The wicked child at Passover

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.

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12 Comments

  1. This is a really good point that never occurred to me. I was at a Passover seder this week also, with my wife’s family – and the rabbi there also brought up the point about Jews being a people who think for themselves and argue with God. But sure enough, there was this part right in the middle of the service, specifically calling people wicked for not going along with Jewish traditions!

    These little bits of anti-intellectualism can slip by your conscious attention surprisingly easily, if you’re not keeping an eye out for them. But on a subconscious level, I have no doubt, they do their damage by discouraging doubt and critical thinking – even in a religion as liberal as Judaism can be.

  2. Amen, well said.
    As long as you stay with the tribe, wave our flag and teach your children what you have been taught ….

  3. Anonymous

     /  May 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    I thought the point was that the child couldn’t empathize with the plight of the fictional Israelis. The key to that entire passage is the fact that he says “you” instead of “us”. He is wicked not because he rebukes the religion, but because he refuses to associate himself with his people.

    Sorry, I was actually google searching something completely different and stumbled on this page. Regardless, the story is made up.

  4. Actually, the child is called “wicked” because he denies reality by excluding himself from his national history and thereby his identity as a Jew.

    Not only does Judaism encourage logical inquiry, but one of the heights of this inquiry is meant to be AT THE SEDER. Many of the seder traditions were formed specifically to seem odd, so that children will ask WHY – Among other things, the seder is meant to train children to question their religious practice, to show them that religious life should not be practiced by rote, but rather based on understanding and genuine conviction.

  5. The wicked child is labeled “wicked” for excluding himself – for making his history and the seder irrelevant to him (ie “If none of this happened to me, why should I bother?”) By making his history irrelevant, he exempts himself from the need to ask about his history.
    The wicked son seems to be asking a question, but by his choice of words, it is apparent that the question is almost rhetorical. He seems to be going along with the Jewish tradition of questioning, but he’s just going through the motions to exempt himself, and isn’t really bothered to hear an answer, as he has already made it clear that it’s all irrelevant to him.

  6. Ori, thanks for your comments. I think there are two key things that you are missing about my argument, though.

    1. The exodus story didn’t happen to anybody. The “wicked” child is correct for excluding himself from this history, because it isn’t his history — it isn’t anyone’s history. It’s a fiction.

    2. There does exist a Jewish tradition of questioning, but it’s one of questioning only the sanctioned topics. Ask to find out the meaning of each step in this ritual, but don’t ask whether this ritual is worth it in the first place. Ask about what sorts of practices are mitzvot in the eyes of the Jewish god, but don’t ask why we think that god exists in the first place. And so on.

  7. I’m joining this debate a bit late, after doing some research of my own regarding the wicked child. I too was shocked upon rereading that this kid is being treated SO harshly (not sure I as a parent would ever tell my kids that they wouldn’t be worthy of redemption) for a question that I think is quite relevant: what does this mean to YOU?
    But I think the thing to keep in mind is that this child has been included for to fulfil the archetypal wicked/evil role and that his question doesn’t come with good intentions. It’s like a cute kid asking “Mommy, why are your legs fat?” and a mean kid asking “Mommy, why are your legs fat?” Different answers are required to address different intentions.
    Secondly, you write early on that most modern Jews agree that the story is fictitious, but you rebutted an argument by saying that we can’t question the existence of God. I suggest you revisit your modern Jewish community, because in the community within which I find myself, there are plenty of people who challenge our rituals, choose not to participate, or choose not to believe in God–and they are not looked down upon. It seems to me you have conflicting, superficial views on what modern Jews will and will not accept.

  8. Femke, thanks for your comment. I think you are right that my observations about what modern Jews believe are “conflicting,” but I would argue that’s because being a “modern Jew” (i.e. secular, acknowledging science and history, and continuing to go through the motions of Jewish observance) is fraught with internal conflict. It seems strange to me that people who don’t think the Passover story actually happened in history, and who don’t think it’s wicked to ask critical questions, would go on to celebrate Passover the way that they do.

  9. Aristarchus

     /  January 21, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I think the real point isn’t that the parent’s reaction is harsh, but that in the little parable about a wicked child, the archetypal thing for the wicked child to do is question the existence of God. That’s the evil action. And it clearly says that that question is out of bounds.

    As for why it doesn’t fit with “modern” Judaism (by which I assume you mean the Reform/Reconstructionist/Conservative branches), I would argue that the real reason it’s so conflicting is that the story wasn’t written by them at all. It was written by very orthodox people a very long time ago. Modern liberal Jews tend to have a lot of really great values and cultural traditions, but seem incapable of (explicitly) letting go of some traditions, even when those traditions (like, the entire religion) are inconsistent with those great values.

  10. which hagaddah was it?

  11. Bill Breuer

     /  April 14, 2014 at 9:33 am

    thank you – provocative and interesting. I was always troubled by the definition of the sceptical son as ‘wicked’, which he may not necessarily be at all, and also by the very harsh, even aggressive reaction he receives to his question. Your analysis is very enlightening, but not totally fair. I read in the Chabad site that their rebbe said that not only should they not reject the wicked son, but they should go and find the 5th son, who did not even bother to come to the seder. I am no friend of the Chabad movement, but just wanted to bring to your attention that there are different views on this even within orthodox judaism.

  12. Ingrid Shank

     /  December 11, 2014 at 7:23 am

    I am a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. And I have always felt like an outsider (who wanted to belong) and identified with the wicked child, and appreciated that at the Seders I have attended there have always been questions of all kinds. I like the Chabad idea of going out to find the fifth child. Just felt like joining the conversation.

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