The unique phenomenon of Christians participating in Passover seders is beginning to catch on, as many non-Jews delve into the Jewish roots of their faith – but it is taking on new forms that are unexpected and may cross some delicate red lines.
Annie Washburn of rural Tennessee, with her hair covered and modestly dressed, can pass for an Orthodox Jew. Her family held a seder for about 20 people. It became clear that this was not a traditional Jewish home when, in true Passover spirit, her Chasidically bearded husband, Tom, slaughtered a lamb. “As a memorial, not a sacrifice,” she stressed.
Susan Conrad Gates from Indiana adopted many Jewish rituals as important aspects of her Christian observance, lighting Shabbat candles every week and observing Hanukkah. She also reads the weekly Torah portion on Saturday, incorporating readings in the Gospel. Thirty years ago, reading the Bible led her to wonder if people still observed the feasts. At that time, she took part in a Passover seder led by the Chosen People Ministries. For her it is significant as, “the key to the belief of Christians in that Jesus is referred to as being the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of man.”
The movement known as B’ney Yosef is seeking a spiritual connection with the Jewish people and do not consider themselves a part of Christianity. Passover is an important part of their observance. Pete Rambo, Operations Director for the movement, organized a seder for about 25 people in his home. The Haggadah, the Jewish text describing the Passover seder, was simplified for the children’s sake, but most of the elements were still there: four cups of wine, four questions, the afikoman, and the telling of the Exodus story. The B’ney Yosef do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, and Rambo feels Passover fills an important gap for a “cultural family gathering”, especially poignant since, as a Ben Yosef, Rambo sees himself as an “adopted part of the Judah family.”
Rambo finds meaning in aspects of the seder that are deeply symbolic for his non-Jewish belief, incorporating aspects of Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew, into the Jewish rituals.
“For me, the symbolism of the afikoman gets me every time. The three pieces being a unity with the middle one being taken out and broken, half hidden in a linen cloth. This is such a rich picture of how we see Yeshua, the one who was striped, bruised, pierced and broken, then wrapped in linen and hidden in the grave, yet he was without the leaven of sin.”
Al McCarn, Executive Director of the B’ney Yosef, also had a family seder guided by the Messianic Haggadah from Lion and Lamb Ministries. Unfamiliar with most of the traditional Jewish songs, they incorporated Christian hymns “celebrating the death and resurrection of Yeshua as our Passover Lamb.”
For McCarn, the seder took on a unique significance – also connected to Jesus.
“The key elements in the observance were remembering the national redemption of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt, linking that national redemption to Yeshua’s work of personal redemption, and looking forward to the restoration of both houses of Israel.”
Breaking Israel News spoke to David Nekrutman, the Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation, who will be inviting Christians to a Hallel (Psalms 113-118) service on Israel’s Independence day on May 12th, about this phenomenon.
He is supportive of Christians embracing the Hebraic roots of their faith, but Nekrutman stresses that the seder should “emphasize the national redemption of the Jewish people.”
“One of the central commandments of Passover is feeling as one has left Egypt in the present moment. Knowing that I cannot be the Jew I am today without that redemptive moment over 3,000 years ago,” Nekrutman said. “Passover is the story of how the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob intervened in human history to liberate a powerless people. God’s miraculous freeing of the Hebrew slaves was never meant for Israel alone. Every human being is created in the Divine image, and therefore every individual has the inalienable right to be free.”
The holiday is about freedom – not atonement, which most Christians see in the paschal lamb, he explained. “Connecting atonement to the paschal lamb has no basis in Bible nor in Jewish tradition,” Nekrutman pointed out. “The word l’chaper (to atone) is never associated with the korban pesach (Passover offering). Not every Old Testament sacrifice is about wiping away sins. Passover is not the Day of Atonement.
“While I understand that for Christians Jesus came into the world to atone for humanity’s sins, infusing Christological elements into the seder takes away from the significance of the Jewish holiday,” he said.
“As the former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, said, Pesach is the eternal critique of power used by humans to coerce and diminish their fellow human beings. We invite Christians to join in the holiday of redemption, but we urge them to respect the roots of this commandment as celebrated in Judaism.”