Passover, the Jewish Holiday for Gentiles

Every spring, restaurants, churches, and student organizations invite non-Jews to relive the Israelites’ exodus from bondage. How did such an exclusive feast come to have seats for so many different faiths?

A Passover seder at the White House in 2009 (Pete Souza/Reuters)

Passover is a festival of questions, many of which can be summed up by the single query: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Here’s one answer: It’s the Jewish festival that non-Jews love to observe.

The seder, the ceremonial feast held on the first two nights of Passover, is one of the most intricate rituals in the Jewish calendar, kicking off an eight-day stretch of complicated and demanding dietary restrictions. The initial meal, which ranges from eating bitter herbs to reciting Talmudic passages in a foreign language, usually lasts for several hours—and dinner isn’t served until more than halfway through.

The festival commemorates the exodus from Egypt, a key step in the formation of the Jewish people. The seder is not just a retelling of the story, like the weekly Torah readings in synagogue; it’s an invitation for Jews to relive the liberation from slavery as if they had actually been there in Egypt, to teach the narrative to the next generation, and to claim the history of their people as part of their own individual identities. In other words, Passover does not seem like the most obvious festival for outsider participation.

And yet every spring, non-kosher restaurants, churches and student organizations around the U.S.—not to mention Jewish homes—invite non-Jews to relive the Israelites’ exodus from bondage. Even the White House has held a seder since 2008. What is it about Passover that speaks to non-Jews and entices them to participate in what is, at least in its traditional format, a multi-hour Hebrew service over a meal with no bread? Surely an option like the recent festival of Purim—where the law stipulates dressing in costume, swapping food baskets and drinking to oblivion—would be a more appealing choice?

Peter Hoffman, the chef and owner of New York restaurant Back Forty West, attributes part of Passover’s widespread attraction to the fact that it doesn’t take place in a synagogue, unlike many other communal religious rituals. The seder “takes place around the dinner table,” he points out. “What could be better than that?”

This year, Hoffman will be hosting a seder at his Soho restaurant, an annual tradition of his that dates back to the early ’90s. He pares down the traditional service to about half an hour. He’s created this year’s four-course menu based on Jewish Syrian food. “It’s very gratifying to use my restaurant as an opportunity to influence and simulate thinking and to change people’s way of seeing things,” Hoffman says. “I use it as an opportunity to explore what is Jewish food. It’s a lot more than a knish.”

As Jews have become integrated into mainstream society, it’s not surprising that some Jewish customs have seeped into the mainstream. Non-Jewish spouses, college friends, co-workers and neighbors are often invited to the Passover seders; in fact, the evening’s traditional service begins with an invitation to “let all those who are hungry come and eat,” which is both an open invitation to the meal and an invocation to all guests to open themselves up to be truly present at the seder.

But for many, the allure of Passover stretches beyond a curiosity ticket to a Jewish ritual. The seder itself and the themes it explores have a way of resonating outside the boundaries of the tribe.

Rick Weintraub, a Jewish-born convert to Christianity, has been leading seders in churches for about 30 years. Around 500 Christian participants will join him this year at The Hills, a church in North Richland Hills, Texas.

The seder speaks to Christians on two levels, he explains. On the symbolic side, the motif of the sacrificial lamb, whose blood was painted on Israelites’ doorframes to ensure they were “passed over” during the killing of the firstborn, resonates with the image of Jesus as the lamb of God who suffered in order to save others. On the historic side, Jesus and most of his disciples were Jewish, and their last supper is widely thought to have been a Passover seder. Just as the seder allows Jews to relive the exodus, the ceremony allows Christians to recreate the last supper. Weintraub explains that by observing a seder, “the Passover becomes a living event.”

Indeed, the Christian communion ritual references Jesus’ last seder, when he used the unleavened bread and wine goblet before him to illustrate his message to his disciples. “The various components of the seder meal point not only back to the exodus but to a very spiritual exodus” led by Jesus, explains Rob Schrumpf, lead pastor at Purdue Christian Campus House, a student congregation that puts on a seder most years.

Any religious ritual embraced by outsiders to this extent runs the risk of appropriation. Some Jews recoil at the idea that this holiday, so central to the integrity of the Jewish people, is being used to honor the founding figure of Christianity. Schrumpf is aware of these concerns, and says he approaches seder night “with a lot of humility … We acknowledge that we’re not Jewish and our attempts at creating authenticity will be challenged.” But he adds that the Christian seder is “not trying to replicate a very weighty Jewish tradition” — it’s just “a really cool way to connect the dots between the Old Testament and the New Testament.”

With its wider themes of slavery and liberation, the ceremony has meaning for non-religious people, too. The seder’s motifs — matzah as the bread of affliction, salt water as the tears of oppression, bitter herbs as the harshness of slavery — can be especially evocative for black Americans. Last week, the Harvard Black Law Students Association, in conjunction with its Jewish counterpart, hosted its fourth annual freedom seder, a ceremony that dates back to April 4, 1969 — the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The civil rights champion once said, “The segregationists and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew,” and the seder has great significance for the African American community, which also suffered slavery, achieved redemption, and continues to struggle for equal standing in society.

Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to the exodus story in the closing words of “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” the speech that he gave the day before he was killed: “I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” With these remarks, King aligned himself with Moses, the Jewish prophet at the heart of the Passover story, who led the Israelites through the desert but wasn’t able to take that final step into the Land of Israel.

“I’m not Jewish and I find the story of the seder to be beautiful and meaningful,” says Ruthzee Louijeune, a member of the Harvard Black Law Students Association and co-founder of its freedom seder. “At the end of the day it’s not my seder, but it’s a ritual and tradition that presents this opportunity to make it so much more than about one group and one story. Not all groups have this singular moment that exists in the Jewish community to talk about when they were slaves.”

Louijeune says the seder speaks to her not only as a black person but as a woman and as a law student who’s dedicated her career to the struggle for social justice. “The number of black females entering institutions like Harvard is staggering. It’s illustrative of the wealth gap that exists between different races in this country.”

The freedom seder welcomes other oppressed groups to attend the feast and contribute a symbol of their own bondage to the communal seder plate. This year, a group of Latin American students brought a bunch of grapes, to represent the grape-picking strikes of immigrant workers in the 1960s, while the Lambda association presented a padlock, to express that full freedom for LGBT people and other marginalized communities has not yet been unlocked.

This idea isn’t unique to Harvard’s freedom seder. The prominent Jewish feminist Susanna Heschel advocates adding an orange to the seder plate, an idea sparked by a story of a rabbi who said, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Not wanting to transgress Passover’s strict laws against leavened bread, which to her implied that homosexuality is a violation of Judaism, Heschel substituted the crust of bread for an orange to “mark the fruitfulness created in human society by the diversity of our sexualities.” She offers each of her guests a segment of the fruit and invites them to spit out the seeds to “recognize and repudiate the sin of homophobia that poisons too many Jews.”

Despite the seder’s obvious thematic connections to wider movements for equal rights, the question of appropriation arises again. Does it dilute the real essence of Passover to turn the seder into a general celebration of freedom and a call for universal justice? Is it really that commendable to dip one’s toe into millennia of someone else's tradition, neck back four cups of wine, and profess to have understood the Passover experience — and what’s more, to claim it as your own?

“I don’t believe that Judaism should be held in a bubble,” says Rebecca Matte, co-president of the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association and one of the organizers of this year’s freedom seder. “It’s not just a religious experience, it’s a community experience. It’s looking backwards to look forwards. That translates so well into almost every other context.”

Indeed, the very idea of putting a personal spin on the exodus story is what seder night is all about. The Jewish obligation is to relive the experience as if you yourself were actually there, and no two families’ seders will be the same. This has prompted various groups, even within the Jewish community, to create their own versions of the haggadah, the guide that lays out the ritual and tells the Passover story. Feminists can use the Women’s Haggadah, written during second wave feminism in the 1970s; environmentalists might prefer the Green Haggadah, which presents humanity as “slaves to consumerism” and modernizes the 10 plagues as signs of climate change; while vegetarians can pick up the haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. There’s even the Anonymous Haggadah: A Synthesis of the Passover Ritual and Liturgy with the Twelve Steps of Recovery, designed for use by recuperating alcoholics.

“Between the 10 Commandments and the Prince of Egypt movie, Passover is a story that almost everyone knows,” says Matte. “It’s a pretty universal story that happened specifically to the Jewish people—but every group of people has had a struggle of some kind or another, a time when they felt unfree.” If the Jewish Passover ritual can be shared with other communities, to help them express their bondage and celebrate their freedom, Matte believes that can only be a good thing.

As Arthur Waskow, a rabbi and activist who published the first Freedom Haggadah in 1969, wrote in that original text: “For us this haggadah is deeply Jewish, but not only Jewish. In our world all men face the Pharaohs who could exterminate them any moment, and so enslave them all the time. Passover therefore fuses, for an instant, with the history and the future of all mankind … The particularly Jewish lives within the universally human, at the same time that the universally human lives within the particularly Jewish.”

Do these non-traditional interpretations of the seder still miss the basic point of the holiday? Maybe. Should we encourage secular involvement, regardless? Perhaps. Passover doesn’t claim to have the answers. It’s really about the questions.