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Why Passover really is different

27 March 2015

Christians can learn unexpected lessons from Pesach, argue Aaron and Carolyn Rosen


Paschal lamb? The Feast of the Passover by Dieric Bouts (c.1420-1475)

Paschal lamb? The Feast of the Passover by Dieric Bouts (c.1420-1475)

WE OFTEN find ourselves entertaining both Jews and Christians for dinner. This is hardly surprising for a Jewish theologian and a Christian exploring a calling to ordained ministry in the Church of England. But it is a bit different when one of those dinners happens to be a Passover seder, and even more so when it coincides with Holy Week, as it does this year. To borrow a question from the Haggadah - the text Jews follow during the celebration of Passover - "why is this night different from all other nights?" What does it mean for Jews and Christians to celebrate a seder together, and what can they learn from the experience?

For us, it is important to emphasise first and foremost that everyone is a guest in our home. Indeed, hospitality is one of the primary lessons of Pesach, or Passover. During the seder, Jews recite the words of Ha Lachma Anya over the matzot, the unleavened bread: "This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover. This year we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year may we be free."

And yet, while this message of liberation, charity, and equality is fundamentally universal - none should go hungry, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, or other - the meal itself is a Passover feast, the hope for redemption inflected by centuries of identifiably Jewish dreams and experiences. A Christian celebrating seder is thus doubly a guest, welcomed into both a home and a religion; a position of particular honour, but also responsibility. 

IN RECENT years, especially with the increasing popularity of seder celebrations among Christians, this responsibility has sometimes taken a back seat. On the positive side, this passion for Passover signals a genuine desire and potential for interfaith dialogue. However, there are aspects of this trend that might justifiably make Jews a little nervous. The primary attraction of the seder, for some Christians, lies in discovering what the Last Supper of Jesus "was really like".

The first problem is that this is historically anachronistic since the Haggadah only developed many centuries after the death of Jesus. There is profound paschal imagery in the eucharist, to be sure, but Jesus certainly did not celebrate a seder in a way we would recognise today.

A second issue is even more worrying. When Jews and Judaism are valued principally for the light they shed on Christian history and theology, the door is flung wide open to the spectre of supersessionism. There is an echo here of Saint Augustine's advice to "slay them [the Jews] not"- less for the sake of the Jews themselves, than for the historic witness they bear to the Law. While the Jews of antiquity and the Middle Ages might have been glad of any reason that helped to save them from persecution by Christians (which often spiked horrifically at Easter), Jews today are unwilling to be seen as the librarians of Christendom.

SO CHRISTIANS can't learn from Passover as much about their own religion as they might have hoped, but they can certainly learn about Judaism: real, living, changing, contemporary Jewish life. There is a tendency, in interfaith dialogue, to assume that other religious groups are monolithic, governed by one, orthodox way of doing things. It is important to remember that there are many ways of celebrating Passover.

First, there are cultural differences, especially between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. There are also differences of denomination, with many Reform Jews favouring innovations such as placing Miriam's cup alongside Elijah's, to symbolise women's contributions to the faith, or including an orange on the seder plate to honour the struggle for inclusion by homosexuals. Above all, the seder presents Christians with an opportunity to ask Jews about their religion. In fact, as the recitation of the Four Questions during the seder demonstrates, asking questions is not just tolerated during Pesach, but is actively encouraged.

WE BEGAN by emphasising that Christians are guests when they celebrate Passover. They are certainly guests when they come to a Jewish home. Yet, even within their own churches, they might consider themselves guests of Jewish tradition when they participate in a seder.

Being a good guest, however, doesn't mean keeping silent. A good guest at Passover questions, laughs, and even argues. We are often told that it's bad manners to talk religion or politics over dinner. But debating during Pesach isn't disrespectful to Jewish tradition: it is Jewish tradition. Open, honest discussion leads to liberation.

In celebrating Passover we talk our hopes for humanity into reality: "Now we are slaves. Next year may we be free." 

Dr Aaron Rosen is Lecturer in Sacred Traditions & the Arts at King's College, London. Carolyn Rosen recently completed a Ph.D. at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is currently exploring a calling to ordained ministry in the Church of England. Together they are curating a series of interfaith and intercultural exhibitions at the Jewish Museum in London, on view now.

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