What should you say to today's wicked child?

The wicked son what does he say? “What does this service mean to you?” To you and not to him. Since he has removed himself from the community, he has denied the fundamentals of the faith. Therefore, you should blunt his teeth and say “because of that which God did for me when I came out of Egypt”. For me and not for him, had he been there, he would not have been redeemed. The Pesach Haggadah


By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, March 25, 2010
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The wicked son, as drawn by artist Miki Amit

The wicked son, as drawn by artist Miki Amit

I have always been fascinated by the rebellious, wicked child of the Seder and our relationship to him. Although part of the family, he gets a bad press. The rabbis were repelled by this questioner since in his question, he makes no mention of God; neither does he show any interest in the Seder, dismissing Judaism as tiresome "service" and when asking about the meaning of our rituals, he speaks about what the Seder means "to you", thus excluding himself from the community. Whereas a scholar who sins may receive some grudging respect from the Jewish community, this character who seems intellectually idle and evades his Jewish responsibilities is treated with contempt. Even the playwright David Mamet, in his book The Wicked Son, dismisses him with the retort, "You're not wicked, you're just a goy!"

But some of our rabbis recognised in the wicked son a more sophisticated line of questioning. For the Netziv (1816-1893), he represents those who are desperately searching for the relevance of our religion. "Tradition is nice, but what does it mean to us? Why are we bound by the historical experience and religious beliefs of our ancestors?" they ask. They appreciate why the people who came out of Egypt were obligated to thank God for their salvation, but they are unsure what this has to do with succeeding generations. In an age where personal autonomy and expression have become supreme values, such questions are becoming increasingly common and crucial for young Jews.

The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks sees the wicked son as someone struggling with his Jewish identity, whose parents pushed him into religious observance and cautioned him not to marry out of the faith, but showed no sign of interest or passion for their own Judaism. Now, he asks: "Mum and Dad, what does this mean to you?"

The idea that the wicked child is genuinely searching for religious meaning features in the commentary of the great Chasidic rabbi, Yisrael Kohznitz (1740-1814). He recognised that many young people around him were having difficulty uncovering the spirituality in Jewish life. In our own times, yoga and New Age practices offer clear spiritual messages, but many young people struggle to find spirituality at Jewish ceremonies and celebrations where so much of the focus seems to be on dressing up and eating. "Where is God in all this?" they cry in frustration.

Why are we bound by the religious beliefs of our ancestors?

Often in response, they receive not a thoughtful answer, but a "blunting of their teeth", a harsh counterattack laced with contempt for their inability to understand our texts and tradition. Such rebuttals may once have had the power to bring such questioners back into line, but today, our highly sophisticated and well-educated young people find such rejection totally unedifying. Rodger Kamenetz in his book The Jew in the Lotus describes how thousands of young men and women fail to find satisfaction in their Jewish heritage, and so they desert the Jewish community and seek spirituality elsewhere.

In recent years, we can add one more group to the camp of the wicked son; people who take pride in Israel, but harbour profound and searching questions about the integrity of its policies regarding Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. They come to the Seder table with a profoundly religious agenda: they search for justice, but they find themselves ostracised for their "treachery" and for distancing themselves from some of the actions of the Israeli government.

The traditional response to the wicked son is expressed by the Malbim. He states that there is little point in answering the wicked son's attacks, since by distancing himself from the nation, this child demonstrates that he is not interested in answers and will never be satisfied with any explanation. He is a lost cause: the only point in responding is to remind ourselves of the correct position so that we are not contaminated by our engagement with him.

But there is another approach. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach stated that "wicked sons" are very rare. Ironically, the sharpest questioners are often not the wicked ones at all; on the contrary, they are the most idealistic, religiously-minded people, who simply cannot bear the inconsistencies that they find within our Jewish communities. He pointed out that many rabbinic students want to be rabbi to those who are embracing Judaism, but who will be the rabbi to those who stand on the sidelines, disconnected from their people and dissatisfied with their religion?

My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, teaches that the wicked son needs to be engaged with love. While most commentaries suggest that to "blunt the teeth of the wicked son" means to respond forcefully, Rabbi Riskin takes a different approach. He says "blunting their teeth" means calming the ferocity of their anger by embracing the rebels and reminding them they remain integral to the Jewish community. Once we connect to them and engage in a serious, spiritual and intellectually robust discussion, there is a chance that together we can resolve their questions.

The wicked child is perhaps not always so wicked, after all. He may speak arrogantly and he may not yet play his full part in communal life, but he teaches us important lessons. He reminds us that the Jewish people have a great mission and highlights where we are not yet meeting the challenge. Our response must be one of humility and of vision; recognising those areas in which we must improve, while reminding him that for all their faults, our Jewish communities still do an outstanding job of setting and maintaining the highest spiritual standards.

Gideon Sylvester is the rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel

    Last updated: 11:37am, March 25 2010