It is the week of Passover, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. My father is Jewish, and I grew up celebrating Passover, though in a fairly secular way, my family was not very religious. I have fond memories of the seders (Passover service with dinner) with ethnic foods, and the whole occasion was a pretty big to-do. I still love matzah ball soup, though at some point I lost my taste for gefilte fish, I think after my wife made a comment about the fish in it being a “bait fish.” Hey, she’s the fisherperson, not me, so I’ll take her word for it.
As a Christian I early on learned about Messianic Judaism. Messianic Jews are people of Jewish ancestery who believe in Jesus. They consider it the natural progression for Jews, and have special concern for converting their bretheren to their faith in “Yeshua,” which is the Hebrew version of the name “Jesus” (Jesus is the Greek translation of Yeshua, in my understanding). Messianic Jewish movements (like the famous Jews for Jesus group), tend to be fairly close theologically to conservative evangelicalism.
I was somewhat recruited by some Messianic Jews in college, and while I found some attraction, I was ultimately turned off by the whole thing. I don’t know if it was an element of racial pride, or some kind of weirdness, or the feeling that I was being recruited, but I ultimately decided to go in a different direction.
But one element of of Messianic Judaism which I kept personally was the Messianic Passover seder. At a Messianic seder, they practice the traditional Jewish seder, but with a twist in that they see Christian symbolism in the traditional Jewish elements of the seder.
The connections for the most part are pretty straight forward. For example, in the New Testament, Jesus is depicted as celebrating the famous last supper as part of a Passover dinner. The Passover ceremony commemorates the Israelites’ freedom from slavery, as Jesus represents Christians freedom from sin. The Israelites were redeemed from Israel, and the angel of death passed over their homes because of the blood sprinkled on the lintels over the doors, just as Christians are redeemed from the punishment of death for sin because of the sprinking of blood. And so on.
While Christians see this as a clear fulfillment of the Scriptures, Jewish people today often see it as a misappropriation and incorrect interpretation of their religion. Interesting to me, I see it both ways. I don’t begrudge Christians reinterpreting the old Jewish stories and making their own new story. But at the same time I can understand why it makes Jewish people uncomfortable. It isn’t just that Christians are appreciating the Jewish roots of their faith, but some are actually saying they understand them better than the Jews themselves. That kind of thing can easily create resentment.
Like many religious traditions, the Messianic version does seem to take things a bit far. For example, one of their interpretations is that the matzah, unleavened bread, used in the service forshadows Christ, because it is striped, just as Jesus was given stripes from the lash, and it is pierced, just like Jesus was pierced with a spear after being crucified. Those are rather silly interpretations. I’ll accept that kind of things as a cute and kitchy religious story, but matzahs that look like that are a modern invention. There aren’t really Jewish people going around wondering why they put little holes in matzahs, missing the point that God has them inadvertently pointing to his story about Jesus.
Growing up in a secular family, with parents of mixed religious traditions (Jewish and Christian), I guess I am not so sensitive over the synthesis of the two religions in the Messianic passover seder. I have personally led a few seders mixing the two traditions, and plan on doing so again. I like the tradition, I like being able to point out the roots of both religions in these stories, even while I take the stories far less literally than I once did. And why would I want to give up a holiday where matzah ball soup has a key roll? Pass me another cup of Manishevitz please, and “Next year in Jeruselem!” Happy Passover!