The “Wicked” Child of the Pew Study
by Rabbi Danny Burkeman
Pesach is coming, and at sedarim across the Jewish community we will once again label four children as wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. I have always struggled with this part of the seder for two reasons. All of my work with young people has taught me that we should avoid labeling children because it gives them a negative message, often encouraging them to live up to the label we ascribe. And on a secondary level, I have always found it hard to understand why the respective questions correspond to the labels which the Hagaddah gives them.
While we could analyze each of the children and their corresponding labels, I would like to devote my focus on the wicked child. He asks: “What does this service mean to you?” The Hagaddah’s preoccupation is on the fact that the question says “you”, suggesting that this child no longer identifies with the Jewish people; he is therefore told, in no uncertain terms, that if he had been there he would not have been saved from Egypt. But in reality, one could see this as a question seeking to understand what is happening by looking at it through another person’s eyes. The “wicked” child might not feel a connection to the seder, but he is still seated around the table trying to understand the relevance and meaning for others.
In light of the recent Pew study, this question and this child has taken on a new significance for me. A great deal of attention was given to the study’s finding that 22% of the American Jewish community today identify as Jews of no religion. The study said of them that they “are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.” (see here; page 8) But despite this label, according to the study, 42% of Jews of no religion still attended a seder last year, assuming their place around the table.
With this growing group in the Jewish community, we might reconsider the question of the supposedly wicked child: “What does this service mean to you?” Using the Pew study’s categories, surely this is the question the “Jews of no religion” could conceivably ask the “Jews by religion”. In this context, the “you” in the question does not symbolize that the group no longer identifies as part of the Jewish community. Rather it symbolizes a struggle to find meaning in Jewish religious life. In seeking meaning, they are still seated around our communal table, identifying as Jews, and they ask others to help provide them with an insight into the meaning.
If we offer this group the answer suggested by the Hagaddah, not only do we fail to answer their question, but we further alienate them from Jewish religious life, and by extension the organized Jewish community. The Hagaddah solidifies a “them” and “us” approach by excluding them from the formative experience of Jewish history, our Exodus from Egypt. And once we exclude them from our communal history what likelihood is there that they will want to be part of our shared future? Their voice will be silenced, but unlike the child who does not know how to ask, who is silent due to an inability to question, their silence will come because they have removed themselves from our communal table.
It is wonderful that in twenty-first century America, people continue to identify as Jews despite feeling no connection to the religion. In this group we can either see a threat or an opportunity. The Hagaddah’s response to the question comes from a place of fear, feeling threatened by this group and trying to coerce them back into the fold. Instead, we can see the opportunity to try and find ways to help this group find meaning in Jewish religious life. It may not have the same focus as the Judaism of our grandparents, but it can still be rooted in Jewish history and tradition, inspiring them to a deeper Jewish connection.
In this way, the question “What does this service mean to you?” is a wonderful one for us to answer. One may find meaning in the story of the Exodus as a way to find a connection to God, through God’s relationship to the Jewish people. Or perhaps the meaning comes from our slavery experience which compels us to be socially active in the world on behalf of others. Or maybe there is meaning in the seder as a chain linking us back through our history, but also forward into the future with the emphasis on teaching our children. We can each share our personal understanding of the seder to offer them a variety of ways to find a connection.
The Hagaddah provides us with just one answer. Today, with so many possible responses to this question, rather than pushing this group away, we can instead find ways to answer this question with meaning and love to deepen their Jewish connection. Then, perhaps at next year’s seder, they will not ask this question but instead answer it for others, sharing the meaning that they have found.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a Rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY. He is currently a board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.