Why Asking Questions Is Good
The Haggadah that we read on Pesach was a response to the tragic loss of the Temple and Jewish political autonomy some 2,000 years ago. Its composers wanted to pay tribute to the Temple and all it stood for, and to find new ways of going forward that focused on study, prayer, and education. Its aim was to involve everyone rather than just the elite, which is why family and children play such an important part in the ceremony of the seder nights.
In the Haggadah, the wise child is the epitome of Jewish commitment and observance. The bad one is negative, derisive. I often wondered why the first child was not called the good or righteous one, which would have been a better counterpoint to the so called bad one. The simple one seems neutral or apathetic. The child who does not know how to ask has no position — ambivalent either because of circumstances or apathy. And everyone nowadays seems to have a favorite “fifth son,” who isn’t even present whether through compulsion or assimilation.
The earliest text to mention the four comes from around the third century, when Greco-Roman culture was the dominant influence throughout the Western and Middle Eastern worlds. At its cultural core was the symposium, first developed by the Greeks, which was an opportunity to celebrate material comfort, relaxing on couches and cushions, drinking fine wines and eating gourmet foods, enjoying music and songs, and above all, discussing and debating the philosophical truths and goals of life.
It is obvious that the seder was modeled on the symposium. The Talmud itself describes the scene in terms of servants bringing tables before the reclining guests, as the courses and wines changed — but with a Jewish spin. At its core was not philosophy, but Torah and historical as well as theological meaning: freedom from slavery and from other powers and ideologies.
In this context, the wise one is the philosopher — the one who thinks creatively about the meaning of life and the value of tradition. But not necessarily a saint. The wicked person could not care less about disciplines or structures. His is the pursuit of pleasure and materialism, and he will use rhetoric to justify his position. He is the Hedonist or the Epicurean.
In the Jerusalem Talmud and in the earliest Midrashic sources, the third child is referred to as the tipesh, the fool. At best, the simple or neutral son is open to persuasion either way. He or she is the guest at the symposium who has limited capacity and is primarily there for the food and drink rather than intellectual argument. The one who does not know how to ask is there as an innocent or unspoiled child, present because of their parents.
All of this is confirmed by the responses to each child. The response to someone who shows interest and commitment is to go into detail about the various categories and degrees of religious observance. The bad one negates Jewish identity whether it is historical, social, or religious. Since there is no common ground, there can be no constructive debate. As today, there is no room for dialogue if one’s worldview is simply the opposite.
The third child can be persuaded. If there is no deep religious commitment, he might at least feel some identification through family or society, which can be developed. The fourth one simply needs to be taught and engaged, gently — not by philosophical argument, but by experience.
The Talmud says that there are two responses to the question “why.” One is the historical and national. We were slaves and we have been freed. Such freedom requires a sense of history.
The other response is that once we were idol worshipers. This is not a national, historical commitment but a spiritual one. The purpose of the seder is to explore the options and alternatives. People being of different inclinations and intellects will find their own way and respond in accordance with their temperaments. It is concerned more with abstractions and the challenge of debate.
That is why the seder is full of ritual, strange customs, unusual sequences, and children participating and playing a role. All of this is an antidote to the ancient symposium format. This is a family occasion, not cultural entertainment.
I am reminded of a book by John Gray called Seven Types of Atheism. In it, he describes the different responses of secular, non-religious polemicists against religion. And there is a parallel in the debate over these four children.
On one side of the debate is religion. Against it, there are different aspects of atheism. For some, science has replaced religion. Religion is therefore superfluous to the modern mind, even if human anxiety and insecurity have not been addressed. Religion, it is claimed, despairs of human agency and that is why it leans towards Messianism. Divine intervention relieves us of responsibility for destroying ourselves and the world. Non-religious humanism takes responsibility and is proactive. Whereas religion reminds us of sin, inadequacy, and despair.
Then there is political atheism with a harsh ideology of compelled idealism — fascist or Marxist answers to human alienation and suffering. Such ideologies, whether religious or secular, automatically oppose religious individualism and almost always end up with some kind of antisemitism.
All of this is a struggle to understand, to solve, and to find the “true” path. And yet the majority of humans simply do not care. Their concerns are mundane — food, sex, pleasure, and perhaps work.
I like the Jerusalem Talmud’s preference for describing the third son, not as the tam, the simple or neutral one, but rather as the fool, the tipesh. And at this moment in time wherever I look, I see so many fools in charge of our affairs. Indeed, Ukraine has just elected a comedian as president.
Thus Pesach ends with the Song of the Sea, the wish for redemption, a better world and better governance. All this is something we need to talk about. Not push to the backs of our minds. The four children are us. What do we believe? Where are we going? And where do we want the world to go? Will we be proactive in bringing about improvement and change? Or will we fall back on expecting God to do it for us? We have been asking these questions for thousands of years. Many of us are still searching for answers.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.