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The Haggadah and the ‘wicked child’

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A seder plate. (Judah Gross/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“What is this service to you?” the Haggadah quotes the wicked child asking. Since he disassociates himself from his community, he is considered a “kofer b’ikar,” a heretic.

That we would categorize a child – any child — as wicked is a troubling idea. While Jewish commentators offer a number of interesting ways to address this discomfort, such interpretations are often unsatisfying. When I was last in Israel, I heard a valuable insight from Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, on the matter.

What is a heretic? The two major western religions, Christianity and Islam, offer a theological response – one who denies the divinity of Jesus, and one who denies that Muhammad was the greatest of the prophets and received the Koran directly from God, respectively. But according to our Haggadah, a heretic is one who separates from the community (klal). This is not a theological matter. The text is not challenging the child’s belief system. Rather, it explicitly focuses upon disassociating oneself from the community.

That is a Jewish heresy. Our sages understood something profound about the nature of the Jewish people: there is plenty of room for disagreement and debate about theological matters. However, there can be no debate about community and one’s attachment to it.

This raises a question: if there is room in Judaism for every type of belief and action, then what exactly is Judaism? Are there any parameters to membership in the Jewish community?

The contemporary Jewish thought leader, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, addresses this question.  In his essay, “Toward a Principled Pluralism,” he identifies the key elements that are vital to Jewish communal cohesion: shared historical events, shared suffering, shared responsibility, and shared actions. As long as one shares these items within the Jewish community, one is a member of the community.

Thus, Rabbi Greenberg suggests that subgroups of the Jewish community, like Jews for Jesus, are excluded from the covenant of fate because, as a group, they have chosen to disassociate themselves from the greater community. When it comes to Israel, Rabbi Greenberg does not refer for exclusion those individuals who oppose certain policies and practices of the country. Rather, his aim is at those who work to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel. He identifies certain right wing religious groups such as the Neturei Karta, who continually call for the overthrow of the government of Israel, and applies the same principle to “radical assimilationists and anti-Zionist universalists.” Rabbi Greenberg rightly recognizes that if the State of Israel is delegitimized, there would be untold suffering within the Jewish people and it would negate the our shared historical connection to the land.

READ: TYTEL: TO HOST OR NOT TO HOST: THAT IS THE QUESTION

When we gather around our seder tables this year and read the Haggadah’s text regarding the wicked child, we should remember that we are not addressing those who have repudiated any religious practice or theological positions. Indeed, the four criteria of the covenant of fate provide a wide spectrum to include the overwhelming majority of Jews into a very broad and welcoming tent.

But at the same time we have to recognize that there are indeed parameters to Jewish communal pluralism. Those who would convert us to another religion, and those who seek to delegitimize and dismantle the State of Israel have indeed broken with the covenant of fate and are kofer b’ikar.

When it comes to the wicked child, the Haggadah prescribes that we must hakhey et shenav, literally “blunt his teeth.” Elie Wiesel translated the phrase more liberally as “to make them feel uncomfortable.” Either way, the “wicked” children sit at the seder table so that they can receive instruction, perhaps uncomfortably. We must ensure that our community provides forums for frank and thorough dispute and debate without shaking the fundamental consensus that bestows legitimacy to who we are as a covenantal people.