Reconstructing the ‘Wise’ Child

Every year on Passover, we read the story about four kinds of children, four kinds of Torah students. The wise. The wicked. The simple. The one who knows not how to ask. It’s a personal favorite of mine, and it’s an element of the seder that has proved widely compelling over time; in every generation, the story is subject to all kinds of creative interpretation. Each year we see new artistic renderings and think pieces considering it from a wide variety of perspectives.

The four children story immediately precedes the telling of the main story of Passover and presents us with a disclaimer that not everyone will react to the Exodus story (or any aspect of Torah, for that matter) in the exact same way. It gives us a tool to understand the conversation and debate that will inevitably rise at a good seder table. I’m of the view that it’s also a reminder that we each have the capacity to inhabit not one, but all of these separate identities at various points in our own lives. No person is purely wicked or wise — we can each be interested when it comes to certain topics, apathetic when it comes to others, and from time to time we can all act rebellious in our own way.

But this Passover, as I think about the ways the story of the four children helps us to process our view of ritual life and tradition, I ran into a problem: I don’t think four archetypes are sufficient. Especially when considering the Judaism of our era, and even the Haskalah (Enlightenment) era that came before, there’s an important, major archetype missing from the group. Of the classic four children, there is no Kaplanian. There is no child who lovingly challenges traditional modes to grow, who pushes the community to move forward in new and important ways — not in the name of rebellion or rejection of Yiddishkeit, but in the name of progress and growth. Among the traditional archetypes, there is no clear Reconstructionist.

I’m far from the first person to notice this, and what I typically find in response to the problem are perspectives which reassess the “wicked” child. For example, in a piece titled The Wicked Son Is Actually the Best One! Miriam Krule offers the following interpretation:

I prefer to refer to the wicked son as the challenging child, a more alliterative, gender-neutral, and helpful way of looking at this character. As for her question, it sounds less evil to me than sensible. The idea of searching for meaning in practices, and understanding their motivations, is a natural one. Challenging the reasons behind tradition, and the logic underlying the holiday’s restrictions, can only lead to greater understanding and more honest practice. [1]

I like Krule’s interpretation, especially her definition of what a positive, “challenging” child can look like. But on the other hand, I think it’s still valuable to keep the wicked child conceptually wicked. This is because I don’t think the wicked child needs to be the “positive challenger” child at all, nor do I believe that challenging questions should be considered wicked. Rather, I think the wicked child is one who asks potentially good questions but in bad faith. We all have the capacity to make ill-intentioned, bad-faith arguments, which can put a stop to healthy dialogue even when the tough questions we’re asking are necessary and make all the sense in the world to ask. To me, that’s a great traditional lesson worth keeping; it’s not just about what we say to others that counts, it’s how we say it.

So, I’ve come to prefer a different approach. I’m interested in deconstructing — and reconstructing — not the wicked child, but the so-called “wise” one. After all, what’s so wise about them, anyway? Traditionally speaking, the attribute the rabbis value so highly in this child is not wisdom at all! It is paternalistic obedience.

In the original text, the wise child asks, “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?”

The traditional wise child does not ask why the seder is done. They ask how. What is most correct? What are the precise specifics of what must be done? This student does not ask new questions, only old ones. And so, the rabbis describe the wise child’s questions as wise not because of their intellect but because they ask how best to follow, how best to repeat classical modes with the aim of practicing Judaism as if there is a single “right way.” In an essay on the topic on Chabad.org, Aren’t the Wise Child and the Wicked Child Essentially the Same? Rabbi Aaron Moss comments on the more traditional view:

This is the wisdom of the wise child. He recognizes that his parents are the source of wisdom, not he, and so he needs to ask them questions, not the other way around. He looks to his parents for guidance, he seeks their input and their point of view, knowing that when it comes to life skills, his youthful energy and idealism are no match for the experience and mature insight of the older generation.

A wise child doesn’t come from nowhere. He comes from wise parents. Ask your children too many questions and they will stop asking you any. Give your children clear direction, and they will become wise too.[2]

I fundamentally disagree with Rabbi Moss’s notion of wisdom. Not only does this view limit the type of questions that should be most valued, but it also signals to the community what kinds of children are going to be most praised. If we give preferential treatment to the students who simply fit the mold of past generations, then we become a community of “copy and paste” Judaism, rather than a community that grows and evolves over time. We risk alienating the students who help us grow — students who might just turn out to be our most important teachers later on.

And from an institutional standpoint, nurturing this traditional version of the wise student also leads us into the trap of building a community that considers its ritual leadership as more valuable and righteous than others in the community, while narrowing the concept of what such a leader should look like. Interfaith marriage is an example: I think the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College took a great step forward in ordaining rabbis in interfaith relationships. I hope that other liberal Jewish institutions will follow suit. When institutions pursue the ideal that rabbis should be held to such different standards so as to set an example, they devalue both their potential students and the lay members of their communities. This policy communicates to the wider community that congregants are merely the tolerable “simple” children, while rabbis are the “wise” children. This enforces a top-down hierarchy which I think is unlikely to serve the community well in the coming years. The rabbinate should reflect the entire community, not just a small subset.

Today’s engaged Jews want to be involved in the dialogue, not merely sermonized. And today’s Jews demand better responses to age-old questions. One that I have been personally stymied by is the question of the historicity of Passover itself. Is the story actually true? What if the story we tell every year — the one about suffering Hebrew slaves and cruel Egyptian taskmasters — is simply a myth? Sure, lots of us no longer believe in the magic of the plagues or that the Red Sea really split down the middle. But there’s a prevailing idea within the liberal Jewish community (I would even describe it as a hope) that the Exodus story has to be connected to something real, to some genuine historical root. But when a child asks, as I did when I was younger, did the Passover story really happen? then which of the four children are we dealing with? Is that a categorically wicked question to ask?

Mordecai Kaplan understood the growing need for more honesty and integrity when answering challenging questions from young students. He wrote:

At the age of seven and eight children often begin to question the veracity of stories about miracles. Jewish teachers who feel the conclusion of science and anthropology inescapable begin to question the veracity of stories about miracles. Jewish teachers who find the conclusion of science and anthropology inescapable have given up the traditional religious beliefs. Yet most parents who send their children to a Hebrew school expect the teachers to indoctrinate their children with the belief in the historicity of theophanies and miracles. A great many Jewish teachers, who find themselves in the predicament of having to teach what they cannot conscientiously believe, arrive at a kind of solution which may be ingenious but hardly moral. It may be described by words which Emerson used with regard to the English when he said “Their Religion is Quotation.” They salve their consciences by completely depersonalizing themselves, as it were, and acting as mere transmitters of Jewish tradition …

But no child listening nowadays to a teacher’s half-hearted avowals of belief and ambiguous explanations will be strongly influenced to remain a Jew.[3]

As a former Orthodox day-school student, I had many teachers who acted exactly as Kaplan describes. On the one hand, I was taught that questions were at the heart of Jewish thinking, to question everything, but I was also regularly punished for asking what my teachers considered the wrong ones. And just as Kaplan suggests, at times I felt alienated and betrayed by the religious community when spiritual leaders avoided engaging with certain questions. I think the challenge of defining the Judaism of our time requires nurturing a new kind of wise child — one who isn’t afraid to challenge old ways of doing things, who seeks to understand the way forward while looking back with kindness and understanding. If we’re lucky, our children will learn much more than we are able to teach. For that to happen, we need to nurture growth and exploration, not obedience. We cannot respond to important questions and challenges with a shrug, nor can we accept apologetic answers to problematic traditions. Though we might not always have answers, we must never settle for a response of “It doesn’t matter.” We must ask the hard questions because that, I believe, is the wisest thing we can do.

[1] https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/04/wicked-son-the-passover-seders-black-sheep-is-actually-the-best-of-the-four-children-in-the-haggadah.html

[2] https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1497592/jewish/Arent-the-Wise-Child-and-the-Wicked-Child-Essentially-the-Same.htm

[3] https://kaplancenter.org/education/kaplan-quotations-on-jewish-education/

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