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BYU's Passover meals draw attention

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 4:35 p.m. MDT

PROVO — It may look like a Jewish Passover Seder celebration, but the gathering at BYU was different according to an article in The Jewish Daily Forward. "(T)he tables were set with all of the Passover staples: bitter herbs, haroset, parsley sprigs and salt water, a Haggadah at each place setting. … But this was no Hillel-sponsored event, a fact that would become apparent as soon as the invocation was given 'in the name of Jesus Christ.'"

The Seder tradition at BYU began in the 1970s through the efforts of Victor Ludlow, a professor of ancient scripture. An article in Mormon Times reported: "For 35 years (now 38 years), Brigham Young University professor of ancient scripture Victor Ludlow has re-enacted the symbol-packed Passover observance, teaching how it has evolved over the centuries and how it relates to Christianity and the Book of Mormon. The re-enactments are performed with a profound sense of appreciation and respect for Jewish tradition."

For the traditional wine, adjustments are made, according to the article in Mormon Times: "The service also included four cups of grape juice — which Ludlow described as 'new wine,' or more simply, 'Welch's.' "

The Jewish Daily Forward article recognized that in some ways the BYU event is not unique — but other parts are distinctly Mormon: "While it has become increasingly common for Christian groups to host Passover Seders — both because of a hunger to connect with Christianity's Jewish roots and because of the belief that Jesus' Last Supper may have been a Seder — for Mormons, the ritual meal has additional significance: Many of them identify with the Exodus narrative, given their ancestors' flight from the Midwest to their own 'Promised Land,' in Utah."

At one point in the meal, Ludlow recites a version of the "Dayenu" song. Dayenu means, basically, that "it would have been enough for us" and refers to how if God had just delivered the Jewish people from slavery it "dayenu" or "would have been sufficient." But God did more than that. The article in The Jewish Daily Forward said Ludlow "included all of the customary lyrics — about the parting of the sea, the manna from heaven, the giving of the Torah — in addition to some with unique significance to the BYU community: 'Had He scattered us among the nations, but not gathered us in the Rocky Mountains, dayenu; had He gathered us in the Rocky Mountains, but not given us Latter-day temples of our own, dayenu; had He given us Latter-day temples of our own, but not given us a special university, dayenu; had He given us a special university, but not a mighty basketball team, dayenu.'"

Matthew Schmitz commented on BYU's Seder at FirstThings.com. Schmitz called the BYU Seder "a little strange." But he also thought, "There's something wonderful and quintessentially American about this enthusiastic interfaith embrace." Then he adds, "But I can't help but wonder what the Jewish students on campus … make of all this."

A Mormon blogger in The Jewish news weekly of Northern California looked at another Mormon-led Seder. This time in Jerusalem at BYU's Jerusalem Center: "During the Seder, Ophir Yarden, the Center's Hebrew instructor, goes through the ancient text of the Haggadah, narrating the Jews' liberation from Egypt through portions of the Talmud and special blessings, rituals and songs."

Mormons aren't the only ones trying to get in on the act. A Greek Orthodox Christian restaurateur in Buffalo Grove, Ill., named Pete Panayiotou has prepared Seder meals for Jewish custormers for 15 years reported the (Illinois) Daily Herald. He makes nealy 3,000 matzo balls for more than 300 guests. "Having prepared more Passover meals than many of his guests," the (Illinois) Daily Herald reported, "Panayiotou kiddingly tells customers 'I'm more Jewish than you guys.'"

Sometimes the local synagogues invite people to the Seder meal. DailyBreeze.com tells about how Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes invited 75 Catholic high school students for an "authentic Passover seder." "The common link is that Jesus was a Jew," Rabbi Jeret told DailyBreeze.com. "That is the transitional moment, the link in the chain between the two religions."

Bob Rothman, who organized the event, however, told DailyBreeze.com that it was important that it wasn't an adapted version sometimes used at interfaith gatherings. "A seder is a Jewish service," he said. "It's important that the students see it that way."

NewsTimes.com tells how on April 10 in Newtown, Conn., the Jewish congregation Adath Israel joined for an interfaith Passover seder with clergy from the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and Congregational churches.

The Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Va., is holding their "Annual Messianic Passover Seder" on April 18. It will be led by the Pastor.

Grace Presbyterian Church (Gainesville, Fla.), presented "The Seder: How Jesus Celebrated Passover" on April 10.

Calvary Southern Baptist Church in Casa Grande, Ariz. also had an event on April 10.

Hilltown Baptist Church in Chalfont, Pa. is having a "Christ in the Passover" seder on April 17.

Even an atheist with the screen name "applehead," asked on Yahoo Answers how to celebrate a Passover seder because he would "love to start celebrating all religious holidays from all different cultures, just leaving out the "religion" and faith aspect of them. Sorry if that sounds disrespectful, but I'd like to experience different holidays just for the fun and cultural knowledge they offer."

But not everybody is a fan of participating in a seder. "The Fifth Column," a self-described "Orthodox Catholic" blog, doesn't think it is a good idea for Catholics to participate. "The desire to engage in the seder repeatedly, year after year, in order to somehow 'more fully celebrate Easter' is so stupid as to border on dangerous."

An article in Biblical Archaeology Review asked the question, "The recent popularity of interfaith Seders (where Christians and Jews celebrate aspects of Passover and the Last Supper together) points to an emotional impulse that is also at work here. The Christian celebration of the Eucharist (Communion)—the Last Supper—is the fundamental ritual for many Christians. And among Jews the Passover Seder is one of the most widely practiced of all observances. In these times of ecumenicism and general good feeling between Christians and Jews, many people seem to find it reassuring to think that Communion (the Eucharist) and the Passover Seder are historically related."

The article concluded that the Last Supper wasn't a Seder. "A number of scholars now believe that the ritual context for the Last Supper was not a Seder but a standard Jewish meal. … If this was a Passover meal, where is the Passover lamb? Where are the bitter herbs? Where are the four cups of wine?"

SlashFood.com recounts President Obama's first Seder meal during the 2008 campaign. It took place in "a windowless basement of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Sheraton." A campaign staffer, Eric Lesser, got an "emergency Seder kit" from the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel Center. As Lesser and a few other workers began, Obama asked if he could join. Apparently, they ended the Seder not with "Next year in Jerusalem," but "Next year in the White House."

Obama will hold his third annual White House Seder on April 18.

Related Links:

You can watch a home movie from 1935 of an orthodox Passover Seder shot in New York's Lower East Side.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: twitter.com/degroote

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