One of the youngest head rabbis in Reform Judaism, Moffic leads Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois. Of the three main branches of Judaism in the US—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—his takes the most progressive approach to a Torah-honoring lifestyle. Reform Jews are most open to social justice issues, interfaith families, and learning from Christianity, he said. “It is a Judaism at home in America.”
As Moffic became involved in interfaith education and dialogue, he discovered the profound desire among Christians to explore the Jewish roots of their own faith. For many Jews, such curiosity can make them bristle, or at least feel uncomfortable; Christians have been accused of misappropriating Jewish tradition or awkwardly conflating the two faiths. But instead of backing away or becoming defensive, the young rabbi approached their curiosity as sincere. He answered Christians’ questions and did all he could to teach them more.
“Several years ago when I was a rabbi in Chicago, I was asked to teach a class on this topic at a nearby church. The class was at 8 on a Sunday morning so I wasn’t expecting a big crowd,” he said. “The first week, 15 people showed up. By the end of the series, 80 people were attending the class.”
He found himself speaking to Christians of every theological stripe who expressed deep hunger to know more about the Jewishness of their own faith. Their questions—and his own—led him to pen two books on the subject: What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover: What It Means and Why Matters (Abingdon, 2015) and What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History (Abingdon, 2016). Moffic’s graciousness, curiosity, and insight have caught the attention of evangelicals including Scot McKnight, Eugene Peterson, Lynn Cohick, and Ken Davis.
During Holy Week, we often reflect on Jesus’ own Jewish traditions as we commemorate the Last Supper and his death, burial, and resurrection. With Passover still a month away (April 22-30 this year), I spoke with Rabbi Moffic about why he thinks Passover belongs to Christians too.
Christians have grown eager to understand Jesus as a member of the Jewish community and place him in his first-century context. As you speak in churches, what questions or issues have most surprised you?
I’ve found there are still some persistent negative stereotypes about Jews. Some are based on parts of New Testament texts that haven’t been grappled with. I get asked questions like, “Isn’t the New Testament all about love and the Old Testament about a vengeful, punishing God?” or “Weren’t the Pharisees bad guys?” I don’t think most of the people asking those questions understand that they reflect a supercessionist theology. These are the truths people were raised with.
I’ve also discovered there’s a yearning for community among Christians. People are longing for people who are committed to look out for them. This is one area I believe Christians can learn from Jews. Jews have historically been such a strong community. Christianity is often focused on the individual and his or her relationship with God. Judaism is more about the community’s role and responsibility for one another. It’s much more group oriented, more community oriented. Churches at their best can provide that kind of community, but it seems to be a little more individualized. When people discover the Jewish roots in early Christianity and see the Jewish focus on the group and community life, there are some good lessons there for congregations today.
Do most Christians recognize the Jewishness of Jesus?
They recognize Jesus was Jewish, but there’s some confusion about what that means. When many Christians think about Judaism, they think about the Old Testament—the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. That is biblical Judaism. But Jesus was a rabbinic Jew. He lived in first-century Judea during a time in which Judaism was changing. Judaism in this period was more focused on community, teaching, and Torah than the Temple.
To learn about the Judaism of Jesus, we don’t need to consult only the Bible. We need to consult the Talmud (collection of oral interpretations and rulings of how to live a Torah-observant life). I have shared texts from the Talmud with churches so they get a picture of Midrash (commentary on Tanakh) and the kind of religious lifestyle Jesus lived. I want to help open up first-century rabbinic Judaism—the Judaism of Hillel, Shammai, and Akiva. That’s the kind of Judaism Jesus lived, not the Judaism of Moses. Helping Christians recognize this has been, in my experience, something that has enhanced their understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus.
During Holy Week, some churches offer a Christian version of a Seder, the ritual meal retelling the story of the Exodus. These typically follow the Jewish Seder, but highlight how Jesus fulfilled the deliverance story. Jewish detractors suggest it would be better for Christians to simply attend a traditional Seder than adapt it for church use. What made you take a different approach in your book and actually encourage Gentile readers to do so?
The Exodus story is part of the Hebrew Bible, which is part of Christian Bible. The Exodus story is part of the Christian story. Sometimes we learn about another religion through practicing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing a Passover Seder. You get a much deeper sense of what Passover means if you participate in a Seder rather than just lecturing about it.
I’ve seen people profoundly moved by participating in a Seder. One of the most meaningful Seders I ever led was for an Alcoholics Anonymous group. There were a few Jews there, but most of the crowd was Christian. People said to me afterwards the journey from slavery to freedom was just like what they were going through.
What might a first-century Seder have looked like? What elements of a modern Seder would have been familiar to a family living in Jesus’ time?
It wasn’t the ritualized kind of Seder that we have today. That comes after the destruction of the Temple, when there are no more sacrificial offerings. The rabbis have to figure out a way to sustain Passover without the Temple, and that’s when the ritual of the Seder was formed with theFour Questions, and the saltwater, and the parsley, and the matzo sandwiches.
During the time Jesus lived, there was a meal around Passover where the Exodus story would be shared. That’s probably what the Last Supper was—a Passover meal. It wasn’t a Seder as we understand it, because the word “Seder” doesn’t exist until 70 C.E., but it was a Passover meal.
What about the foot-washing and the institution of communion? Was there any precedent for those sorts of adaptations during the Seder observance?
There wasn’t settled law yet as to what things meant, what was permissible and what wasn’t (regarding Passover). Jesus was innovating, but it wasn’t necessarily departure. It was a part of the conversation that was happening in first-century Jewish life.
Jesus, Paul, Akiva, Hillel were all asking the same question: What did it mean to be a good Jew in the first century? In terms of the exact symbolism Jesus put forth regarding the blood and the body, there weren’t other rabbis in the first century making those kinds of claims, but Jesus was certainly part of the conversation that was happening then.
You’ve spent a lot of time with Jesus in recent years. Imagine placing yourself at his final Passover meal with his disciples back in the first century. What is the story being told to you?
I see a rabbi and his disciples talking about the Exodus. I see a group of people living under the shadow of Roman Empire, telling the story of redemption and freedom, giving faith to the disciples in difficult times. If they sensed that Jesus might be killed soon, I can see that this conversation would give them even greater faith.
Passover is about maintaining faith through difficult times. I see them discussing the Exodus, and the story giving them comfort at that moment.
I’m don’t think everyone there was completely comforted by his words. Scripture’s account of the meal shows it some confusion and disruption.
The Exodus from Egypt was not easy; many Jews wanted to return to Egypt. So there was a lot of instability and fear at that table. What’s going to happen without our God? What’s going to happen with this vicious Pontius Pilate?
In Jewish tradition, you’re supposed to stay up talking about this story of freedom until after midnight. It’s important to remember that a Seder isn’t a monologue. It’s a dialogue. Questions like, “Why is this happening to us? Why is that happening to us?” would have been a part of the conversation during that final Seder with Jesus.
The Bible records the essence of what is important for us to know. We don’t always get what was going on in the background.
Christians can gain much from learning about the Jewish context of their faith. The New Testament was written by Jews, writing in very Jewish ways. By getting a Jewish perspective, you’ll approach your Bible with a different, deeper perspective.
This is what I’ve tried to do with my books. I want people to go beyond gaining information about the Bible in order to create meaning in their lives. And the Seder is a great place to begin that process.
Interview by Michelle Van Loon