Bishop’s E-pistle: No Christian Seders

As we approach Holy Week once again, I commend to you an insightful article by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The title of the article is “Holy Week and the hatred of the Jews: How to avoid anti-Judaism this Easter”, and I encourage our clergy and lay leaders to read the article in its entirety. 

Some of the recommendations of the article we are already doing in Arizona; for instance, I have authorized the past two years alternative translations of the Passion of John and the Solemn Collects. The article also speaks compellingly about the problem of Christian communities attempting to host Seders. I have discovered, now that we are back to doing worship and ministry in person, that there are a few congregations in our diocese that include a Seder as part of their Holy Week Observance. I absolutely agree with Dr. Levine’s commentary: 

“The same romantic approach today is best exemplified in the celebration of the Passover seder in churches, usually on Holy Thursday. While there are educational benefits to introducing Christians to Jewish rituals, holding the seder in churches is not necessarily a good idea, and here’s why:

  • It is not clear that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; it is not, in John’s gospel, which at this point has better claims to historicity.
  • The Seder is a rabbinic invention which then developed over the centuries; Jesus did not eat matzoh ball soup or gefilte fish, sing Dayenu, or say “next year in Jerusalem” — for Jesus, the seder would have consisted of a lamb sacrificed in the Temple and eaten in Jerusalem, not a brisket cooked in Nashville.
  • The Passover at the time of Jesus was limited to Jews, because one needed to say, “My ancestors came forth out of Egypt”.
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus is the Passover offering, crucified at the time the lambs are sacrificed in the temple, so for the church to celebrate a seder would be theologically retrograde.”

I do not want to shame any congregations that are faithfully trying to navigate their way through Holy Week 2022. But if hosting a seder is part of your practice, I would ask you to consider one of several alternatives for 2023 and into the future:

  • Form a relationship with a local Jewish synagogue or temple, and ask to be invited to their seders.
  • Host an Agape supper at any time during the year: there are many resources online; here is one
  • Remember that the proper liturgy for Maundy Thursday for the Episcopal Church is in the Book of Common Prayer, and includes a wide variety of unique and specific liturgical activities for the day: foot-washing, reservation of the sacrament, and the stripping of the altar. If your congregation does not do all of them at present, consider exploring them next year.

35 comments on “Bishop’s E-pistle: No Christian Seders”

  1. EXCELLENT ARTICLE. KUDOS ON WRITING IT, PUBLISHING IT. In the spirit of an ecumenical effort, it is so important to UNDERSTAND what a community or parish chooses to do. ‘Adaptations’ or whatever they are called truly do not extend a show of respect it the underlying understanding is ‘cosmetic’ – a true depth of understanding what the ritual is about is so critical.

  2. Thank you , Bp.Jennifer, for this directive. I have long been troubled by this practice in some of our churches.

  3. Thank you Bishop Reddall for your cogent and sensitive leadership on this issue. Very much appreciated.

  4. Greetings Brothers and Sisters.
    I read the article and agree and add that on Holy Thursday, Jesus inaugurates “The Lord’s Supper.” He changes the Seder ritual right off the bat. They did not wash hands, Jesus washes their feet! Mandatum. We do not even do that mitzvah right as Jesus did not mean literally, but we do! Every Sunday, we celebrate what Jesus did for us and everyone. So it seems there are those amongst us who have Seder in church Holy Thursday; this is very inappropriate. This just tells me like the 1st child of 4 in the Seder who asks :”What does this mean?” We need to explain why Bishop! Oy vay!

    • Jesus did not change the Seder, There were no Seders until approx . C 2/3 in the Common Era. No such event as a Seder in the time of Jesus.

    • Oh dear!
      Forgive me for dropping in from the UK, but I do think that you should read the very thoughtful post from Bishop Jennifer again (and maybe read the links too). Here in the UK last time Passover and Good Friday overlapped, we had a number of churches inviting their Jewish neighbours to “Christian Seders”. Not surprisingly, this was seen to be at best cultural approbation, and at worst Anti- Jewish.
      As the former National Refugee Officer for the CofE and an Interfaith Adviser, my colleagues and I had our work cut out to try and encourage more appropriate celebrations. As Bishop Jennifer has pointed out, the Pessach Seder celebrated this Friday, did not exist at the time of Our Lord. At the time of the Temple, the celebration was indeed one of sacrifice (of lambs). Jesus became that sacrifice. From a Jewish perspective, finely tuned to the ” blood guilt” of St John’s Gospel, inviting them to a “Christian Seder” is equivalent to inviting them to participate in the sacrifice of Christ. Wholly inappropriate. There would have been no questions, and as you may note, st John makes no mention of women or children who are front and central to a present day Seder ritual. As for the use of clicked and stereotypical Yiddish phrases….. Would you have done that if any other ethnic/faith minority were being discussed?

  5. Bishop Reddall,

    I have long been concerned about traditional Christian antisemitism and have found readings and practices in the church, especially around Holy Week, troubling. I was pleased to see you share the article by Dr. Levine. She makes some good points.

    But Dr. Levine misses on a couple issues of historicity:
    *Whether the Last Supper was a Seder meal or not almost doesn’t matter—Jesus was an observant Jew who certainly took part in the Passover practices of his day.
    *The modern-day Seder in the Jewish community probably is quite different from two thousand years ago. Christian prayers and practices have changed some, too, since then.

    **For my parish to hold a Seder is an opportunity to honor the Jewish heritage of Jesus—which Christianity has historically tried to sweep under the rug.
    **Some parishes invite their Jewish neighbors as a way of sharing God’s love—welcoming them into our space in a way that honors and respects them and doesn’t make them feel like they’ll be a target for conversion—a way that doesn’t “other” them.
    **A parish Seder also allows us to respect, honor, and love our parish members who have Jewish relatives and loved ones and feel cut off from that tradition.

    While I believe it is the opposite of what you are intending, the idea that ‘the Bishop is cancelling Seders’ will most likely be seen as another antisemitic move in a long history of Christian antisemitism.

    I respectfully urge you to reconsider and, as always, I keep you in my prayers.

    Kristin McCartor

    • As the linked article explains (and the comment below yours illustrates), a bunch of Christians getting together to appropriate and pantomime Jewish rituals they don’t understand or observe is the very opposite of respecting, honoring, and loving our Jewish friends and relatives, let alone Jews as a whole.

    • Kristin- ask your Jewish friends what they think about it. I, for one, really appreciate the Christians who are sensitive about not appropriating my religious traditions and who recognize the way in which blending the two religions is a form of erasure of Judaism’s uniqueness. I don’t see a call to avoid that as antisemitic in the least. Also, we know who are friends are.

      • I have discussed this with my Jewish friends long before I replied to the Bishop. I’ve been involved in interfaith activities, too. Some Jewish friends and acquaintances attended our Seder this week and appreciated it.

    • Hi Kristin,

      I’m in an interfaith relationship with a Jewish partner, and while holding a seder at a church outside a dialog with a Jewish community may not be antisemitic, it is honestly culturally insensitive and rude.

      Some of your points really stuck out to me:

      “Some parishes invite their Jewish neighbors as a way of sharing God’s love—welcoming them into our space in a way that honors and respects them and doesn’t make them feel like they’ll be a target for conversion—a way that doesn’t ‘other’ them.”

      I’m not sure this honors your Jewish friends as much as you think. Jews in their own community (i.e., their homes or a synagogue) welcoming non-Jews to a seder is a much safer context to ward off conversion than any church. And it is pretty othering to watch others perform your rituals in front of you. Seriously, just ask to be invited. You are always most welcome to join my family seder and most synagogues will hold a big group seder for the congregation during Passover. Guest are typically welcome at these and often this is a great time for a church to visit.

      “A parish Seder also allows us to respect, honor, and love our parish members who have Jewish relatives and loved ones and feel cut off from that tradition.”

      I think in this you have touched on an interesting point I have felt in my interfaith family. While there are lots of Jewish resources for navigating interfaith life there is little that the Church has offered.

      That being said it is not the role of the Church to become a surrogate synagogue for interfaith families. The Passover seder is by and large a home ritual, meaning Jews can, and do, hold one even if there is not a temple near by. I sympathize with anyone who feels far from their tradition at a major holiday but this is also the nature of being interfaith.

      “While I believe it is the opposite of what you are intending, the idea that ‘the Bishop is cancelling Seders’ will most likely be seen as another antisemitic move in a long history of Christian antisemitism.”

      I cannot speak out against this enough. No Jew I know is going to find this letter asking congregations to be in interfaith dialogue, and not hold Jewish rituals without Jews, antisemitic. While some groups may be indifferent or opposed to being involved in interfaith dialogue, they generally find the idea of a Christian-led seder offensive.

      I hope you will reach out to Jews in your community and ask to be invited not just Pesach but also Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim and many other Jewish holidays. It’s partly in joining Jews during their own holidays that they feel supported by the Christian community around them.

    • In my lifetime, I have participated in more than 100 Seders. In that time, I have progressed through all of the stages of the Four Children. I feel obligated to tell you that the recent development of Christians hosting (as opposed to attending and participating in) a Seder is profoundly disturbing.

      It is only since I began writing my own Haggadot each year that I have truly come to understand the nature and purpose of the Seder. It is not merely a ritual obligation, although there is plenty of that. The Seder does not just fulfill the biblical obligation to remember G-d’s redemption of the Israelites from bondage. Done properly, the Seder helps us remember what it is to be a slave, to appreciate what it is to be free and to understand that there are still many around the world who are not free.

      Across the centuries, Seders have certainly accumulated their share of mishigas, but the gefilte fish and matzah balls are not the point. My family has its own foods that must be on the table, but that is not the point. That is all part of a general Jewish approach to festivals: They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat.

      Pesach represents an exceptional opportunity for interfaith understanding, but not by Christian appropriation of a rabbinic practice developed as a response to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 30-ish years after Jesus died. Bishop Reddall is absolutely right. Join us in our Seders. Pandemic aside, we’ve had Christians join us for one or the other Seder each year for nearly 30 years. Synagogue religious school programs and Jewish day schools host Seders for their students (admittedly on the “simple child” end of the spectrum). Contact one and arrange for children in your church to participate. See if a local synagogue wants to create an interfaith network so that your church members can participate in family Seders in the community.

    • Hi Kristin:

      “**Some parishes invite their Jewish neighbors as a way of sharing God’s love—welcoming them into our space in a way that honors and respects them and doesn’t make them feel like they’ll be a target for conversion—a way that doesn’t ‘other’ them.”

      As a Jew, I wouldn’t feel comfortable at a Christian Seder, and I’ve felt included at churches before. It’s appropriation. Christian Seders are anti-Semitic, not the cancellation of them. We KNOW we’re “othered” and not privileged (in terms of religion) in US society, it’s fine to acknowledge differences.

      If a Church is interested in an interfaith event LED by a Rabbi or synagogue, that’s a different story. (My synagogue held an interfaith event with a church in the Fall.)

      Importantly, this Bishop’s post is spot on and I appreciate the allyship to Jewish people.

  6. I’m here as a Jew to say thank you for this. It is painful and frustrating to see our traditions appropriated. Grateful to you. Wishing you a meaningful holy week and a joyful Easter.

    • By appropriation, do you mean something similar to Jews who put up Christmas trees, exchange “holiday” gifts, and, in the case of singers like Barbra Streisand or Kenny G, record albums of Christmas music strictly for profit? Oh, but it’s all so the kids won’t feel left out, right?

  7. Coming here as a rabbinical student to thank you for raising this. I hope people will take these points seriously and, if they are interested in Passover, seek out breathing living Jewish communities, and do not engage in anachronistic fantasies. Wishing you a blessed and joyous Easter!

  8. Thank you for this. I would also like to suggest that folks who want to experience a Seder please ask their Jewish friends if they can join! No Jewish person would ever be offended by a request to take part. Indeed, it is part of the Seder tradition to invite people, including strangers, in to experience it. Lastly, I would request that everyone—Jews and Gentiles—take a moment at their Seder to enjoy my Passover Parody Sing-Along:

  9. Thank you. As a Jewish convert to Christianity in the Episcopal Church, I was honestly a little shocked to find some Episcopal churches doing this.

  10. Ask a Messianic Rabbi for advice and perhaps as such said rabbi to come and share their service. I do believe that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. This bishop is entitled to her opinion and that is what it is.

    • There is no validity to a “Messianic rabbi”. Messianic Judaism is clearly Christianity. Ask your questions of Orthodox rabbis who truly practice Judaism.

    • Messianic Jews are not recognized as Jews by other Jews, and mess with Jewish symbols, misrepresent them, etc. Talk to any other sort of rabbi, please, and ask to go to a Seder respectfully.

  11. Thank you, Bishop Reddall. Appropriation of another religion’s rites are a special kind of assumption of privilege. Seders are typically a home ceremony. To hold it as a large dinner in a church building is not the setting even the Jews at Passover would have had.

    Ask to be invited to someone’s house for a Seder, and then do what they say. Follow them. And repeat this instruction for MLK day or black history month. These are times to listen and not speak or act.

  12. Why is it Christians always seem interested in honoring and participating in Peach and Channuka, yet never hold their own Yom Kippur, Yom Hashoah, or Tish b’Av?

    As a Jew, this speaks volumes to me of the true intentions of appropriating Jewish observance. As the church did to so many cultures over time, it’s seeking to replace other religious observance with their own. (Thus making conversion of non-Christians easier.)

  13. Hi, Jenny, long time no see! Still, those days at General seem like yesterday. Thanks so much for this very appropriate letter, and thanks, too, to those, especially Jewish friends, who responded with such full understanding.
    The parish I attend when I’m in Northern California has a cordial relationship with a mosque in Folsom. We haven’t seen much of each other since COVID but I hope we’ll soon get back together. The mosque has a regular open house, and our members have worked with theirs on refugee resettlement. We are welcome to worship at the mosque but of course we do not suggest our Muslim friends attend Christian worship. Instead, we have had semi-regular potlucks at the church during which we learn more about Islam — at the last one before lockdown some who hadvrecently made the Haj (or the children’s version of it) told us of their experiences. A woman seated near me, when asked what her experience had meant, said “Now I really understand that the whole purpose of my life is to serve others.” I wish we had a better focus on learning that — Holy Week is the best time, I think.

  14. I am very pleased to read this article. My former congregation built and shared a sanctuary with a Jewish congregation. I faced the Bema each Sunday and cherished the friendships and Hebrew lessons. To appropriate the customs of another faith is unacceptable. To learn from them with humility is all we should do.

  15. Let’s leave well enough alone. Seder is their business. Last Supper is our business.

  16. I am wondering where the alternative translation of the Passion of John is found.
    Thank you for your help. (After Easter). A blessed Easter to all.
    (The Rev’d) Roslyn Macgregor

  17. Most contemporary Christians are woefully ignorant of Judaism and Rabbinical traditions.
    An argument can be made and supported that Jesus spent his earthly ministry teaching his disciples how to be good Jews and the he came to fulfill the law not abolish it per Matt 5. Paul also insists we are “adopted” and “grafted in” so in real sense Jewish traditions are our traditions and there is inherent value in being exposed to the how’s and whys of Jewish celebrations.
    Although not binding or necessary Seder is instructive in understanding YHWHs provision and fuels the “dodge the bullet” dynamic of Passover.
    I have enjoyed it when invited yo participate—but it’s a lot of work to reproduce it for Gentiles…..

  18. I have never, until very recently, heard of churches holding Seder meals. I have also never, until very recently, heard anyone deny that it was a Passover meal of that day. (Luke 22:15; Mark 14:16; Matthew 26:18.) I am aware there were no motza ball soup.

    Let’s skip the unnecessary appropriation of Jewish rituals and hatred of people and stick to the liturgical tradition of the Maundy Thursday service as provided for in the Book of Common Prayer.

  19. As someone who is both Christian and Jewish by family lineage, I see absolutely no problem with Christians hosting a Seder. Especially in light of the fact that a Seder points in so many ways directly to the coming of the messiah, who is Jesus Christ. It is so sad to see yet another diocese claiming to be Christian and yet giving into woke ideology and forsaking the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

  20. The first bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real was +Shannon Mallory. ( My late husband Bill+ Young was an early Rector, in ECR, for 17 years, beginning its founding year).
    Upon hearing that churches were planning Seders in Holy Week, the bishop strongly discouraged this.

    As I recall, he then related a comment his Jewish son-in-law had made: “Oh? And how might Christians feel, if we Jews did a mock Eucharist right after joyfully eating the jelly donuts, on Hanukkah?”

    Needless to say….most ECR parishes planning a mock Seder segued right into an Agape Meal, instead….