When thy son shall ask thee in time to come, saying …
The Bible envisions different questions, apparently posed by different sons, all to the same effect: why do we Jews do this, that, or the other thing? From the character of the question, one infers the character of the questioner. So, voila, the rabbis who put together the Passover Haggadah came up with a mini-story involving a quaternity of “sons.” One “wise,” one “wicked,” one “simple.” Plus a fourth, “who does not know how to ask.”
The four may once have been three. So many scholars infer from rabbinic parallels to the Haggadah’s four sons. This doesn’t disturb me, at least not very much. A trinity—like the capital-T Christian Trinity—is a mutilated quaternity (says Jung), or perhaps an embryonic one struggling toward perfection in the Four. Yet in the Haggadah, this perfection seems flawed. The four species of “son” aren’t convincingly distinguished from one another. How does the simple son differ from the one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question? Isn’t the latter also “simple,” just a little bit simpler?
This question, and the whole passage of the four sons, came to my mind the first time (or maybe the second or third) I saw the wonderful 1989 comedy “The Dream Team.” Here’s the story:
A quartet of patients from a New Jersey mental hospital, brought to New York City to see a baseball game, have to fend for themselves after their doctor is set upon and beaten senseless by two vicious cops-gone-bad. Not only that: they have to rescue him from the bad guys, who know that the doctor has seen them commit murder and that dead men don’t talk. Who are the four members of this “dream team”? There’s fussy, officious Henry (Christopher Lloyd), addicted to the authority and prestige of the doctor’s white coat. Bad-boy Billy (Michael Keaton), given to mouthing off and lacking in—shall we say, impulse control? Jack (Peter Boyle), a former adman with a Messiah complex. And autistic Albert (Stephen Furst), who doesn’t talk at all except to blurt out slogans he’s heard from the baseball announcers on TV.
You see where I’m headed. A group of four, of whom one is at least would-be “wise,” another at least conventionally “wicked,” and one who can’t or won’t talk. OK—Bible-quoting Jack doesn’t match the “simple son” very well. But three out of four ain’t bad.
Coincidence? Direct influence of the Haggadah on the Dream Team’s creators? Or an archetypal pattern, cropping up in the most diverse places, ancient Jewish ritual and cinematic comedy?
While you ponder this, let me pose another question, probably unrelated. What does the Haggadah’s “wicked son” say or do that’s so very awful?
“The wicked son, what does he say? ‘What does this service mean to you?’ (Exodus 12:26). ‘To you’ and not to him. Since he removes himself from the community and denies God, you must set his teeth on edge: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8). ‘For me’ and not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
Of course we imagine the wicked son speaking these words with a contemptuous sneer: “What does this service mean to you?”
But do we have to? Maybe think of the question being asked earnestly, seriously, sympathetically, by an anthropologist to the people whose folkways she spends her life studying. What’s so dreadful about it? How is it different from the questions I posed, to Judaism and to the other religions I studied all my academic life? What does it mean to you?—spoken not with contempt but with scholarly detachment, out of the objective stance we all know is unattainable, but which it’s the scholar’s responsibility to strive for.
I once thought of writing a book on the Passover Seder called “The Haggadah of the Wicked Son,” which would speak up in his defense. Show his question emerging not from malice but from objectivity and integrity.
Now that I’ve left academia, though, I’m not so sure.
Isn’t there something a touch wicked, a touch dishonest, in what we do as academic students of religion, living and believing vicariously through the faith of others, which we’re prepared at any time to disavow and take our distance from? Do we immerse ourselves in others’ creeds because we can’t bring ourselves to declare our own? Or to face the reality that we have no religious beliefs (or perhaps even disbeliefs) that are truly ours, and the implications of that?
Might we not even be—and I know I’m using very extreme language here—a sort of spiritual undead, subsisting on the blood of those who are alive in a way we can’t be?
Questions to ponder, as Passover 2011 fades into darkness.