Sunday, January 5, 2014

Educating Rebellious Children: Exclusion or Engagement?

Drawing from a 1920 Haggadah depicting the Four Sons (by Yiddish cartoonist Lola)

Every Passover, when we sit at the seder table with our families, we read a passage in the Haggadah that makes me cringe.

It’s the passage about the “Four Sons” – the famous Midrash about four types of children who ask questions about the Passover rituals and receive varying answers tailored to their personalities.

We have the “Wise Son” (chacham), the “Wicked Son” or “Rebellious Son” (rasha), the “Simple Son” (tam), and the “One Who Does Not Know How to Ask” (she’eyno yode’ah lishol).

This Midrash is based on 3 references in this week’s parasha, Bo, and an additional reference in Deuteronomy. In each of the references, we find a verse about our children asking us to explain the meaning of the Passover rituals (except for the child who cannot yet ask questions - in which case the parents initiate the conversation), and the Midrash attributes these four verses to four types of personalities.

Here is a table showing the verses and to whom they are attributed (translation: New American Standard Bible): 


Wise Son
When your son asks you in time to come, saying:  ‘What do the testimonies, statutes, and judgments mean which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 
 (Deut. 6:20)
Rebellious Son
And when your children say to you: ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ 
(Exodus 12:26)
Simple Son
And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying:
 ‘What is this?’ 
(Exodus 13:14)
The Son
 Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask
You shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.' 
(Exodus 13:8)

As you will note from the table above, the Midrash puts in the mouth of the Rebellious Son a question that is quite similar to the other questions.  

Interestingly, the Haggadah's answer contradicts the Torah's answer.  

The Torah’s answer to this question is in the next verse:

You shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ (Exodus 12:27)

HOWEVER, the Midrash – and consequently the traditional Haggadah– gives an entirely different answer:

He says 'to you', but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, must blunt his teeth and say to him: "'It is because of this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt'; 'for me' — but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!" 

This mean-spirited response has always spoiled for me the festive mood and atmosphere of unity at the seder table.

Many commentaries have grappled with this bewildering Midrash, explaining why this question was  attributed to the Rebellious Son, and why the Midrash strays from the Torah's response to this question, replacing it with a harsh, "blunt his teeth" response.   



Nehama Leibowitz, the great Torah scholar, discusses these  commentaries in her book "New Studies in Shemot," and analyzes several interpretations showing that this question - in contrast to the other similar questions - is indicative of an attitude mocking the Passover rituals. 

But I want to address an even more basic question.  Why hurl such a nasty response?  This response demeans the child, and only serves to reinforce his feeling of exclusion!  

Obviously, the "Rebellious Child" has serious issues with religion. But is this kind of response the proper way to deal with those issues? Moreover, aren't all children and students "rebellious" in the sense that they often ridicule what seems important to adults?!

In life we are bound to encounter people who mock the ideas and values that we cherish. It is guaranteed that we will hear people bashing ideals close to our heart, or making racist and offensive remarks. What should be our reaction? Should we literally or metaphorically blunt their teeth?

In my view, the Haggadah's response is counterproductive and morally bankrupt. Answering him this way only assures that he will stray even further from religion, and it creates unnecessary strife and machlokes at our seder table.


Let's look at another type of response. This is the response of President Obama's father, also named Barack, who found himself in a situation where he had every right to literally blunt the teeth of a man who made an insulting and racist remark.  Yet Barack Obama Sr. chose a different path. Read the story, as recounted in President Obama's autobiography Dreams from My Father:


According to the story, after long hours of study, my father had joined my grandfather and several other friends at a local Waikiki bar. Everyone was in a festive mood, eating and drinking to the sounds of slack-key guitar, when a white man abruptly announced to the bartender, loudly enough for everyone to hear, that he shouldn’t have to drink good liquor “next to a nigger.” The room fell silent and people turned to my father, expecting a fight. Instead, my father stood up, walked over to the man, smiled and proceeded to lecture him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man. “This fella felt so bad when Barack [Obama’s father] was finished,” Grampa would say, “that he reached into his pocket and gave Barack a hundred dollars on the spot. Paid for all our drinks and puu-puus for the rest of the night —and your dad’s rent for the rest of the month.

Obama’s father must have had to restrain himself. Obama Sr. certainly could have cursed the white racist or started a fight - and that would be understandable. But, instead, he engaged in conversation which had a transformative effect on the white man. 

People will never be open to seeing a different side of an issue or rethinking a deeply-held belief if they are being insulted, demeaned or accused. It’s only through the difficult path of continued conversation and mutual engagement that people slowly change their perceptions and opinions.

In this spirit, I looked for a new commentary on the Four Sons, and found a new interpretation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi. In his book Yishmru Daat, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi has offered a text which can be substituted for the traditional one. It presents a four-dimensional kind of enneagram which is both universal and useful for teaching children:

The Torah speaks of Four Children:
One a lamden / Sharp Student,
One a chossid / High Emotional Quotient,
One a tamim / Good One, and
One she-ayn lo shum s’fekut u’b'eyot / One Who Does Not Doubt or Question.
. . .

The High Emotional Quotient one, what does he say? “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26). So you will make an effort to reign in his longings, for he also wants to be a part of the integrity and perfection that comes with meaningful rituals. If you are loving, then he will understand devekut / cleaving, and he will get a taste of what it means to feel close to God.
Reb Zalman (as he is affectionately known) has transformed the “wicked son” into a “High Emotional Quotient," meaning someone who disdains rituals, and his Judaism is more emotional, as he connects, perhaps, with art, drama, and music rather than dry, repetitive rituals.

And what a beautiful answer! According to Reb Zalman, the appropriate response is to invest a lot of time and effort with the student – helping him understand how rituals can enrich our lives. 

Whereas the author of the Haggadic text chose the easy path of exclusion, Reb Zalman offers us the more difficult path of engagement. Engaging with someone who mocks our values is certainly not easy, but it is much more productive and effective.  

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