Responding to Rabbis: Christian Seders Mean No Disrespect To Jews

Two rabbis deprecated a growing American Christian practice of holding a seder on the Jewish Passover.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko and David Sanmel’s article appeared in Christianity Today, which makes sense given that their audience is Christian.

They offered two main reasons why Christians should not appropriate the Jewish seder. First, that Jesus didn’t celebrate the seder the same way Jews do today. That seems to be a very weak reason, and I’ll get into the “why” in a bit. The second is “adopting another’s ritual shows a lack of respect.” This is the “cultural appropriation” angle so popular today. Though it’s a stronger argument, it’s really a mask for a deeper issue.

I’ll deal with the historical issue first. Certainly, Jesus didn’t celebrate the Passover like we do today. But today Jews don’t slaughter lambs, or make sacrifices at the Temple. They haven’t since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. (or C.E. as the rabbis render it).

Neither Judaism nor Christianity are practiced like they were in the first century. That’s no reason that Christians should not explore the Jewish roots of their faith, including the Biblical feasts.

The deeper issue alluded to in the rabbis’ second point was noted by Dr. Michael Brown, a Biblical scholar, and, like me, a Jewish believer in Jesus.

It is for that reason — respect — that they urge Christians not to engage in their own version of a Passover Seder, especially if it is led by a Messianic Jew (a Jewish believer in Jesus).

The rise of Messianic Jews is especially troubling for American Jews. I know this personally because as a Jew, before I accepted Jesus, groups like “Jews for Jesus” were especially offensive to me. I do not wish to offend Jews–many are my relatives!–but I do feel that the celebrations of my youth are still relevant to my faith today.

As the rabbis recommend, I celebrate Passover by hosting a seder, at my home, inviting friends and family. I believe this is the most authentic way to do it. While I believe that “teaching ministries” that hold seders at churches led by Messianic Jews are a useful experience for Christians, they really aren’t as authentic as a Jewish family seder. I have to agree with the rabbis on that point.

I don’t believe it’s a sign of disrespect for Christians, or Jewish believers in Christ (Messianic Jews as a label) to celebrate God’s redemption of Israel. Romans 11 enjoins Gentiles to keep Jews in the center of their awareness. Indeed, many of the doctrines from the Mishnah were “appropriated” by early Christians.

The revival of these principles in “Torah-observant” Messianic synagogues such as Beit Hashofar in Washington state, or Beth Yeshua in Macon, Georgia (local to me) smacks of Christians appropriating Jewish traditions and wrapping Jesus around them. I am sensitive to this and know how off-putting it can be to rabbis in particular. I don’t personally attend a “Messianic synagogue.” I feel that my personal faith traditions of my youth and family are not to be made into some open public display.

Other Christians with Jewish backgrounds feel called to inform and build up the body of Christ through teaching of Jewish traditions. Again, this is no disrespect to to Rabbis Poupko and Sanmel or any other Jews. But the seder is loaded with teaching and prophetic value to the Christian. There seems to be a problem among these rabbis that Christians are mocking the feast because they’re “doing it wrong.”

If that’s true, my Uncle Abe mocked it for 40 years. We spent about 10 minutes on the Exodus story before he was calling for the food. The “appropriation” and respect charge is uniquely aimed at Christians.

But to make the rabbis’ case, they have to ignore the fact that the entire faith of Christians relies on appropriating all of the Old Testament. How can they acknowledge that Jesus taught Old Testament principles, quoted Deuteronomy, and that the Christian Bible includes both the Old and New Testaments but call out Christians for celebrating the Passover?

The offense is really that American Christians have revived interest in Jewish roots at a time when American Jews are becoming more secular. In that, I express sadness, but add the hope of a time when God shall make “one new man” through His covenant.

Jews, as they celebrate Passover, would be better served not focusing on Christian “appropriation” of a Jewish feast, but, as Dr. Brown encourages, by asking why Christians find Jewish roots so attractive and important. It is with deep respect and humility that I encourage my Gentile Christian friends to understand the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:13-15.

For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

(Image from White House Passover Seder in 2009, attended by former President Barack Obama)

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