For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
This time last year there were a couple of a widely shared articles criticizing Christianized versions of the Passover seder. In “Why Christians Should Not Host Their Own Passover Seders”, for example, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy describes how, as a Christian woman married to a Jewish man, she has become a “safe person” for her fellow Christians to ask about Judaism. As such, she has been approached by Christians who want to hold Passover seders. “Their logic,” she notes, “is that since Jesus was celebrating Passover during the week when he was arrested, tried, executed and resurrected, in a desire to be more Christ-like, they too should celebrate the holiday.”
While understanding that desire, Cynamon-Murphy goes on to make the case that Christians hosting their own seders do more harm than good, from ignoring thousands of years of persecution of Jews to reinterpreting the story of Passover by making it all about Jesus. Rather than objectifying their Jewish neighbors and treating them as if Judaism hadn’t changed in two thousand years, she argues, it is better for Christians to engage with the celebration by studying it rather than mimicking it. Being invited by Jewish friends to their seder, Cynamon-Murphy concludes, is a fortunate opportunity for a non-Jews to appreciate “sitting as a minority amongst a table full of people who are part of a community that has celebrated Passover every year since they were born.”
I understand and appreciate these points. My Hebrew Bible professor in seminary, for instance, explained that the process of analysing and interpreting a text is called “exegesis” and not “I see Jesus”. After all, the Torah and other Jewish scriptures should be taken on their own merits, not as a mere prelude to Christianity. (Even to call them the “Old Testament” is insulting.) And having married into a Jewish family, every Passover I have attended has been a treasured opportunity to experience an important tradition that holds so much meaning for my in-laws, to learn more about what matters to them, and to begin to appreciate a culture other the one in which I was raised.
While I appreciated Cynamon-Murphy’s article, however, I did not agree with some of the declarations that followed that Unitarian Universalists shouldn’t observe Passover with a seder, either. Her article certainly offered an opportunity for a discussion of cultural misappropriation, something that is often a temptation for UUs — and not only because we explicitly name the wisdom and teachings of other religions as amongst the sources from which our living tradition is drawn. But in rightly standing opposed to mimickry of a tradition and objectification of its practitioners, we carelessly fell into categorical thinking by assuming that Unitarian Universalists holding a Passover seder would be just like the Christians that Cynamon-Murphy sought to advise. (Juxtaposing the arguments against “UU seders” with those, from a few years back, against UU ministers wearing “Christian” clergy collars demonstrates a major inconsistency in our self-image resulting from such categorical thinking.)
Given the care that needs to be brought to the discussion, consider the haggadah, which is the text that provides the directions and readings for the seder. For one thing, there are many versions of it, created by different communities as need arose. There is Nancy Cronk’s “Oranges and Olives”, for example, which she developed in consultation with both UU and Jewish individuals and congregations, not to mention the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness. For all that it includes elements lifting up feminist, environmental, cognitive, non-violent and LGBTQ concerns, it has strong similarities to the haggadah we used at the seders I attended at my grandmother-in-law’s house. Such elements as Miriam’s Cup and the orange had already been created by movements within the mosaic of Judaisms, and my grandmother-in-law was no stranger to adding new commentary to the haggadah in order to bring in contemporary themes.
Another concern I have is more personal, however. Without some care when it comes to discussing cultural misappropriation, we risk using our privilege not to prevent the theft of others’ identities through objectification but to erase others’ identities altogether, or to force them to choose. Unitarian Universalism is no more monolithic than Judaism (or, for that matter, Christianity), but categorical thinking would pretend that we’re all the same. What does blanket criticism of “UU seders” say about people who are UU, whether by birth or by choice, while at the same time being Jewish, whether by upbringing or by ancestry? My daughter is such a person. It is my fervent hope that, when she is old enough to understand these matters and think about them for herself — which UU Religious Education will, of course, encourage her to do — she is able and willing to embrace both of these aspects of her identity. There will be plenty of places outside UU walls where she will face denial of who she is or what she believes, whatever those will be. I trust that that won’t be the case within UU walls, too.
This year’s UUFP “Oranges and Olives” seder will take place on Saturday, April 4th, from 4pm to 7pm in the Office Building (13136 Warwick Blvd). You can let us know what you plan to bring here: http://bit.ly/UUFPS15