The debate about Christians using Jewish worship forms, such as the Seder service, emerges every year during Lent. It is part of the wider, on-going argument about the validity of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Christian churches. In general, conservative and orthodox Jews are adamant that the intrusion of Christians into Judaism is to be opposed, and conservative evangelicals also view efforts to appropriate Jewish rituals and festivals as “efforts to undermine the separation of the two religions.” Evangelicals do not want to understand Jews, they want to convert them. Jews argue that the one thing settled between Jews and Christians is that they are permanently separated by the difference of opinion about Jesus as the same Messiah the Jews anticipated and still expect.
Rabbi David Wolpe put it this way: “There are some today who speak of themselves as ‘Jews for Jesus.’ This is nonsense. It makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Mohammed.’ A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of ‘Jews for Jesus’ is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.” [Rabbi David Wolpe, “Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus” January 9, 2003 reprinted in the March 27, 2021 edition of Jewish Journal.] At the heart of Rabbi Wolpe’s reasoning is the fact that the world is a mess. The job of the Messiah is to fix that. Jesus did not do that. Ergo, Jesus is not the Messiah.
It would be best to separate the matters into two parts.
My own limited experience has convinced me that the effort to incorporate Messianic theology into Jewish traditions is much older than “Jews for Jesus” which began in the 1970s.
In 1960 I was hired for the summer to work as a counselor at Presbyterian Camps in Saugatuck Michigan. There were 3 camps on the campsite owned by the Presbytery of Chicago. One of them was Camp Piniel operated by the First Hebrew Christian Church of Chicago, which was an outgrowth of Piniel Center, a neighborhood house established by Presbyterians more than a century ago.
As I remember it being explained to me, the congregation was Jewish who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. They continued Jewish worship in the Ashkenazi (European diaspora) form but included readings from the New Testament. It was significant that this congregation was a full-fledged member of Chicago Presbytery. They were somehow Jewish and Presbyterian. It was founded in 1934. In 1960 I heard that it still conducted some services in Hungarian language.
Daniel Juster, pastor (rabbi) of the First Hebrew Christian church of Chicago from 1972-77, was a graduate from my own alma-mater, McCormick Theological Seminary, and was ordained as a Presbyterian teaching elder.
The church is now named Adat Hatikvah Messianic Synagogue and is in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield. It is no longer listed as a church of Chicago Presbytery. Notice, the congregation no longer calls itself either Hebrew or Christian.
I do not expect the aggravation to go away that is felt by Jews against invasion and aggression of Christians, nor do I imagine the anguish felt by Christians, who love their Jewish heritage and want to retain as much as possible of it, to diminish in the face of denunciation for embracing Jesus as Messiah.
But I will argue that it is not up to Jews to invalidate the Messianic movement. The heart of the matter is that it is basically legitimate for a new religious movement to attempt to establish itself as a form of an older one, even if the older religion doesn’t like it. Christians hated it when Joseph Smith announced the formation of The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons, for short). “They are not CHRISTIAN,” the Christians ranted. It was not, however, up to the Christians to decide what the Mormons called themselves or what they borrowed from Christian jargon and practices. Christianity was at the core of Mormons’ theology and identity. By the same token it is not up to other Christians in the Philippines to decide that Iglesia Ni Cristo is not Christian.
Amalgamated religious movements have a right to exist in a free society. Here in Chiang Mai there are Jewish-Buddhists (espoused by several people from New York City) and a prominent Baha’i community (most of whom were refugees from Iran). No matter what religious leaders think of it, Baha’i is firmly convinced that it is composed of the most shining tenets of each of the world’s great religions (amalgamated, indeed!). One of the most impressive Baha’i temples is in Tel Aviv and the other is in Winnetka just north of Chicago. Indeed, the entire history of religion is full of movements that incorporate older traditions, as well as movements to eliminate and purify religions from those old traditions.
Christian Seder services are a separate matter.
In the last few decades many Christian churches have conducted Seder services using Jewish rubrics. Individual families or groups have done so as well, including the Obama family in 2009 (pictured above in a White House photo of the first such service in the White House). They usually try to re-enact the traditional Seder service while mentioning the way it might have happened with Jesus and his disciples on the night before he was crucified. Actually, the form being used today originated in the rabbinic period after Jews and Christians had separated. Any connection between what Jesus did that night and what Jews do in Seder services is largely speculative.
As for borrowing cultural bits to incorporate into Christian worship, that is always controversial. Here in Thailand the most conservative cultural preservationists do not like it when Christians use Thai traditional dance or music, and conservative Christians also refuse to do so. But most Christian churches now set up shrines to “honor” royalty on their birthdays or memorial days. The prescribed ritual is decidedly not Christian. Royalty are venerated because they are avatars of the Hindu god, Rama. In various ways Christianity is continually borrowing from other religions.
In the USA the use of African-American spirituals has passed into acceptability. Under certain circumstances it might work to have a Hopi dance group do the Butterfly Dance in a Christian event, but we have come to understand it is wrong to have the dance and costumes done by those who are not Hopi ethnic Native Americans. Many churches could as easily do a Taize chant as to have a bagpiper lead a procession, but they would draw the line at having a Buddhist monk pronounce a benediction or a Muslim start a Christian event with an invocation (as the Presbyterian General Assembly did in 2016, creating a furor).
It is correct these days to yield to those of a given religious and cultural tradition if they object to others outside that religious-cultural tradition using its forms or artifacts. So, it is taken for granted that Jews should have the deciding voice about whether Christians should be allowed to borrow any form of the Seder service for Holy Week. Nevertheless, that proprietary right has its limits. That limit has been reached when the form being questioned is basic to the very character of the group being challenged. That is why I would say that Jews should be listened to carefully when they criticize a Presbyterian Church for desecrating the holy Seder service if it is being conducted on Maundy Thursday. But Jews would be off base if they try to prevent the Adat Hatikvah congregation from doing so.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.