A SUPER SEDER UNDER THE TACOMA DOME
Yesterday was Passover, the only Jewish holiday to inspire an Academy Award-winning film. Being Jewish – and thus not particularly religious – I generally feel ok if I miss a holiday or two each year because I figure G-d cares more about what I do outside the synagogue than in. Plus I’m lazy, and too cheap to give to my temple. But still, I am sincerely Jewish, and as such I am highly susceptible to guilt. Which is why twice a year I force myself into doing the bare minimum with my faith by pinning a dusty yarmulke to my skull and spacing out for three hours in front of a rabbi who all the yentas think is “just wonderful.”
Though Passover is probably the best known of the Jewish holidays it is but one of many sacred days which revolve around the theme of giving thanks to G-d for not killing us. Another big one is Yom Kippur (also known as Day of Atonement) which is celebrated by fasting and reflecting upon the previous year’s many sins and misdeeds. The observer should ideally end the day’s services with a sense of redemption – matched with a profound sense of grace for G-d’s decision not to respond to his or misdeeds by using the all powerful “smite.” Another popular one is Purim, which celebrates the life of Esther who saved the Jewish people from a premature Holocaust, which is promptly followed by Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in which we sit around wondering “where G-d was on that one.” But no “survivor day” is celebrated with more ceremony than Passover, whose very name refers to G-d’s decision not to “skip-over” the Jewish population as He scythed through Egypt’s empire.
Every Passover seder is celebrated differently, but yesterday in Tacoma El Shaddai Ministries held an unprecedented “super-sedar” in the Exhibition Hall of the Tacoma Dome. Selling tickets at $20 a piece, more than 600 worshippers gathered for a chance to partake in Messianic Judaism’s version of a seder.
“Messianic Judaism” markets itself as a legitimate Torah-based Jewish faith, distinguished from the conservative movement only by their belief that Jesus of Nazareth – who they call “Yeshua” – is the resurrected son of G-d, their messiah and divine savior. Spiritually most Jews do not believe that Messianics are legitimately Jewish and – based upon the demographics I observed at the Tacoma Dome last night, I would say that – at most – 10% of the congregation could really claim Jewish ethnicity. Many in the Jewish community believe Messianics exist as part of a plot to draw young Jews into Christianity through a more familiar form of worship, and the State of Israel has taken a harsh stance against the Messianic Church for years – including denying them the Right of Return as promised by the Israeli constitution to racial and religious Jews around the world.
Still, El Shaddai is at least twice as large as Beth El, Pierce County’s largest Synagogue, and the Messianic Movement has grown to encompass at least 150 “synagogues” with 350,000 members scattered across the United States. They remain committed to growing through their evangelized form of Judaism – which, from what I could tell, is Christianity. It was even announced while I was there that on April 17, 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court had overturned its 1989 decision to deny right of return to Messianics, though – upon researching the claim – I discovered that the ruling’s decision was hardly so concrete. To quote CBN: “…if your father is Jewish or if any of your grandparents are Jewish from your father’s side – even if you’re a Messianic Jew – you can immigrate to Israel under the law of return or under the law of citizenship if you marry an Israeli citizen.” That’s hardly what I would call an invitation for aliyah. Messianics will only receive Israeli citizenship if they can persuade an Israeli citizen to marry and bring them over. Still, this decision will almost certainly increase Messianic membership in the Holy Land, which is currently estimated at 15,000.
I’m just going to state upfront that I do not believe there is any way to synthesize Jewish ideology with Christian. We can certainly forge similar values and beliefs about social justice and share similar ideas about what G-d is and what purpose He should play in our lives, but our underlying ideology is incompatible. It is not a question about whether or not accepting Jesus means abandoning monotheism, it is a question of orthodoxy vs orthoproxy: faith vs practice. But this is an endless debate I don’t want to rekindle. I merely wish to state my position so that when I say that to call El Shaddai’s power-point presentation a “seder” is like calling a McDonald’s indoor plastic playground a “park”….I won’t be accused of hiding a bias.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some cores to the seder meal that El Shaddai hit on the mark, but they’re focus largely fell off after observing the many ceremonies of the sedar plate.
Guests did not sing traditional Jewish songs from the books, but mouthed contemporary Christian music displayed on a power-point projector. Not even Dayenu – the easiest song ever written – was sung. Instead we swayed with up-tilled hands to lyrics about Christ’s piercing and resurrection from the cross. There was a brief early nod to the exodus story, the ten-plagues etc., but the passover lessons that were emphasized by the pastor/rabbi had relatively little to do with slavery or wandering or nation-building in the desert or anything else that I was ever raised to identify as “Jewish.” Instead, his theme focused on what Jesus happened to be doing during or around the time of Passover (cleansed the temple of money-changers and led the last supper). More importantly neither the Morner’s Kaddish, the Schema Yisrael, nor the Schmona Esre – essential prayers for ANY Jewish service, were uttered while I was there (Granted, we left 2 1/2 hours into it but by this point in the game we should have already said at least one of the aforementioned and the program did not suggest any were going to be uttered.)
Everyone we met at the seder was really nice and surprisingly liberal. They were undeniably good people. That said, despite there faithful use of yalmukes, their pseudo-seder reflected less of an extension of Judaism than a break with mainstream Christianity in terms of both tradition and ideology. Being a Re-constructionist Jew – the most liberal anti-establishment branch of the faith – I tend to have few qualms about tradition. But if I had to grade El Shaddai for its seder ceremonies, I could not in good conscious offer more than a C-. The Reform Temple would probably give them a D or so, and the Conservative and Orthodox branches of the faith would have stormed out in protest.
Still, perhaps there is something telling in such mixed reviews. After all, the various factions of mainstream Judaism already consider each other somewhat to highly heretical depending on the context. So what’s so wrong about inviting another pseudo-Jew into the club of incompatibles?
And yet, there remains no room for ideological consensus on Jesus’ divinity, so how do we move forward with such a group? Messianics may not be us, but they are certainly our allies and we have too few of those to throw away.
So can El Shaddai’s spiritual platform mesh with our own? How do we work with them on the issues of mutual interest?