Ersatz Passover Seders: Jesus On The Menu

ORLANDO -- For Passover, the cheerful voice on the radio invites me and all other Jews in Central Florida to a "traditional family Seder" at an upscale hotel in this city's bustling tourist corridor.

The menu, prepared by the sponsoring Congregation Gesher Shalom, features the spring festival's familiar food, singing and dancing. Oh, and also Jesus, known by his Hebrew name, Yeshua.

Led by Messianic Jews -- who accept Jesus as their savior, and want others to do the same -- the dinner services are aimed at gullible, lonely or separated Jews with no other place to observe the normally home-based holiday. They'll even be using a special Messianic Passover Haggadah that explains how Jesus would have celebrated the holiday, and notes similarities between the Seder and the Last Supper.

Yes, once again, 'tis the season for ersatz Passover Seders.

These bait-and-switch services are often held at evangelical churches, which may not be as open as Gesher Shalom about their proselytizing goals, have emerged over the past 15 years. They are much different from the more venerable, ecumenical "model Seders" held at mainline churches a week or two before the actual holiday, often with the participation of traditional Jewish rabbis and members of their congregations, designed to demonstrate the meaning and symbolism of Passover.

The evangelical Christian embrace of Jewish converts, and their on-going efforts to proselytize others, including through Messianic Seders, are among the heretofore minor irritants in the alliance between some American Zionists and evangelical Christians, pragmatic link based on unconditional support for the State of Israel.

Local American rabbis, mostly in the heavily evangelical Sun Belt, complain that the "Christianization of Jewish rituals" is too high a price to pay for the pro-Israel alliance. Messianics and their evangelical allies, the rabbis say, are using subterfuge and deceptive means to hijack their holiday. Two groups, Jews for Judaism and Outreach Judaism have sprung up to combat the conversion efforts. In one case, Barnes & Noble was pressured into moving the Messianic Passover Haggadah from the "Jewish" to the "Christian" section. Daily newspapers have been urged to separate Messianic congregations from traditional ones in their weekly worship directory to avoid confusion.

While large numbers of Jews do not appear to be abandoning their faith for Messianic or evangelical Christianity, there have been notable "successes."

In fact, some observers suggest that evangelicals have been more influenced by Jews, than the reverse, that the modern Christian movement would not be what it is without the long list of prominent Jewish converts. These include: authors like Jordan Rubin and Jonathan Cahn; political leaders Louis Sheldon and Howard Phillips; legal advocate Jay Sekulow; megachurch pastor Lon Solomon; editor Marvin Olasky; the twins Paul and Rob Schenck, priest and minister, respectively; broadcaster Sid Roth; Holy Land Experience theme park founder Marvin Rosenthal; evangelist Morris Cerullo; and, most infamously, Moishe Rosen, founder of "Jews for Jesus."

Notwithstanding, the evangelicals' attachment to Messianics can take them down some strange roads. Take the bizarre episodes of "Torah-wrapping," involving two scandal-tinged televangelists.

In late January of this year Ralph Messer, a Messianic rabbi whose only claimed ordination is an "apostolic and evangelical anointing," wrapped Bishop Eddie L. Long, of Atlanta's New Birth Missionary Church, in a Torah scroll, which the rabbi said "may still have the dust of [the] Auschwitz and Birkenau" concentration camps on it. The bearded rabbi ordered Long, wearing a Jewish skull cap and prayer shawl, and cradling a Torah, lifted in his chair. "He's a king," Messer proclaimed. "God has blessed him."

This coronation made no mention of the fact that Long was the target of a U.S. Senate investigation into his fundraising and lavish living, and that he later settled a suit filed by four young men who alleged they were coerced into sexual relationships through Long's influence, including gifts, trips and jobs.

But, like Paula White, another of Messer's Torah-wrapped televangelist whose ministry was the subject of both Senate and IRS investigations, the only thing that seemed to matter was that both Long and White have declared undying love and support for Israel and the Jewish people.

These episodes have drawn criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, as well as from local rabbis. "To wrap a Christian minister in what we consider our most sacred text is nothing short of desecration," said Rabbi Steven Engel, of Orlando's Congregation of Reform Judaism, and chairman of the Greater Orlando Board of Rabbis. "To a Jew this feels like it would for a
Muslim should a non-Muslim burn the Quran or like it would for a Christian were a non-Christian use the New Testament for floor covering."

In any event, I won't be attending this or any other year's "Seder" held by Congregation Gesher Shalom Messianic synagogue, whether held at a church or a hotel. When it comes to Judaism and Christianity, there is no splitting the differences -- or papering them over.

Longtime religion writer Mark I. Pinsky is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals.