A Jew Looks at Lent, Easter, and Passover

by Yehezkel Landau

In 2015, Good Friday and the Passover seder fell on the same day, April 3. (In 2017, Passover starts April 10 and Good Friday is April 14.) This convergence of sacred times for Christians and Jews prompts this reflection. I am also conscious that October 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that ushered in a new era in Christian-Jewish relations. By decrying the sin of anti-Semitism and repudiating the deicide charge against the Jewish people that had haunted relations between the two faith communities for close to two millennia, the Catholic Church took a major step in cleansing its official theology of both anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

Christians and Jews alike can be thankful to God that the Christian demonization and scapegoating of Jews has been supplanted by more inclusively compassionate, and historically accurate, interpretations of what happened on the hill of Golgotha almost 2000 years ago.  Surmounting this theological hurdle has opened up exciting possibilities for Jews and Christians to learn from one another.[1]  The two communities, while retaining their spiritual identities and loyalties, can now appreciate how their respective stories of liberation and redemption can be mutually instructive, even inspirational. We can read the Passover and Easter stories without imposing self-referencing interpretations on one or the other. We can explore together the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah 52-53 and hear why Christians see Jesus on the Cross in that portrayal, while Jews, basing themselves on earlier references in Isaiah to God’s servant Jacob, tend to see the People Israel allegorized in those prophetic texts.

I try to appreciate the Lenten journey undertaken by my Christian sisters and brothers as a path of discipleship, a devotional act of imitatio Christi. Even though I do not view Jesus as divine or as the messiah anticipated by most Jews, he is nonetheless one of my most influential Jewish teachers. I see him as a Galilean rabbi and faith healer at the radical edge of the Pharisaic spectrum, calling his fellow Jews, in particular “the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” to a more heart-centered way of living out the Torah. Unfortunately, some Christians still see Torah, which means Divine teaching, as a legalistic framework that was supplanted by the Gospel of Love. The perceived dichotomy between Law and Love remains the greatest stumbling block in healing the tragic divide separating Christians and Jews.

As we Jews prepare to symbolically go forth from Egypt once again to receive the Torah at Sinai 50 days later, and as Christians prepare for Easter and the Good News of the Resurrection, let us appreciate the saving grace in both faith traditions. For both are blessed by God, in ways we cannot fully fathom. 

Sadly, at this critical moment in history, both Jews and Christians are being targeted by hateful jihadists who do not understand them in this way. Conversely, Muslims are viewed generically by many Christians and Jews as inherently hostile and threatening. This painful reality compels us all to uphold simultaneously two faith responses that are often in tension:  compassion for misguided adversaries who, in the words of the dying Jesus, “know not what they do”; and, at the same time, a commitment to the protection of vulnerable human beings who are endangered by murderous hatred.  If we believe that God is the Source of both Love and Justice, then Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others can together exemplify imitatio Dei by combating hatred and violence perpetrated by anyone in the name of religion.  In so doing, we can ensure that the lives and dignity of our fellow human beings, created in the Divine Image, will be enshrined as sacred values that transcend any theology, creed, or professed devotion to God.  

[1] Among the many helpful resources now available, I would recommend the following books for joint study by Christians and Jews:  The Synoptic Gospels Set Free:  Preaching Without Anti-Judaism by Daniel Harrington, SJ, and The Gospel of John Set Free:  Preaching Without Anti-Judaism by Fr. George Smiga (both from Paulist Press), Jesus the Pharisee:  A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus by Harvey Falk (from Wipf & Stock Publishers), and The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (from Oxford University Press).