Monday, April 25, 2011

Messianic Passover midrash

The events of and surrounding that first “Easter weekend” (Yeshua’s death, burial and resurrection) are closely tied to the Biblical holiday of Passover. (the word used for “Easter” in many Christian traditions still is “Pascha” or Passover). This closeness should highlight the twistedness of the hatred and persecution historically shown by Easter celebrants towards Jewish Passover celebrants. Moreover, when we see the legacy of Messiah Yeshua interacting (more positively) with Passover traditions, the main thing about this interaction which should be difficult to understand is why it is so difficult to understand. Funny then, to read these statements from a recent WSJ survey of the "multi-cultural significance" of Passover:
Some churches lead seders so congregants can better understand Judaism and the Jewish roots of Christianity. But others present the seder through a Christian lens—equating the seder's four cups of wine with the blood of Jesus, for example, and the unleavened bread (matzoh) with his body. They thus turn a Jewish religious ritual into a Christian one.
It is understandable that to equate Passover matzoh with the body of Yeshua, and the wine with his blood, may be scandalizing. One might think, “how dare they take Jewish customs for that purpose?” The writer above even goes so far as to contrast a seder like this which "turns a Jewish religious ritual into a Christian one" with other "multi-cultural" seders whose observance still "remains grounded in Jewish religious ritual, tradition and meaning." Let's not overlook that, far from being a creative transforming move on the part of Christians today, it is really the teaching of the New Testament writers, who were Jews working within Jewish categories. We are just mundanely re-discovering what they were saying. So, naturally, these parallels just happen themselves to be "grounded in Jewish ritual, tradition and meaning," and the author makes a false dichotomy. Whether those Jews were coherent, justified, or inspired in how they used those categories (I think they were all three) is a debate for apologetics. Regardless, it should be no surprise if Christians want to see things as they were intended. Its sad that some might even leave out such a basic reality for the sake of political correctness.

However, much of the seder has evolved over the centuries, both before and after the "parting of the ways" of Church and Synagogue (however one dates that). Believers in Yeshua coming back to the traditional seder after that split face a large time gap. Thus, the interaction between seder traditions from different time periods, and what it all means, can be confusing.

Well, confusing is one thing. Deceiving is quite another. And those who conduct Messianic seders are accused wholesale of deceptive transformations. I would like to consider what is allegedly one of the most egregious: taking the three pieces of matza to refer to the Trinity.

A little explanation is in order. On the seder table is a stack of three matzot; during “Yachatz” (breaking) the middle matzah of the three is taken out and broken in half. The smaller piece is returned to its place between the other two matzot. The larger piece is hidden, to be used later as the afikoman, the “dessert” to be found by children after the meal, and eaten along with the third cup.

Here’s what a follower of Jesus (Jewish or Gentile) might say. The Triune God of Israel has come to Israel in the Person of Yeshua to redeem them through the Jewish Messiah. This person came to earth (even as the middle piece of three is taken out of the bag), lived a human life, was broken on our behalf (even as the matzah is broken), and was buried (afikoman put into a cloth). Then on the third day (third cup), he arose from the dead, giving gifts to the sons of men (just as the children find the afikomen). Often the Greek root of the word “Afikoman” is pointed out (“coming”).

Because this story references the Trinity, taken to be the most non-Jewish of non-Jewish ideas, this application is seen as the worst of the worst, or “pure propaganda,” a complete and blasphemous distortion of traditional Jewish practice. Anti-missionaries who argue against its use try to show that it could never have originated with the followers of Jesus. They point to the evolution of the use of three pieces of matzoh, and how the afikomen was originally “poor man’s bread,” a tradition which obviously pre-dates Jesus and so could not have originated with him. Surely believers in Jesus should be made aware of the fact that the traditions involved, from the afikomen itself to the three-tiered matzah situation do not constitute eternal or “Biblical” Jewish tradition, but arose over time. It is improbable that either Yeshua or Paul, though they surely kept the feast, ever owned an embroidered silk Matzatash. The three matzot was probably much later than the time of the early believers.

So, why would one be so bold as to refer these things to Jesus and the Triune God? Here's where we need to be clear about the radical nature of this position: His followers believe that everything has meaning in Him. Either Yeshua is or He isn’t the Anointed One. Either He is or He isn’t the substance which gives value to and informs the ancient texts, customs and even later traditions. If He isn’t, then nothing His followers do is ultimately “valid,” and the faith is objectively meaningless. But if He is, then this custom too can be used to refer to what has happened when heaven met earth. It may annoy or scandalize some even as it pleases others, but annoyance doesn’t invalidate the act or make it deceptive in any sense, anymore than pleasantness would make it true.

I've found that there isn’t one rigid way to talk about how the customs are significant. Every signification involves midrash. Moreover, ultimate explanation according to tradition is utilitarian: these things are done to keep the children awake and interested (see the last chapter of Pesachim in the B. Talmud, as critic Rabbi Moshe Shulman notes). The point is to tell the children the story in an interesting way. At the very least then, is it not within the rights of Messianic believers to keep their children awake, interested, and asking questions by sharing through the traditions what Messiah has done according to the Scriptures? I think it is more than within their rights; its a duty. Thus, the misunderstanding of Messianic application as "propaganda" is itself an application of “unequal weights and measures.” To call it a “big lie” should be ridiculous.

Turning back then to Rabbi Shulman's argument he presupposesthat the whole Messianic application is based on the idea that three pieces are the Trinity. So, if the three pieces are not originally the Trinity, then the whole deck of cards collapses. He proceeds to refute this basis as "bogus," showing that since there was not even use of three pieces anywhere near the time of the early Christians, it cannot be taken to refer to their beliefs in a Holy Trinity.

While I don't dispute his historical data on the evolution of the stack, his arguments, though logical sounding, are completely confused. It is completely arbitrary to say that the “three pieces equaling three Persons” needs to be taken as the basis for the theological application. Actually, there need not be a grand symbolic scheme at origin here. I would have other problems with it if it did, because the ontology of the G-d of Israel, according to all major Christian, Messianic, or Jewish confessions, is not three pieces of anything, but rather is a simple unity without parts! In fact, could it be that the same confusion which leads sincere anti-missionaries to think of the Trinity as belief in "three parts" of G-d leads them to think that the three-piece symbolism here is meant by Christians comport to some fundamental doctrine (as opposed to being a wonderful detail within a midrashic allegory, which it is)?

At any rate, as is clear to those familiar with the Messianic approach to Passover, the theological basis of the parallel, the basis for signification, is God’s act of redemption, not the plurality of His nature. At the risk of sounding flip, the Trinitarian parallel is just icing on the cake.

I am still learning how the Afikomen, which preceeded the grouping of three matzos, is a storied custom, but clearly it refers to the eating of Lechem Oni (bread of affliction, poor man’s bread). So if this tradition can be utilized to refer to Yeshua, then believers are justified in taking the application further into the tradition. That doesn't have to be an originating factor of, say, the Afikomen itself, but it would be helpful if we could locate such a connection made by those Jewish Yeshua-following Passover feasters. Yet we already have the reports that it is Yeshua Himself who takes this bread eaten after the meal to refer to His body ("this is my body..."). So of course it can be utilized this way: it already is! For Christians this is known as the “Lord’s Supper” or “Communion.” The testimony of the Gospel writers generally is that Yeshua instituted this custom at a point in an ancient seder meal with His disciples, where He commanded them to “do this in remembrance of Me.” That’s the very tradition which itself became a primary basis for Christian worship (and, tragically and due to later anti-Jewish theology, was ripped out of its Passover context).

But Yeshua’s disciples are commanded to understand Him in the afikomen, then what does one do with the rest of the traditions? For example, what does a believer in Yeshua who has Jewish heritage do? Should he do yachatz but not tzafun (or tzafun but not yachatz) so that the whole symbolic narrative doesn’t seem “too Messianic” or “like communion”? Should he do neither and avoid Passover completely? Should he try not to see the Messianic parallels, lest a chorus of critics rise up to call it propaganda? Should he forget the Biblical indications that G-d’s infinite and transcendent nature is plural and even Triune? Should he close his eyes to the intriguing extension of similarities? Or maybe where he does see the similarities he should keep it to himself and not explain it to others as such? Anti-missionaries who want to critique the Passover practices of Jewish believers ought to reckon seriously with what alternatives they conceive.

Let’s return to the act of applying a Trinitarian midrash to the three pieces. However, often the person making the parallel “builds up” to it by noting other interesting parallels which may be given tradition (this can be seen in Word of Messiah's Messianic Passover Haggaddah, and probably those of other ministries). Some see the middle piece as Isaac among the patriarchs, or as the priesthood among Israel. These are not the only ways to describe the significance of the three pieces, but neither are presented randomly. Both Isaac and the priesthood each taken in context, point to the ultimate work of Messiah. Thus, wherein these “types” appear in contemporary midrash, a Messianic believer is justified in considering their fulfillment, Yeshua. At that point, what other significant “three” does one expect to associate with the Messiah?

I think a problematic assumption in the scandalized reaction is that believers, if they do a seder at all, are trying to present the “original seder” of Yeshua and His disciples. There are obvious ways in which a contemporary seder will not look like Yeshua’s seder, just as there are obvious ways in which Yeshua’s seder didn’t look like a seder in the time of Moses (let alone the “original seder”). Yes, believers care about history and be interested in understanding everything they can about those events in context (and much can be known). However, as followers of Messiah, we do the seder to remember God's redemptive action in histor. Its not to participate in the equivalent of a civil war reenactment, trying to get at an imagined ideal of historical authenticity. Traditions change over time, and we allow for fluidity with the way customs and significance interact. Only Hashem Himself is unchanging. And neither He nor the significance we ascribe to certain traditions should be kept in a box.