Jews have an interesting relationship with the idea of logical argumentation. I have always been somewhat impressed with the Jewish attitude towards arguing with God, as exemplified in the story of Abraham’s convincing God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten innocent and righteous people living there. (True, God doesn’t even find that, apparently, but Abraham’s argument does motivate him to allow Lot and his daughters to escape.) Then there’s all the scholarly debate over interpretations of Jewish law. Questioning seems to be a big part of the Jewish tradition.
…Except, of course, if you want to question Judaism itself. You’re righteous if you argue with God about how he could improve his morality. You’re respectable if you make a career out of picking apart the nuances of meaning in every word of scripture. But at Passover, we are reminded, anyone who wants to debate about the truth of Jewish legend or the value of Jewish ritual is to be labeled “wicked.”
The traditional Passover service is guided by the text of the Haggadah. Here is an excerpt from one version, a section typically referred to as “The Four Sons” or, in more modern revisions, “The Four Children.”
The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.
The wise one, what does he say? “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the L-rd, our G-d, has commanded you?” You, in turn, shall instruct him in the laws of Passover, [up to] ‘one is not to eat any dessert after the Passover-lamb.’
The wicked one, what does he say? “What is this service to you?!” He says ‘to you,’ but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: “It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt”; ‘for me’ – but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!”
The simpleton, what does he say? “What is this?” Thus you shall say to him: “With a strong hand the L-rd took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.”
As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt.'”
In every Haggadah I’ve seen, the wicked child says something along the lines of, “What’s the point of this?” or “What do you think this means?” So, even though one of the greatest heroes of Judaism told God to his face (?) that his sense of fairness was seriously out of whack, questioning the relevance of the Seder is enough to make a child worth leaving behind in bondage in Egypt.
Of course, the Israelites weren’t actually enslaved in Egypt at all. There’s no evidence that any part of the Passover story actually happened. And many modern Jews, generally in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, acknowledge this. Which means there’s a problem — the whole Passover festival is obviously a fiction. And anyone who openly recognizes this is deemed “wicked” by the traditions of Passover itself.
The response seems to be to blur the definition of “wicked.” It was already somewhat blurry, given that the Four Children passage immediately follows “The Four Questions.” I even found one Haggadah that said, “There is no Seder without questions. Questions challenge the status quo and shatter silence.” (Again, of course, the implication is: ask questions, but make sure they’re the right ones. And don’t challenge too much of the status quo.) But many liberal Jews are going further, possibly renaming the wicked child the “isolated” child, asking whether “the wicked child actually adds something positive to the Seder” (same source), stressing the importance of individual interpretation (turning the wicked child’s question into a very relevant one), or otherwise stumbling toward the value of intellectual inquiry while trying to maintain the value of faith. At a Seder I attended with some extended family this year, we used a Haggadah that included many of these alternative interpretations in the sidebar, right alongside the text — so even as the ritual condemned the wicked child for being an outsider, we could read various Jewish thinkers explaining that being “wicked” wasn’t so bad after all.
While I suppose it’s good that religions manage to change over time, this reinterpretation does strike me as extremely awkward if not hypocritical. It strikes me as a patronizing attempt to pull nonbelievers back into the fold — to tell them, “Sure, you think the beliefs that define this religion are false — but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be part of this religion!” When they try to redefine the word “wicked” to mean good, useful, and insightful (last time I checked, the opposite of what wicked means), it becomes painfully obvious how much people are willing to twist their beliefs so they can hang on to their faith in spite of reality.