For most of Christian history, it was a commonplace that observance of Jewish ritual was at best meaningless, perhaps even harmful, and certainly to be avoided by Christians. For Jews, Christianity was the hostile “other,” and it was wise to have as little to do with it as possible.
Given this history, the appearance of a Passover Haggadah for Christians, co-authored by a rabbi and a Baptist minister, is a sign of a vast sea change in Christian-Jewish relations. The result, Let Us Break Bread Together, by Pastor Michael Smith and Rabbi Rami Shapiro, is certainly a project marked by good intentions. But it is also marked by theological and historical confusion.
Why should Christians be conducting a Passover Seder in the first place? According to Smith and Shapiro, it is to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus and “the centrality of the Passover Seder in the life of Jews and, therefore, Jesus as a Jew.” But if Christians are to observe Jewish rituals so that they can better understand and relate to Jesus (a highly debatable proposition in and of itself), does it make sense to observe Jewish rituals in a form which Jesus would not have known?
Smith and Shapiro present an outline of a Seder as it is observed by contemporary Jews, which they then overlay with Christian theological content. They assert that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, an assertion increasingly challenged by current scholarship.
But whether or not the Last Supper was in fact a Passover meal, it would not have borne much resemblance to the Seders Jews celebrate today. For the Seder as we now know it, though centuries old, developed only after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E.
There is no evidence that the current structure of a ritualized recitation of the Exodus narrative, a formalized question-and-answer format, the use of precisely three matzahs and four cups of wine, and other symbolic foods, was known at the time of Jesus. But this is the structure which Smith and Shapiro follow in their Haggadah.
It is one thing for Christians to observe rituals of Second Temple Judaism in an attempt to do what Jesus did (whether or not this makes sense is not a question I as a rabbi can really answer) but it is quite another to observe the rituals of Rabbinic Judaism which developed decades after Jesus’ death.
Shapiro and Smith walk a narrow ridge in their attempt to give Christian content to a Jewish ritual, and they deserve credit for attempting to maintain the integrity of both traditions.
“Messianic Jewish” Seders will claim that normative Jews don’t understand the meaning of their own rituals, explaining for example that the three matzahs “really” stand for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the middle matzah is broken to symbolize Jesus’ broken body.
Smith and Shapiro use the same symbolism but acknowledge it as a Christian overlay on a Jewish ritual, while still maintaining its original meaning for Jews. They are to be given credit here for their attempt to pay honor to both traditions, and their recognition that the very same ritual may mean different things to different people. It is not necessary to strip a ritual of its Jewish meaning in order to make it speak to Christians.
That having been said, the Jewish meanings Shapiro ascribes are often idiosyncratic. The same matzah which for Christians represents Jesus’ broken body, “for the Jews…is the matzah of speech. It is broken because our words are often used to hurt rather than heal and make whole.”
While Jewish tradition does indeed emphasize the necessity to avoid destructive speech, the “matzah of speech” seems to be Shapiro’s own invention. I have never heard of it, nor had any of the 700-plus Conservative rabbis on the Rabbinical Assembly e-mail list when I asked about it.
There are many other quibbles as well: Shapiro’s inconsistent transliteration (sometimes Sephardic, sometimes Ashkenazic–chumetz instead of chametz), his translation of the Hebrew “boreh” (Creator) as “who births”–in keeping, perhaps, with Shapiro’s own naturalistic theology but at best an unacknowledged paraphrase.
But the bottom line for me is, I simply find the whole concept of a “Christian Haggadah” to be wrong-headed–though I acknowledge both the progress in Christian–Jewish understandings it represents and the sincere attempt to respect both traditions.
I share with Shapiro and Smith the hope they express in their preface that Christians may grow in their “understanding and appreciation of Judaism even as Christians deepen their connection to Jesus.” But observing Jewish rituals which developed well after Jesus’ time and superimposing Christian meanings on them is not the way to do it.
Rabbi Charles Arian is staff scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.
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