Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wicked Good?

What should we think of the wicked child, who challenges all of us gathered around the seder table at Passover with the question "What does this practice mean to you?"

First, you might not realize that the wicked child is quoting from the Bible - Exodus 12:26, to be precise. In its original context (at the very first Passover celebration on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt), the question is framed as the one that will be asked by future generations - and it receives a straightforward response, an explanation of the meaning of Passover.

The haggadah, however, sees the question in a less positive light (as is made obvious by labeling the child as "wicked"). It indicates that asking what Passover means to "you" signifies the wicked child's hostility to the community. We are instructed to set the child's "teeth on edge" and quote scripture back to the child: "It is because of what God did for ME when I went free from Egypt" (Exodus 13:8). Had you been there, wicked child, you would have been left behind in Egypt.

book jacketTwo recent books use the wicked child's question as the jumping off point for treatises on the alienation many contemporary Jews experience from Jewish community.

David Mamet, in his 2006 book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews (part of the fabulous NextBook series), begins with the premise that "the world hates the Jews" and so every Jew must choose sides: "In or out" (7). He writes that the "wickedness of the wicked son" is that he "would not stand with those who would stand with him:"

"He feels free to enjoy his intellectual heritage, the Jewish love of learning, and reverence for accomplishment; he enjoys, aware or not, a heritage of millenia of Jewish Law and values; he enjoys his very life, which would have been denied him and his ancestors in the Europe they suffered to leave; he enjoys the right to protection from the community he disavows and, through it all, parrots, 'My parents were Jews, but I do not consider myself a Jew'" (128-9).

In his book, Mamet seeks to issue a wake-up call to such Jews, telling all wicked children to cease blaming Jewish community for its shortcomings and to take pride in their heritage as the descendants "of kings and queens, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests" (180).

book jacketA very different response is offered by Mitchell Silver in Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education. He observes that the "sin" of the wicked child is "the expression of alienation from the tradition" while the other children "ask how to celebrate the seder properly or what it is all about." Noting that for liberal and secular Jews, not only is it a challenge "to find reasons to maintain a Jewish identity,"

"...it is also hard to overcome reasons against maintaining a Jewish identity. The most powerful arguments for assimilation stem from the liberal Enlightenment vision of a universal common humanity. On this view all that is significantly human is, or ought to be, universal . . ." (3)

Silver takes a more positive view of the wicked child than Mamet, writing that "among contemporary Jews there are many wicked children, and they merit answers that amount to more than the traditional scornful dismissal" (1).

Silver's fascinating book attempts to provide a philosophical basis for a Jewish identity that doesn't compromise liberal or secular values. His premise is that "the wicked child's question has a certain logical and moral priority" over that of the wise child, who wants to know all the details for observing the seder. Once the wicked child is satisfied with a more general understanding of "what it is all about, the desire for details will follow. The transition from wickedness to wisdom, from estrangement to communion, is a natural one" (189).

I'd like to chart a middle-path between Mamet's decrying, and Silver's celebrating, of the Wicked Child's question. On the one hand, I think that the question itself is a legitimate one. After all, at the seder we are instructed to invite all who are hungry to join us, and the wicked child might be a guest who is a stranger and - who knows - maybe not Jewish? At least the wicked child is paying attention enough to ask a question!

wicked son - haggadah textOn the other hand, I want to take the haggadah seriously in calling the child "wicked." The haggadah's response only makes sense if we hear in the question not only the voice of an alienated Jew trying to find a place within the community, but also the voice of apathy, of hostility, of a challenge to the legitimacy of the Passover seder and to the community of all those present: Prove to me that this is worth doing, that I should consider myself one of you.

Yet - even though the wicked child's question is confrontational, I'd rather have the child at the table - sitting uncomfortably and annoyed, perhaps - than for the child not to be there at all. I want to thank the wicked child for joining us for the seder, despite having those feelings of alienation and anger.

I would suggest - and here, I think the haggadah agrees with me - that all four children ought to be present at the table. We should be glad when the wise child doesn't go off to hold a seder composed entirely of other wise children, but is willing to suffer through the questions of the simple child (probably with much eye-rolling). The simple child, too, must find the meticulous questions of the wise child tedious, waiting impatiently through even more details of the laws of the afikomen.

Let us not be quick to dismiss the wicked child, any more than we ignore the silent child or become frustrated with the endless questions of the wise and simple children. All four voices - even the silent voice - need to be heard. I'd rather have the seder be a place where the wicked child's question can be asked than leave it go unspoken, with the wicked child sullenly refusing to participate but not explaining why.


Saul Kaiserman (thinkfred) said...

I just learned of this teaching of Nechama Liebowitz that further explains what makes the wicked child so wicked: "...this son is the only one to use the term עבודה (Avodah, "service") to describe the ritual of Pesach. In this way he tries to equate the עבודה (Avodah as "worship" or "ritual") inherent in the Pesach service with the עבודה (Avodah as "slavery"), the oppressive enslavement perpetrated by the Egyptians."

Saul Kaiserman (thinkfred) said...

At the seder last night, I noticed for the first time that the "child who does not know how to ask" receives the exact same response as the wicked child. Opinions were divided as to how to understand this, but one idea that emerged was that the same words, if spoken in a different tone, can take on very different meanings.