Monday, April 25, 2005

A Wicked Cancer in the Passover Seder

In every Passover Seder, my family has debated that part of the service concerning the four different types of child. This is where we consider how to teach the meaning of Passover and its Seder to each type: wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

Each type is identified by the manner in which the child queries the leader about the Seder's meaning. The wise child asks, "What is the meaning of the testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d?" In contrast, the wicked child asks, "What is the meaning of this service to you?" Because the wicked child distances himself from the service, the leader's reply excludes him: "Because of what G-d did for me, in taking me out of Egypt."

My two brothers, it seems to me, dislike that one of the sons is called “wicked.” To get even a little more particular about it, they feel that the so-called “wicked child” is unfairly labeled and challenge whether he has truly done anything to merit such a strong condemnation as “wicked.” Again as it seems to me, they view him as a potentially spiritual individual whose inquiry from a place of independent thought brings down a harsh anti-intellectualism upon him.

There is much to admire in my brothers’ defense of the wicked child. If I have characterized their sentiments correctly, I share many impulses and thoughts with them. For example, we all understand that it is a disturbing and terrible thing to call a child “wicked.” At one time or another, all children behave wickedly, but this does not make them through-and-through wicked. It is hard to imagine any child as an essentially wicked being – as if a child were born evil, independent of his education and environment. In fact, this is such a strain on the imagination that I think my brothers and I agree that no child is born evil or wicked.

However, my brothers and I begin to part ways sharply when we consider a second point, whether the so-called wicked son’s behavior warrants being identified as wicked. What is the behavior that offends? It is a question, and it is question phrased in a way that communicates condescension and trivialization. In cruder, more colloquial terms, the child has stood up and asked the room, “What the hell are you all doing?” The form of the question implies the child’s ideas that the Seder ritual is beneath him and silly.

Is this behavior wicked? Certainly. To disdain and disrespect people, and to make them and their practices out to be inferior – these are evil acts because they attempt verbally to destroy the Seder, its origins, the current and past events that have made it possible, and the spirit of its participants.

However, if in his question the child has performed an act of profound wickedness, can it be said that the child himself is wicked? After all, we might resent the behavior but still be able to excuse the child. “He was just trying to be funny,” we might reason. “It was just an error of judgment,” we might conclude.

But at this point it’s critical to remember that “the wicked child” is not an actual child and does not refer to a particular person. The wicked child represents a personality type, just as the wise child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask are personality types identified by the sages. At different points in a life, in different contexts, each one of us approaches a situation from the standpoint of wisdom, wickedness, simplemindedness or dumb silence. From earliest childhood and into adulthood, we hope to establish wisdom's standpoint as our default approach to the Seder, and also to Torah, Judaism, and living generally.

This is partly why it is misguided to defend the wicked child. To advocate for the wicked child is not to protect a vulnerable innocent, it is to justify wicked deeds themselves. It is to legitimize and intellectually permit behavior that degrades other people and defiles their customs. It is to rationalize destructive actions and to refuse to take any kind of stand against them or their perpetrators.

So also is it misguided to suggest that the rebuke of the wicked child’s question intends to quell dissent and suppress a healthy community dialogue on different spiritual points of view. The response to the wicked child’s question makes explicit just what he had implied: the child implicitly removes himself from the Seder in the question, and the child is explicitly removed from the Seder in the response. The obvious intent in responding this way is to help the child realize on his own that the Seder does apply to him, but the application is not a mere given. It is fulfilled by one’s meeting the obligation to study the Seder and its "testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d."

What about multiple, different, and even conflicting spiritual views? If the wicked child or his question represents some alternative spiritual view, I do not see it. It certainly is not expressed in any positive sense. But make no mistake, the Seder – and Judaism too, I believe – fully supports inquiries, disagreements, and theories on "the testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d."

I fear that ideas that this is not so are becoming irrevocably entrenched in my brothers' hearts and minds. What's more, I detect a cancer in their offered and implied positions on the wicked child, a serious philosophical and spiritual issue that is turning them against Jewish observances, history and texts.

I fear also that this stance is becoming more pervasive in Jewish families across America, and I believe that it is not a good thing. If my fears are true and this cancer is real, Seders of the future will be conducted without decent and intelligent Jews, those who passed over Judaism without recognizing that it always already explored and expressed their humanist ideals.

My brothers have a wisdom that makes them deserving of an appropriate reply to their questions. Have I given this reply? I don't know, but perhaps this, my expression of what I desire to understand, will help all of us have a new Seder next year. The Seder itself can be seen as wisdom asking a question. My family, and perhaps many Jewish families in America, can benefit from examining how we have responded to this question.

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