This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover, where Jews from all around the world gather at the seder table to celebrate the exodus of the Israelites, led by Moses, from Egypt.
Passover follows the standard Jewish holiday formula of “X group tried to kill us. X group failed. Let’s eat!” But the holiday occupies a special place in the hearts of Jews and non-Jews alike for birthing that most wondrous of dishes– Matzo ball soup. I have it on good authority that 50 percent of all minor ailments in the tri-state area are cured through Matzo ball soup.
Passover also occupies an important place in the life of Jesus. At the last supper, Jesus and his apostles were celebrating the Passover seder. Executed by Pontius Pilate the next day and resurrected on the following Sunday, this week holds a special place for Christians as well. This is why Easter is usually celebrated right around Passover. This year Passover is from April 10th through April 18 while Easter is on Sunday, April 16.
The relationship between Passover and Easter, and by extension the Jewish and Christian traditions as a whole, can be both beautiful and discomforting.
Growing up in Texas, I was shocked by how many avowedly devout Christians did not know that Jesus was Jewish. Whenever I would them this fact, and brought up the Last Supper, they looked at me with bewilderment. In those looks I saw time and time again the discomfort that arises when the barriers you erect between yourself and other people to order your world and sense of self are unexpectedly, if only temporarily, breached.
American and European Jews on the whole are more comfortable with this knowledge than Christians because as a minority they have had to learn about Christianity to navigate the majority Christian (not necessarily religiously but certainly culturally) societies in which they live.
All the same, as a Jew, conceiving of a God you’re not supposed to believe in as related to you through blood and tradition can be unsettling and even destabilizing.
How strange it was for me to walk into certain churches in Europe, built by monarchs who oppressed their Jewish subjects if they had not yet decided to exile them for their realm, and see a Jewish man and his mother sculpted and painted on every wall and ceiling.
Thankfully, over the past century this discomfort at connection has often been used to create understanding across faith and create the necessary platform for forgiveness.
Many Lutheran churches have distanced themselves from the deeply anti-Semitic writings of their movement’s founder, Martin Luther. Pope John Paul II made massive strides in improving Catholic-Jewish relations by praying at Auschwitz and being the first Pope to visit a synagogue.
The relationships between Jews and these branches of Christianity are not perfect, and antisemitism is still present in many ways, but an increasing recognition of their shared history has spurred on efforts to promote inter-faith accord.
However, there must be a way to maintain this intimacy and connection without falling for what is one of the more pernicious talking points of our day; The assertion that the civilization we live in is Judeo-christian. This concept has often been employed by Christians to justify the undermining of societal progress. For example, blocking access to abortion and contraception, and fighting for the right to refuse services to LGBTQ individuals.
By saying Judeo-Christian instead of Christian, the Christian right has given their rhetoric, almost exclusively rooted in American Christian social and political priorities, a false veneer of pluralist legitimacy.
Ohio Governor and ardent Pro-lifer, John Kasich, proposed creating a federal agency “to promote Judeo-Christian values.” This would be the first step in a Christian, not Jewish, theocratic project–a theocratic project that sought to pathetically pander to Evangelists, not Jewish people.
Not only do those that use this language not represent the political priorities of American Jews (e.g. most American Jews support gay marriage), but coopts their heritage and misrepresents their traditions.
For all the equality between the two traditions implied by the label Judeo-Christian, it is clear that Judaism is conceived of as the junior partner in this civilization. Professor Stephen Feldman states that “the concept of a Judeo-Christian tradition flows from the Christian theology of supersession, whereby the Christian covenant (or Testament) with God supersedes the Jewish one. Christianity, according to this myth, reforms and replaces Judaism … Modern Judaism remains merely as a ‘relic.’”
Therefore, when certain Jewish public figures, like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, play into the charade by using the word Judeo-Christian, they are unwittingly (and, often, toxically) perpetuating a conceptual framework that undermines, distorts and coopts Judaism.
Jews must refute the language of Judeo-Christianity and re-emphasize that Jews have their own civilization that predates and does not fit in the boundaries of Christian civilization.
However, they must find a way to do this while retaining an awareness of the intimate connection between the two traditions. To forget this would be to lose a precious treasure.
Christians can be an ally in this effort by reexamining the concept of Judeo-Christianity in their own communities and find a way to navigate difference with Jews without treating their heritage as completely alien.
Changing these deep societal notions will take time, but the massive advances in religious pluralism and multi-faith understanding in the latter half of the 20th century show that this can be done. And so to all those celebrating this week, I wish you a meaningful and joyous holiday