If you know nothing else about Passover, the Jewish festival that began on the evening of April 10, you might well know of the Seder dinner, its liturgy called a "Haggadah" and the "Four Questions" the youngest participant gets to ask during the meal.
The first question is perhaps the most famous: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The brief answer is that the eight-day feast commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery and bondage in Egypt.
Zoom ahead to 2017 and The Forward. This is a New York City-based Jewish news and commentary publication that, in the past year or so, has had a particular interest in evangelical Christians who appropriate Jewish themes and who endorsed then-candidate, now POTUS, Donald J. Trump.
Asks the paper, "Evangelicals Are Falling In Love With Passover -- Is There Anything Wrong With That?" Let's jump in:
In March, Florida televangelist Paula White gave her followers a special holiday message. Not for Easter, which falls in mid-April, but for the Jewish holiday of Passover.
“We are entering into one of the most supranational and miraculous seasons,” White, who is also a spiritual adviser to President Trump, said in a special video. “The season of Passover.” ...
In the traditional Passover story, God commands the Israelites to sacrifice lambs and to spread blood on their doorways so that they may be spared God’s wrath. Christians view the sacrificial lamb as an analogy for Jesus’ death, and the Israelites’ salvation as their own as believers in Jesus.
“The lamb’s blood became their salvation or their deliverance,” White said, referring to the Israelites. “Our Passover lamb, Jesus, is for your deliverance today.”
Many evangelical Christians, and more than a few Protestant mainliners, wouldn't find much to argue with in White's assertion. In Luke 22:14-16, the language is explicit: "When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, 'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.'” (New International Version)
Most Jews would reject that comparison because they reject the belief that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. But Christians, operating under the New Testament, have made the linkage for two millennia.
What grabbed The Forward's attention is that many Christians who embrace Passover rites advertise themselves as "Messianic Jews," people born and raised in the Jewish faith who have embraced Jesus as the Savior. The article mentions such Messianic teachers as Ralph Messer, founder of a "Hebrew Roots" congregation called Simchat Torah Beit Midrash, and Jonathan Cahn, a Messianic author who uses the title rabbi, although he appears not to have been ordained by any Hebrew seminary or group.
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar to the devoted reader, it should, and that's the journalistic issue here. The Forward is treading on very familiar ground: every couple of years there's a journalistic kerfuffle or two over whether or not Christians should embrace the Seder, especially if there's any evangelistic undercurrent.
One of the more recent stirrings was a 2014 article in Religion Dispatches by Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy on why Christian's should not observe the Passover on their own. The Forward piece noted and linked to the earlier article.
That commentary was, well, familiar to me, because I had written about it -- and the attendant controversy -- in 2014 for the Deseret News. In that story, I quoted Rabbi Evan Moffic, who leads a congregation affiliated with the Reform Judaiism movement, who was more sanguine:
Moffic said, "I'm more grateful for the fact that many Christians find meaning in a Jewish ritual. That's something to be thankful for. Most Christians approach it as an opportunity to experience a ritual that Jesus experienced in one form or another. It's experiential learning at its best."
Moffic even allowed for the practices of so-called "Messianic Jews," or Jewish believers in Jesus, who use the Seder to evangelize: "That is a perfectly legitimate point of view for people of a different religion, and they're welcome to engage in a Seder from their point of view. I'm not interested in regulating their beliefs. … We live in a pluralistic world."
In terms of news, the journalistic point is that the issue is more nuanced than the Forward writer would suggest, and certainly an older one. There are Jewish leaders who oppose Christians overlaying the Passover with a patina of New Testament verses, and there are others who are more accepting.
Again, this is far from a "new" news story. Tmatt and Bobby Ross Jr. are two fellow GetReligionistas who -- in their religion-news beat days -- have written news reports about Christian and interfaith observances of the Passover, and there are perhaps dozens of other examples.
While I couldn't find tmatt's 1983 opus, the Nexis Lexis database came up with a story from that year by Paula Herbut, a Washington Post staff writer. It's tone was decidedly different from the should-they-or-shouldn't-they pieces we see now:
The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) is sponsoring an interfaith seder Thursday for area Protestant and Catholic religious leaders, immediately after a Holy Thursday service at St. Matthew's Cathedral.
"In years gone by, many of the anti-Semitic activities in Europe went on during Holy Week," said Edward Leavy, executive director of the Washington area ADL. "It's very important that we show the Jewishness of Jesus."
What a difference, it seems, 34 years makes. Thus, what a shame to see historical context missing from The Forward's take. Then again, there's always next year.
Initial image: 'The Last Supper' by Spanish painter Vicente Juan Masip, now in the Prado Museum, Madrid, via Wikimedia Commons.