Jews, Christians find shared heritage at Seder


If the copies of the New Testament on the big, round Seder tables seemed incongruous, there was an easy explanation: The ritual meal of the Jewish Passover is increasingly something celebrated by Christians and Jews together to recall their shared heritage.

At Sunday afternoon's special Seder in the Beth Am Synagogue on Eutaw Place, black Baptist guests brought to members of the Jewish congregation additional reminders of traditions held in common, social as well as religious.

For the fourth time, the flocks of Rabbi Ira Schiffer and the Rev. Robert C. Hunt were coming together during the week before Passover. Said Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins Medical School and Beth Am's lay president: "For me personally, it's been an incredibly warm experience every year."

It has also been a learning experience for him, the educator said, noting his discovery of "a lot of surprising similarities" in the two faiths.

Jesus and the early Christians were devout Jews for whom the Passover meal was holy. According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Last Supper -- the first Christian Eucharist -- was a Seder.

But by Jews and black American Christians, even more is shared. What Passover celebrates is the freeing of Jewish slaves more than 3,000 years ago.

"We have known physical bondage and spiritual servitude. We have also been subjected to social degradation," said Mr. Hunt, vTC the pastor of Good Shepherd Baptist Church on Park Heights Avenue.

He could have been reciting the history of his own people. What he was doing on Sunday, however, was alternating with Rabbi Schiffer of Beth Am in the reading of passages from the Haggada, the Seder prayer book.

The Haggada they were using is a special one for interracial celebrations, titled "The Common Road to Freedom." On the cover are a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a statement of his: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Also quoted on the cover is Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, who said that "Judaism gave mankind its first civil rights program."

During the Seder, Rabbi Schiffer urged, "love the stranger as yourself."

There was lively congregational singing of "Go down Moses, way down in Egypt's land. Tell ol' Pharaoh to let my people go."

And Mr. Hunt observed, "As long as one of us is in slavery, none of us is free." He was speaking for all the men, women and children present, black and white, Christian and Jew, as the rabbi led them with a mixture of solemnity and laughter through the ceremonial supper of unleavened bread, bitter herbs, sweet wine, a lamb bone, roasted eggs, parsley, chopped apples, nuts and cinnamon. Each food has its religious significance.

Tomorrow evening, when the week of Passover begins, Jewish families everywhere will gather in their homes for the most important of their Seder meals. Like Sunday's community event, these more intimate Sedarim will recall the deliverance of the Hebrews under Moses from their slavery in ancient Egypt.

This year, the day coincides with Christianity's Good Friday, which marks the death of Jesus on the cross. It is a time of separations as well as bonds between peoples.

Conflicts between blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, did not end with the friendship of Rabbi Schiffer and Pastor Hunt and the partnership of their congregations, but a Good Shepherd Baptist Church deacon -- no less than Beth Am's president -- found religious growth in learning about another faith.

Keith A. Carter, the deacon, said he was as astonished as Dr. Snyder by some of his new knowledge. "Last year's Seder inspired me to go out and purchase a Torah," Mr. Carter said.

Then he and James E. Bell, another Good Shepherd member, laughed about their surprise at a mutual discovery: that the Torah contains, word for word, the first five books of their own Baptist Bibles, carried to the Jewish service by each and placed on the Seder tables before them.

"At one time, I had thought our Old Testament was different from the Jewish Old Testament," Mr. Carter said. "The Seder made me more appreciative of our Jewish heritage, and the fact that our Messiah was born a Jew."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad