Christians have a legitimate claim to Passover, being that Jesus was Jewish."

At Immanuel's Seder, attendee Greg McDonald explained what the ceremony meant to him: "We cherish the history of the Jewish people that led to our salvation through Jesus Christ. This Seder is not a taking over of their ritual -- it's an appreciation of it."

Still, B'nai Tzedek's Weinblatt, for one, would probably be more comfortable with a little less Christian enthusiasm for all things Seder. "Ideally, I'd like for Christians to wish me a happy Passover and learn something about the holiday and its message," he says. "But it's not necessary for them to go all out and celebrate it."