Judaism for the Wise and Wicked: Passover 5782

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Questions are perhaps the defining feature of the Seder. The ceremony, with its unusual rites and symbols, appears to have been specifically designed to arouse questions, particularly from children. 

To all these questions, let me add one that I want us to consider this morning: what is Conservative Judaism? 

This question has been on my mind lately. I was recently invited to join the Rabbinical Assembly’s strategic planning committee, a group of about fifty Conservative rabbis and leaders of diverse backgrounds and perspectives from within our movement who are charged with developing an actionable vision for the near-term future of Conservative Judaism. 

Our initial conversations made it clear to me that our task will neither be simple nor easy; in part, I think, because it will require us to articulate shared principles, to define who we are and what we stand for as a movement. What defines Conservative Judaism? What makes our movement unique?

There have, of course, been numerous attempts throughout history to define Conservative Judaism. One of our movement’s founding fathers, Zacharias Frankel, said that our defining quality was our “positive historical” approach to Judaism, that we see our tradition as a historical phenomenon that evolves, and improves, over time. Later, leaders like Mordecai Waxman said that we believed in “tradition and change.” Indeed, many people have belonged to Conservative congregations throughout history because, in various ways and to varying degrees, Conservative Judaism seeks to blend the traditional with the contemporary. None of these definitions are bad, but none have ever become, well, definitive. And as a result, Conservative Judaism still has something of an identity crisis.

On its surface, Conservative Judaism’s identity crisis would seem to have nothing to do with Passover. Yet, as it turns out, identity is a major theme of the holiday. 

Consider “The Four Children,” one of my favorite parts of the Seder. The haggadah identifies four different types of children – a “wise” child, a “wicked” child, a “simple” child, and a child “who does not know how to ask” – each asking a distinct question. 

The archetypes are rooted in rabbinic midrash. On several separate occasions, the Torah predicts that, when Jewish adults observe Passover’s peculiar rituals and practices, their children will invariably ask what it all means. The ancient rabbis interpreted this apparent repetition to mean that the Torah was actually talking about four different types of children, each naturally asking a distinct type of question about Passover, and each requiring a response consistent with the child’s disposition and capability: to the “wise” child, a “wise” answer; to the “wicked” child, a “wicked” answer; to the “simple” child, a “simple” answer; and to the one “who doesn’t know how to ask,” a basic answer.

It’s interesting to note that the Torah itself does not describe any of the children or their questions as particularly wise, wicked, simple, or elementary. The children and their questions just are. It’s only later that the rabbis characterize and categorize them. And in so doing, they even sometimes change the answers provided by the Torah itself, or else proffer altogether different answers to the questions the Torah predicts. 

So, for example, in today’s Torah portion, the special reading for the first day of Pesah, we read: 

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ 

And when your children ask you, ‘What is this ritual to you?’ 

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל

You shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Infinite, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ (Exodus 12:26-27a).

If you’re familiar with the haggadah, you probably noticed that this is the question the rabbis ascribe to the rasha, the so-called “wicked” child. However, you may have also noticed that this is not the way the haggadah instructs the parent to answer the rasha. Instead, the rabbis emphasize the fact that the child says “to you.” The rabbis infer from this that the child sees their relationship to the holiday as distinct from their parent’s. Therefore, according to the rabbis, the child has effectively placed themself outside the tradition as a whole, as well as the family and community that cherish it. The parent is thus instructed to respond, “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם / It is because of what the Infinite did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” In other words, God liberated me, but not you, since you have excluded yourself from the community. One who places themselves outside the community cannot be included in the community’s redemption. 

It is a sensitive interpretation of the question in Exodus chapter 12 verse 26, and a meaningful lesson to teach. But above all it must be noted that the rabbis are making a deliberate choice to read the text this way, since they substitute the answer that the Torah itself provides in verse 29 with one from an altogether different passage, Exodus chapter 13 verse 8. 

The only other child who is given an answer that is different from the one provided by the Torah is the hakham, or wise child. The hakham asks “מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם / “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that the Infinite our God has commanded us?” This is a quotation from Deuteronomy chapter 16 verse 20. 

But the haggadah instructs the parent to respond with a very different answer than is prescribed in the biblical passage. The subsequent verses in Deuteronomy read, “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Infinite freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. God freed us from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised to our ancestors. And the Infinite commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Infinite our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case” (Deut. 16:21-24).  

The haggadah, on the other hand, says to answer the wise child, “We do not conclude the Passover Seder with the afikoman,” which is a teaching from the mishnah, a text written approximately 1,500 years after the Torah! Why does the haggadah provide this rabbinic answer for the wise child’s question, when the Torah itself already gives a perfectly good response?

The answer, I think, is because the “wise” child isn’t wise, and the “wicked” child isn’t wicked. 

Let’s start with the wise child. In Hebrew, he is called hakham. True, the Hebrew word hakham does literally mean wise. But for the ancient rabbis, hakham is a technical term, synonymous with the title “rabbi.” 

For the ancient rabbis, the term hakham denoted someone who was considered to be part of the rabbinic community, and indeed someone who was qualified to be one of its leaders. A hakham was not a generic wise person, but rather “a Sage.” So the hakham of the haggadah is not wise in the sense of possessing wisdom. Rather, he’s a hakham, a rabbinic Sage. It is only from this perspective that the haggadah’s response to the hakham’s question makes sense. His question, about the laws of Passover, is characteristically rabbinic. And since his question emerges from within the rabbinic tradition, it makes sense for the rabbis to answer him not from the Torah, but from the mishnah, from within rabbinic tradition. Neither the hakham nor his question are wise in any conventional sense. Instead, I think it’d be more accurate to call him “The Insider”. 

If the hakham is better understood as “The Insider,” then it stands to reason that the rasha, whom the haggadah implies is the hakham’s opposite, would have to be “The Outsider.” 

And indeed, from the haggadah’s perspective, the rasha does seem to stand at a remove from Jewish tradition, interrogating it as an outsider looking in, with a critical eye and a challenging posture. The rasha is therefore not “wicked” in the sense of being morally evil, but rather someone who rejects the religious philosophy, and maybe even the authority, of the rabbis, and positions themself in opposition to the rabbinic community. Like the hakham, rasha here is not used as an adjective, but rather as a noun. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just not a rabbi. He’s a rebel.

[PAUSE]

It is of course tempting to assume that the haggadah is holding up the hakham as a model and the rasha as a cautionary tale. But I actually think it is making a much more subtle point. The haggadah’s problem with The Outsider is obvious: he seeks truth but embraces nothing. As a result, the haggadah instructs the parent to give The Outsider an intellectually interesting but emotionally hostile answer: the meaning of Passover is that God liberated me, but not you, since you have excluded yourself from the community.

However, I also think the haggadah has a problem with The Insider, though you have to read between the lines to see it. The haggadah’s answer to The Insider is technically correct and nurtures communal belonging. But it also utterly misses the point of the holiday. 

I have to believe that was intentional. I can’t imagine the ancient rabbis actually believed that the correct answer to a question about the meaning of Passover is that the afikoman isn’t the last step in the Seder. 

Perhaps the haggadah is forcing a comparison between the hakham and the rasha not to vindicate the former and vilify the latter, but rather to suggest that they are mirror images of one another. 

The Insider, situated deep inside the tradition, is uncritical, but also incurious. They seem unconcerned with “why,” and instead focus on “what” and “how”. The Outsider wants to know “why”, but is unconcerned with “what” and “how”. 

As a result, The Outsider might get to the heart of the matter. But because they aren’t invested, getting to the heart of it doesn’t matter. The Insider, on the other hand, is so deep inside the system that they are unable to interrogate it. Sure, they are invested, but the investment ends up being quite literally meaningless. 

The haggadah draws our attention to the hakham and the rasha, two apparent extremes. At first glance, it would seem that the haggadah is saying one is good and the other is bad; one is right, and the other is wrong; we ought to celebrate and emulate the former, and deride the latter. 

But upon closer inspection, I think the haggadah is actually making a much more subtle point: Both extremes on their own are problematic. When we approach everything as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything. But unexamined orthodoxies are also toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. Ideally, we can find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating.

It strikes me that this is Conservative Judaism’s defining quality. Ours is an approach to Jewish tradition, a Jewish way of encountering the world, that seeks to find balance between extremes, unapologetically embracing Jewish tradition while also unapologetically interrogating and challenging it. Conservative Judaism encourages us to embody both the wise child and the wicked child simultaneously, to be at once outsiders and insiders. We benefit from being rooted in Jewish wisdom, practice, and community, and also from holding our tradition up to the light of reason. 

This approach is complex. But so is our world. It resists simple answers and easy explanations. Yet so does life. Those who position themselves only as Outsiders, who challenge the tradition without being wholeheartedly committed to it, are beyond the pale. But so too are those who position themselves only as Insiders, those whose loyalty to the tradition closes their minds and hardens their hearts. Those parameters, it seems to me, are broad enough to include the diversity of belief and thought – the commitment to intellectual pluralism – that has always been one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism, while also being sufficiently narrow to exclude approaches that we have always regarded as out of bounds. 

This, to my mind, is the only standard that matters; the one to which I consider myself bound as both a proud Conservative rabbi and as a proud Conservative Jew: to relate to our tradition simultaneously as both an Outsider and an Insider. 

Is this wise, or wicked? Maybe it’s a little of both. But maybe, ultimately, that’s precisely what the haggadah is telling us: that redemption is possible if we embrace a way of being that unites head and heart, mind and soul, one that seeks to harmonize the wise and wicked children within each of us.

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