For at least a couple of decades, there has been a trend going around Catholic circles to “explore our Jewish roots.” If this exploration was limited to interfaith dialogues between Jewish and Catholic theologians, or even to friendly discussions between Jews and Catholics, there wouldn’t be a problem. Dialogues and discussions can be helpful, even praiseworthy. The trouble starts when lay Catholics decide to “try out” Jewish ritual.
The questions we’ve gotten at Catholic Answers have been many. Can I obtain a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) and use it when I pray? Can I light a menorah (more properly called a hanukiah) at Hanukkah? Can I keep the Torah scroll I bought when I was a Protestant now that I am converting to Catholicism? Why don’t we wear Jewish skullcaps (kippot)? Can I hang a mezuzah on my door? These are all questions that have been asked, and that I have answered, at the Catholic Answers Forums.
The No. 1 question asked, and that gets asked every year around this time, is “Can I hold a Passover seder?” I’ll focus on that question in this post.
A seder (Hebrew, “order”) is the ritual meal that Jews celebrate to commemorate the Passover. The liturgy is not merely a reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt; there is a mystical element to the liturgy, in which Jews are called to experience the Exodus for themselves. As an analogy, just as Catholics are mystically present at the foot of Calvary during the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s saving sacrifice, so too Jews in every generation are set free from Egypt during the Passover.
Although scholars disagree over the matter, many believe that the Last Supper of Christ and the apostles was a seder. For that reason many Christians, including Catholics, have started celebrating the seder as a means of honoring the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Some Christians celebrate the seder as do Jews, using a Jewish haggadah (Hebrew, “telling”; the book containing the seder service) and omitting Christian references. Other Christians use a Jewish haggadah but insert Christian commentary into the service. And yet other Christians create a Christian haggadah, making the service essentially Christian but with Jewish references. Sometimes, too, Christians and Jews get together to hold an interfaith seder.
The Church has not approved of a seder as a public ritual or devotion of the Church; therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that the seder should not be celebrated on Church property, at least while there is an open question as to magisterial approval. Hosting such an event on Church property can give the impression of Church approval where it does not, as yet, exist. And that can cause confusion for Jews who object to a Christian seder in a Catholic parish because they may naturally assume that the event has the backing of the Catholic Church. As a matter of prudence then, it might be wise to avoid and discourage a seder held on Church property. It should be noted, though, the USCCB document God’s Mercy Endures Forever states the following:
It is becoming familiar in many parishes and Catholic homes to participate in a Passover Seder during Holy Week. This practice can have educational and spiritual value (GMEF 28).
The Church also has not expressly forbidden Catholics to privately celebrate a seder in their own homes, but many disagree over whether or not it is appropriate for Catholics to do so. Some argue that because the seder has been superseded by the Mass, Catholics should limit their commemoration of the Last Supper to the Mass. Others argue that it is disrespectful to the Jewish people to co-opt their sacred ritual. And still others say that the seder, as it is celebrated today, is a non-Christian worship service that Catholics should not participate in as worshippers (as distinguished from those who attend a Jewish seder as a guest).
While I sympathize with those Catholics who want to participate in a Christian seder, I worry that many Catholics do not know enough about Judaism or Jewish ritual to create their own seder so that is both meaningful to Catholics and respectful of Jewish religious practice and belief. If you really want to attend a seder, ask a Jewish friend if you can attend his family’s seder. Many Jews are delighted to have Christian guests at their seder because it is considered a good deed to extend hospitality during the holiday. But, unless you are a convert from Judaism, it might well be better not to try to create your own Christianized seder liturgy.
Jewish traditions and observances are not toys to be picked up, tried out, and discarded at whim by non-Jews. Taking on Jewish practices and observances of any kind is a serious matter and not to be done merely because doing so seems “cool” or a “good idea.” If in doubt, don’t. It is far better to stick to one’s own traditions than to risk hurting and upsetting other people by indiscriminately co-opting theirs.
“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: ‘He who does not love does not know God’ (1 John 4:8)” (Nostra Aetate 5).