How should we Jews respond when our rituals are taken up by Christians? That’s a question that I have been asked quite often over the last few weeks, ever since an article appeared in the New York Times describing Christian brides/grooms who are ordering ketubot – Jewish marriage contracts – in order to feel closer to their “Jewish” roots. I have Christian friends who claim to observe a Yom Kippur fast or a Passover seder because they believe that Jesus might have experienced those rituals, hence deepening their faith. I also know of “bait and switch” ritual observances: taking a Jewish ritual, such as a seder for example, and layering it with Christian symbolism (i.e., the three matzot become symbols of the trinity, the wine is transmogrified into Jesus’ blood, etc.). What are we supposed to make of such appropriations of Jewish ritual by Christians? My reactions are grounded in yet another question, “Is it good for the Jews, specifically American Jews?”
If someone who is not a Jew chooses to find deeper meaning for his or her own religious practice in mine, who am I to question or doubt the sincerity? I may wonder or think it odd, but ultimately such behaviors have minimal if any impact on my observance and – in fact – have a touch of flattery that comes from imitation. This I could even (mildly cynically perhaps) posit is a benefit for Jews who worry about their Jewish ritual observance appearing “too Jewish” (as in: if even Christians think it’s “cool,” maybe there’s something to this). Several years ago, a friend who is a Buddhist monk taught me a great similar lesson when I asked his reaction to local stores’ selling Buddhist “singing bowls” as though they were living room objets d’art; he smiled and said such things did not impact his spiritual use of such objects.
I do however worry about the dilution of Jewish identity as distinct and unique as well as the intellectualism of Jewish practice. A seder is meant to replicate the Jewish narrative: God’s freeing us from slavery in order to lead us to Sinai and the giving of Torah. Christians may be interested, but their “observing” Passover dilutes my story. A ketubah reflects a Jewish wedding as symbolic of the relationship between partners and God/Israel/the Jewish people. Again, Christians may be interested, but Christian wedding partners’ using a ketubah dilutes its Jewish meaning. My friends’ fasting on Yom Kippur may be a spiritual experience, but it is not a Jewish experience that requires the teshuvah process in order to avert God’s severe decree. And while a Christian may experience a Jewish ritual, it is insulting for him to suggest that he is doing it as “we Jews” do; rather he or she is doing it as “the Jews” do – and there is a huge difference. By the way, I have similar concerns when Jews appropriate Christian symbolism not because of family considerations (which are considerable and powerful and not to be dismissed) but because “they’re pretty;” we Jews have equally no right to dilute others’ religious observances.
I confess to a small envy that some Christians are appearing to care more about Jewish holidays/observances than we Jews. We Jews struggle against assimilation, especially the kind of assimilation that leads us away from our Jewish selves. I can no longer be assured that my congregants are experiencing a seder on either the first or second night of Passover or at all. When Christians are more interested in or know more about Jewish festivals than Jews, we have a very big problem. And yet, assimilation works both ways: for example, much of what we call “traditional” music was adapted from local secular cultures and what we call Chassidic garb reflects the centuries’ old Polish nobility.
So, is it good for the Jews? It can be. We Jews can learn more about Jewish practices so that we can more fully discuss them with our Christian friends and neighbors (perhaps explaining why a Christian-symbol-laden seder is very different from a Jewish seder). We Jews can emulate our Christian friends’ curiosity and explore and reconnect or connect more strongly with our own religious rituals/practices. We can engage in the things that make us distinct and unique even as we respect the beliefs and practices of other faiths. Above all, we can experience a Passover this year that reenacts each of us being freed from slavery by God.
Stanley, Alaina, Warren and Harrison join me in wishing you all a joyful and sweet Pesach!