Saturday, March 27, 2010

Looking Back at One of My Theist Posts

Here's something I wrote almost five years ago. My, how things have changed.


April 2005 -- 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.
2010 Note: This is an area where my viewpoint has probably changed. I now think I overstated the case. The wicked child's behavior may be impolite, but "wicked" is an inappropriate label for it.

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.
2010 Note: I still agree in principle with this. I might observe now that the wise child, as a personality type, need not be a believer. One can be an Atheist and ask the same questions. As an Atheist, I can still maintain a deep bond with the people at the Seder table and with all the Seder represents, even if I don't believe as the other people do and even if I have sharp disagreements with some or all of what the Seder represents.

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.
2010 Note: Although I am now certainly "against" much of religious observances, history and texts, I think some clarification is in order. I'm against the observance of religion as anything more than personal gratification and communal bonding. Observe if it makes you feel OK, but it doesn't make you or anyone "holy." It doesn't "sanctify" anyone or anything. It doesn't alter history or rehabilitate the nastier and inconsistent parts of the sacred texts. Having been raised in a family circumstance that made the Seder very enjoyable, I have no intention of giving it up. I will not pretend, however, that my Seder has any sort of real (in the sense of "reality") spiritual dimension.

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.


  1. Shalmo12:08 PM

    Larry I enjoyed your post about Pesach. Why do atheists such as yourself obsess so much over what other people (ie: theists) believe, rather than just concentrate on a positive expression of your own worldview?

    show us more about the positives and spiritual fulfillment atheism brings, and how it fills your life with purpose and meaning.

  2. Shalmo,

    Thank you for the kind words on the post.

    For myself, I would not say I am obsessed over what theists believe. I think my focus tends to be on atheism, which necessarily entails some polemic against belief. But in this atheism/theism context, I also cover historical data, science, problems of interpretation, ethics and morality, personal observations, and other matters. And of course, belief itself is a subject that engages me.

    However, I feel it's important to challenge beliefs and to question reasoning. Religion should not be exempt from answering for the truth claims that it often makes with moral, political, social and even scientific authority. Look no farther than as influential a figure as the current pope, who blames his organization's centuries of rampant sexual misconduct against children on "secularization." Look at American politics, where it's sill virtually impossible to be elected without professing to gesticulate to the sky. Look at the forces in individual communities that want to take decisions about science and math course out of the hands of experts in the field and instead put them into the hands of people with the "right doctrine."

    I don't ask atheism for what you call "spiritual fulfillment." I get that from my marriage, from fatherhood, from my work, from reading, from the people in my life, and from other things - even this blog.

    I respectfully acknowledge your request to show you more positives and such, but I will decline. This is my blog and I'll write what I think and post however I do.

  3. Shalmo12:46 AM

    It was not a demand, it was simply a recommendation.

    When I go to various forums and blogs online whether christian, jewish, hindu, or whatever you see them focus on their own

    They criticize the faults in their own communities. They discuss theology, politics and culture that relate to themselves.

    The difference with atheist blogs and forums is that they are busy concentrating on everybody else rather than their own communities.

    The impression the average theist gets is that atheism at best is a state of constant grumpiness and habitually complaining about everyone else. I should add I am not the only one who has made this observation.

    PS: The Pope ends up proving Christianity correct on the total depravity of man (read Romans chapter 1)

  4. I know it was not a demand. I understand what you're saying, and you have a point. But I'm not going to make any conscious effort to change my focus. I'll continue to write about whatever strikes my fancy, and I'll try to address topics in the most intellectually honest way that I can.

    I also visit various forums and blogs online. In the atheistic and the scientific blogs, I see plenty of self-questioning and frequent discussions of ideology, politics and culture.

    The "focus on their own" in the religious and cultural groups is something I see as a problem. Each group needs also to look beyond themselves and to think about participating in a more global community.

    Religion and belief are one part of the whole picture, and maybe not a very big part. The whole picture is about rationality, evidence, and intellectual honesty.

    So, I wonder if you need to shop around for new forums and blogs and to broaden your perspective.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.