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A Different Night

A Washington journalist discusses some of the Christian seders he has thrown

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Chris Billing at the seder he hosted Monday. (Andrea Hsu)

Like Levy’s, it seems, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Passover. In fact, some Christians also conduct Seders, sometimes as part of the ritual observances leading up to Easter (despite the disputes about whether the Last Supper really was a Passover meal).

Others just like the excuse for a big communal meal. Chris Billing, a 48-year-old journalist and documentary filmmaker, hosts a weekly Bible study group at his Washington, D.C., condo, and held a Seder on Monday night with 10 friends, only one of whom was Jewish. He talked to Tablet Magazine about why.

Why did you decide to start holding a Seder?

This is the second year we’ve had a Seder among this group in D.C. The impetus for the first one wasn’t anything spiritual or ecumenical at all—a friend of mine came across a recipe for matzoh ball soup on, and she was looking for an occasion to make it. She’s Chinese and hadn’t made it before so we figured a Seder would be a good time to make it.

When was your first Seder?

My first exposure to the Seder was in Israel. As far as I know there was really only one Jewish family in the town where I grew up, in upstate New York, so I didn’t really know anything about Jewish holidays when I was younger. As long as I can remember, we would be at our family’s Baptist church every Sunday, and I majored in religious studies in college at a small school that was then called the Philadelphia College of Bible (now Philadelphia Biblical University), with a thought of going into the ministry. As an undergraduate I spent two years living in Israel studying Hebrew, along with archaeology and Middle Eastern history at the Institute of Holy Land Studies, and I took Hebrew classes at Hebrew University. My parents had gone to Israel through Christian organizations they were involved with, and they always wanted me to go—they were just amazed by the place—so I went for my junior year abroad, and got infatuated with living there. I was in Jerusalem, and had a nice community with Jewish friends who would invite me for Passover. I was certainly the only Christian there.

Did you keep up the tradition after you left Israel?

I wound up going to Harvard Divinity School, majoring in world religion, but between college and divinity school, I got a call completely out of the blue from someone affiliated with Beijing University asking if I was interested in teaching Hebrew in China. This was in 1986. At that time China and Israel did not have diplomatic relations, and China had strong relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab countries, though they were moving toward establishing relations with Israel. They wanted to have some students who were familiar with the language, but they didn’t want to hire anyone who was Israeli and didn’t even really want anyone who was Jewish because they didn’t want any political or religious overtones to the course.

Because I was the Hebrew teacher I became a focal point for the Jewish community among foreign students studying in Beijing, even though I’m not Jewish. It was mostly American Jews. And about 10 of us got together and had a Seder. There was one supermarket affiliated with a hotel that had matzoh, but I think people had relatives in the States send it over. We got a live chicken and had one of the other students slaughter it, and we included a few of my students from the Hebrew class. They were Chinese and not Jewish, and it was definitely their first Seder.

How was it organizing the Seder yourself, with so many people who weren’t familiar with the traditions?

I think a lot of Christians think of this idea of the Judeo-Christian ethic, and the Judeo-Christian society, but they don’t know much about the Judeo part. Having a Seder really brings that home. Once we came up with the idea based on the matzoh ball soup, my thought was that if we were going to do it, we’d better do it right. So we took it very seriously. A friend of mine who isn’t Jewish was commissioned with the task of getting the shank bone, and she went to a butcher in her neighborhood and said, “You’ll think I’m crazy but do you have a shank bone?” Of course he said, “You need it for a Seder?” And she was shocked that he had them wrapped and ready.

I got a haggadah from the JCC, one with a picture of matzoh on the cover. We went all the way through it. Or most of it. The truth is we do an abridged version—the parts about the rabbis getting into the minutiae, we skip that. But we open the door for Elijah, and we flick the wine drops for the plagues, and we hide the afikoman. And we sing. Seders are like the Jewish Top 40 in terms of songs, but they’re all tongue-twisters, which is hard because by the time you get to them, you’ve had several glasses of wine. Last year a friend of mine, Liz, came, and she’s half-Jewish, so she’d been raised with Seders at home, which was helpful because, well—everyone loves singing Dayenu but I’m the only one who can sing the verse.

At certain points we threw it open for questions—there were a fair number of journalists there, and they’re not shy about asking questions. Some people weren’t familiar with the whole story, so we went through that, and talked about the plagues, and the things the items of the Seder plate represent. We used the haggadah and Wikipedia as our sources—I had printed it out, just to make sure I had the Seder plate arranged properly. This year we had an exchange student from China, who read the Four Questions, and she had a lot of questions about what it all meant.

How did your guests feel about the experience?

One of the people there this year was Jewish, and he brought his girlfriend, who isn’t Jewish, and he called me and said she told him that in addition to it being educational and a good ecumenical experience, it really makes you feel connected with humanity, and makes you realize who God is, and how he works in the nation of Israel. And I think all of us felt that it’s sort of uplifting and encouraging to be the keeper of a tradition like that.

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Bryna Weiss says:

Too bad there aren’t more Chris Billing’s. Educated, informed, thoughtful, opinion coming from that kind of background is what the World needs.

Chris – I think I met you in Jerusalem…did you teach at the Anglican school?

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

My first seder was a Christian seder! Our Congregational Church had an arrangement with a prominent Jew in our town, and he would come to our church and lead a seder where all the Congregational ladies would make the food, and he would lead the Haggadah. Very often, Passover fell on Maundy Thursday, and we would celebrate the Last Meal as if it were a Passover meal. It was wonderful and very moving. I like Billings’ account, and it sounded like you had even more fun than we did in Nashua NH.

Eileen S says:

While I am sure Chris’s intentions are pure,I do not feel totally comfortable with the idea of a Christian seder using a Jewish Haggadah.
I do think it is important for people of all faiths to understand one another’s ritual observances. Let me tell you why I feel this way:

I have a sister who was lured to the home of an evangelical woman,who had weekly “Shabbat” dinners. She had no idea the woman was not Jewish or that at the time, she was being groomed to become an evangelical herself. Through these “Shabbat” dinners she came to know more hebrew and religion than our family had grown up. When the time came to accept Jesus as the savoir, she did so. She is now considered a “Complete Jew” and is evangelical. She believes that she can still be Jewish and worship Jesus and labels herself as A Messianic Jew. She teaches Sunday school at the church and is raising her children Evangelical (and continues to observe Jewish holidays). This is very sad to me, especially since she was deceived.

In any event, if Chris’s intent is to share what he has learned with other Christians without adding any Christian theology, than I admire him. I am very familiar with the Evangelical church, it’s members and the proselytizing they do both in Israel and in every Jewish community across the country.

I hope Chris has a wonderful Easter.

Jerry says:

Ignorance is the typical state of humans and the proof of it is that they don’t recognize their own state of being. The “minutiae” the Chris left out is the most interesting part of the Seder. The Rabbis mentioned in the Hagaddah were alive at the time that Christianity was trying to become the accepted Judaism. These Rabbis were the ones who defined the differences between Judaism and later Christian practice and belief. The portion to which Chris is referring speaks to the differences, though it does so in gentle elliptical terms.

While it is an exceedingly difficult book to read, I recommend “The Scholar’s Haggadah” by Prof. Henrich Guggenheimer. With a name like “The Scholar’s Hagaddah” you might imagine that it would be detailed. You have no idea!

howard says:

Well there’s no stopping anyone from picking up a “Tanaq” and calling it an “Old Testament.” I suppose, by the same measure, there’s no stopping anyone from picking up a 2nd or 4th century rabbinic text like the Haggadah and reading it over matzah ball soup and calling that a Seder.

And if I complain and say you are appropriating, and misappropriating at that, a central Jewish ritual… well I suppose you’d just say “why can’t I?”

It’s just that the Seder is the most ethnocentric, “us not them”, no non-Jews allowed, holiday in the Jewish calendar. If you want an ecumenical holiday, try building a Sukah and celebrating Sukot instead. Celebrating Passover, taking it seriously, should lead you to a very specific and frankly anti-Christian (and anti-everyone who is not a Jew) conclusion. If you miss THAT rock hard element of Passover and of the Haggadah, you probably haven’t read it very carefully.

Now of course we all understand that Christians (some of them) think they are the Jews and they are the inheritors of the exodus and the passover sacrifice and so on. So why shouldn’t they get in touch with their roots? Well, they can, but since they believe that those roots lead them to an antiJewish conclusion (Jesus as Christ), can they ever read the Passover story on rabbinic Jewish terms, that is, can they read it honestly? Can they read it as a story that leads to the Jews not the Church being the authentic Israel? To the Talmud not the New Testament being the authentic interpretation of Tanaq and pre-Horban Jewish history? And to Jewish people as the authentic source of the future (not past) Mashiach/Messiah?

If when you are done reading the Haggadah and celebrating the Seder you are still a Christian, then you haven’t really had a Seder… anymore than a Jew could reasonably celebrate Eucharist on a regular basis and reasonably claim to remain an authentic Jewish believer and practitioner. There are ceremonies that demand you give of your soul in order to participate and understand, and the Seder is one such. They are what Christians may call “sacraments”…

It’s all very well to groove on the Passover Seder. Maybe for nonbelievers and lite-believers it’s just an interesting cultural experience. But if you take your Christian faith seriously, then this document is enemy territory. It is the story of Jewish authenticity, it is the story of God’s wrath against the nations who do not know him in the Rabbinic Jewish senses of that concept. It is the story of Jewish birth and Jewish truth…

The idea that the Passover Seder is some kind of “connect to the Jews and connect to your inner Jew” moment probably stems from Jewish ignorance as much as anything. Passover is the WORST holiday for Jews to connect to non-Jews and vice versa. Again, Sukot or Rosh Hashannah, with their inherently universal themes are places where Jews and nonJews can meet authentically in a Jewish context.

Jews who think that Passover Seders are some kind of Jewish thanksgiving where the Indians and the Pilgrims all get along are more than missing the point. Remember, Thanksgiving is a FALL festival, a Sukot festival, a moment of sharing and plenty, a moment of harvest, physical and spiritual. That’s not Passover, a SPRING festival, a moment of birth, a moment of separatism, a moment of uniquely Jewish experience.

I’m trying to think of an analogy. Imagine a bunch of Jews or Muslims decided to celebrate a pretend Eucharist with a guy pretending to be a priest and ritz crackers for wafers, mumbling pretend Latin, I don’t know. I suppose from a Protestant symbolic perspective maybe that’s no big deal. I think a believing Catholic might take offense, legitimately. Is this just a good effort that falls short? I kinda don’t think so. There are probably better examples. You don’t just go marching into someone else’s holy spaces and rituals and re-enacting your version of their most sacred rituals, if you have a sense of genuine respect for them. Of course unknowing and poorly educated Jews may have invited you into to do this, and you can’t really be blamed in that sense, but they should have known better, and had you researched the matter, perhaps you would have known better too.

I know, the spirit of Protestantism is do-it-yourself. But still. You sound like a decent and good intentioned person, and I mean you no ill, but the appropriation of the Seder really grates.

Rueben says:

I think people would be surprised at the growing number of church congregations that are performing this mitzvah. I know that this is a more “Jewish-only” event; however, the Torah command about the prohibition against the non-Israelite eating the Pesach could only be referring to the lamb itself and not the Seder itself. Since most people do not eat lamb in defference to there not being a Temple, then if a non-Jew participates, it should be halachically acceptable, so long as there is no lamb. Besides, wouldn’t the idea of Tikkun Olam at some point include teaching the nations how to properly keep Pesach? Most of the commands that I have kept had to have a first time. As Jews, we don’t need to be accepting of every misapplication performed by others, but we need to be accepting and instructive. How many more friends would Israel have if those who are Israelites sought the friendships of those who are not Israelite? If they are not against us, shouldn’t we do a little extra to help them to be for us?

howard says:

Reuben, I just disagree top to bottom.

First of all a “mitzvah” is something that you are obligated to do. By what possible stretch of the imagination is a nonJew obligated regarding Pesach? I mean, seriously?

Secondly, of course there can be friendly relationships between Jews and nonJews, but if you were going to pick a place for such relationships to be built Passover and the Seder is the epitome of the place you would not pick. Can a non-Jew potentially sit at a Passover seder? Yes, although from an orthodox perspective that’s pretty difficult to justify. Even from another perspective that is reasonably immersed in Jewish learning, there would be an understanding that this is a very problematic experience.

Think again of the Christian communion. It is a central rite of their religion. Do you seriously think that a Jew can do that in a way that reflects understanding… and still call himself a Jew? Well, in a roughly analogous way, the Passover seder is a sacramental (to borrow a Christian term) experience. It is a rite for people who have clearly and unequivocally declared themselves as Jews, and as not being of other faiths than the “faith” of Israel. There are differences between the Christian notion of sacrament, and the Jewish notion of a mitzva incumbent upon Jews alone, but they can and should inform your understanding.

Now, does the notion of tikun olam somehow create a context for people of other nations participating in the Seder? Yes it does, if they are clearly of no other faith and no particular faith, and are interested in becoming Jews. But the article above does not describe such people at all. Just the opposite. They are confirmed Christians, re-enacting another religion’s most sacred ritual, and doing so in spite of the fact that one of the central points of that Seder ritual is an affirmation of the continuity of rabbinic tradition with the Torah, and by implication the “heresy” (not too strong a word in this context ) of their own Christian faith. So on a fundamental level, they’re missing something, or misconstruing something.

Yes, Christians and Muslims should be encouraged in the direction of accepting the legitimacy of other faiths. They have a real problem with that because, unlike Judaism, they are historically evangelizing and conquering religious cultures. Anything we can do, consistent with our values and traditions, to understand that we just want to be accepted as a legitimate “other” in this world is all for the good. If you are looking for a place to do that, study about the meanings of Sukot and then invite a member of one of those faiths over to your Sukah. You are building a Sukah this year aren’t you?

Just because Passover is the most familiar and archetypal Jewish holiday (for Jews and non-Jews) doesn’t mean that it is good meeting ground for cross cultural understanding. In fact it is, bar none, the worst Jewish holiday for that. Even an ordinary Shabbat would be better. Unlike some other Jewish holidays, all of Passover’s meanings point away from cooperation and closeness, and toward the bursting out and birthing of a new and separate identity in the world.

In fact it is no accident that THEY place their core religious holiday, Easter, in the spring also. Is there any Christian moment more hostile to rabbinic Judaism and to Jews? Of course not. Would you participate in an Easter service and communion and call it an exercise in cross-cultural understanding, and say “but I’m still a Jew and I didn’t really mean it”? Would it be honest for you to do that, or disrespectful?

The Spring is not the time for identities to merge, but rather for them to be formed. There are times to be apart and times to come together. Understanding the basic meanings of the Jewish year and its holidays is a basic prerequisite to sharing Torah and our selfhood with the world.

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A Different Night

A Washington journalist discusses some of the Christian seders he has thrown

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