The Wicked Son is Misunderstood

I just finished an incredible book called, “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews” by David Mamet. I hate the Four Children section of the Passover Seder. Here’s my rant about why the Wicked Son is asking the right question and why the parental responses are flawed.
This is an unconventional post. It’s just something I needed to write.
I just finished reading “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews” by David Mamet.
There are many things in the book that I agree with, but the main thing I disagree with is the main premise of the book. In the Passover Haggadah there are the four children: wise, evil, simple and the one who does not know how to ask.
The wise child asks, What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that G‑d, our G‑d, has commanded to you?
This is not a great question. It doesn’t make you think. There’s an answer. If the wise child asks a question that someone could Google and find the answer…he’s not really a wise child. This child would be better categorized as the teacher’s pet. The one who only cares about following the rules, but not much else. They care less about the spiritual experience or examining their own Judaism. They want God to give them an A+ in basic Judaic knowledge.
The simple child asks, “what is this?”
The child doesn’t reference the story and therefore I would say it’s safe to assume he’s talking about the Seder and what its participants are doing. If your child asks, “what is this?” at your Seder then it’s highly likely your Seder doesn’t look like a Seder. It looks like a bunch of people around a table saying some Hebrew and retelling a story that everyone knows, while anxiously waiting for the dinner to start. This child is trying to figure out what this service means and the parents are (as usual) clueless to his question and tell him the skeleton of the Exodus story that he likely already knows.
The child who doesn’t know how to ask, the attentive observer, is told by his parents, “It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” I always thought that it was funny how this response mirrored the Wicked child’s question, but with one major distinction. This wasn’t posed as a question. So who’s really wicked?
Finally, the wicked son asks, “what does this story mean to you?”
Now this book, which I absolutely loved, follows the common interpretation that by saying “to you” he’s not including himself and thus has excluded himself from the Jewish community and rejected the fact that God brought him out of Egypt as well.
However, I think the wicked son asked a very important question. Why is this story, which is thousands of years old, still relevant?
There is no right answer, because everyone should have their own answer. Have you thought of your answer? Would it be wicked for me to suggest the possibility of the Exodus from Egypt not actually occurring in history but rather being an allegory. Does that make the story any less important to tell?
David Mamet’s book answers the question the same way that we the parents in the Haggadah respond to the children. The parents answer the question by putting the child’s teeth on edge and say, “It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” You’re supposed to emphasize that the Lord did it for you rather than your child because (as the Haggadah says) if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.
First of all. The Haggadah seems to have just laid out how to be a pretty bad parent. Don’t listen and be rude to your kids when they ask questions.
Both Mamet and the Haggadah parents distance themselves from these “wicked” people who are asking questions about their Judaism. Sometimes these questions may seem rude or insensitive, but those are attributes of the best questions.
Why is the wicked child’s question so bad?
Should he have said, “what does this story mean to us?”
No story from the Torah means one thing and one thing only to every single Jew on the planet. Notice that this question is sugarcoated with the word “us” because the answer that the parent would provide would still be what the story meant to the individual. Why? Because you can only answer what the story means to you personally, just like your Judaism is your own.
Maybe this “wicked” child already knows what the story means to him/her. Either way, this child’s question is pressing his parents and the adults around the Seder to think. It could inspire a moment of introspection into their Judaism. Sadly, it doesn’t work. The parents distance themselves from him, and as the Haggadah states, attempt to isolate him from all Jews by. That is the largest flaw with Mamet’s book and how these parents treat this child.
If your kid is asking questions about their Judaism or having doubts, the last thing you should ever do is push them away from you or the Jewish faith.
You might be asking yourself, what if my child is a jerk who asks a nasty question that separates himself from Judaism like “why do we celebrate Hanukkah? I want to celebrate Christmas like everyone else!” Now is your chance to talk to your child about their need to fit in. This was another part of Mamet’s book, the Jew naturally feeling like an outcast. Something that some Jews may not even have consciously considered. Ask yourself, have I ever felt like an outcast from society because I’m Jewish? I’ll admit that whenever the cashier at Whole Foods tells me “Merry Christmas,” I feel a little weird correcting her.
Now you might be thinking, “some people’s negative views of Judaism are already formed.” Completely agree. However, the wicked child is a child. His mind is not fully formed. We can give up on the fully formed hatred, but not on the young child who needs direction. If a teenager doesn’t question faith, they haven’t been thinking hard enough. It’s natural. I believe that an important, often forgotten, pillar of Judaism is analytical thought. Jews have always asked questions. Why else would we have so many books of biblical interpretation? The important thing is not to be afraid to ask new questions. That’s not easy. It’s easier to either ignore modern day ethics or view the Torah as outdated.
I’m not saying a good Jew asks good questions, I’m saying that a good Jew has their own questions. Our parents and other Jews may label those questions as wise, simple, wicked or non-existentant. That doesn’t make those questions any less important.
Why do I care about the Wicked Child so much? Because there’s more than a little of him in me, and I hope there’s some in you 😉
Two more thoughts:
Over this trip I’ve had long talks about Judaism with Jews from all over the world (Israel, Great Britain, Denmark. Sweden and all over the US). One thing that always amazed me is that they are as proud to be Jews as I am. It’s a reminder for me that Jews from all over the world love who they are. You and I are not alone in the fight to stay Jewish and love Israel.
I’ve always known that I’m a bit judgmental. It’s something that I’m working on. Labeling people as we do the Four Children is harmful. We can’t jump to conclusions solely after seeing the way people dress, pray, talk or ask questions. I’m in a melting pot of cultures here in Israel and I’ve learned a lesson these past few days about tolerance. It’s vital. As Jews, we are discriminated around the world and so we should know the importance of not judging a book by its cover. It’s hard because I’m living with artillery explosions going a few kilometers away from me and every time I go into town it is a little bit of a culture shock. Yet that’s how peace will be achieved. Love and tolerance for our neighbors.