Posts Tagged ‘Seder’
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.
It’s Passover time again. Which means it’s time, if you’re Jewish and observe the traditions, for that archaic, baffling, weirdly compelling ceremony called the Seder.
For those who don’t know the terminology: the Seder is the ritual meal for Passover eve, performed the first evening of Passover in Israel, the first and second evenings everywhere else. The Haggadah is the manual for the ceremony, written mostly in Hebrew, a little bit in Aramaic. Only it wasn’t exactly written, but rather accumulated, as ritual texts tend to be, over the centuries, the stages of its growth silent, obscure, mysterious. Like so much else about this book and the ritual it accompanies.
Nominally, the Seder is a re-enactment of the Passover meal prescribed in the twelfth chapter of Exodus, for the evening before the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. But you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see how radically the centuries have transformed it. The drinking of four cups of wine, unmentioned in the Bible, is pivotal to the Seder as we know it. We’re often told that Jesus’s Last Supper was a Seder. But this is based only on the claim that it was a Passover meal; in fact none of the distinctive features of the Seder turn up in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. The first clear evidence of a ritual that more or less resembles the Seder is in the rabbinic text called the Mishnah, from early in the third century CE.
From time to time efforts are made to modernize the Seder, to make it more “relevant” and less cryptic. For a few years, when I was a little boy, we recited an addition to the Seder that commemorated the dead of the Holocaust. In the 1960s, progressive-minded Jews devised something called “the Freedom Seder,” which turned the Seder into a vehicle of instruction for social justice. The innovations faded; the Seder remained. Its power lies precisely in its being archaic, dreamlike, only half intelligible, a muffled voice from far back in the communal soul. “Deep calleth unto deep” (Psalm 42:8), that is, from the communal unconscious to the unconscious of the participants, and the unconscious tends not to speak in complete and clear sentences. (Just ask the Delphic oracle.)
“How different is this night from all other nights!” exclaims the preamble to the “four questions” recited near the beginning of the ritual, which aren’t really questions and in any case are never answered. The phantasmagoric jingle of the “only kid” (Had Gadya), sung at the very end, sticks in the mind like the gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel,” which like “Had Gadya” makes very little real-world sense and yet speaks to something beyond ordinary reality.
When I was in college, I came under the influence of one professor who was deeply influenced by the theories of David Daube, who saw the Seder as the matrix out of which the Gospels emerged. Later I became fascinated by the idea of the Seder as a survival of the Greco-Roman custom called the “symposium,” the intellectual drinking-party where the amount of wine to be drunk is prescribed at the outset, and a topic for serious discussion proposed and pursued. (Love, in Plato’s Symposium; the exodus from Egypt, in the Seder.) This was a symposium, a la Plato and Socrates, preserved as if in amber down to the twentieth century. And the Passover meal, which in my childhood had taught the lesson that we Jews are different and set apart, became paradoxically a marker of our deeper connection with the cultures around us.
So will history teach us what the Seder is really about? Or do we need to dive deeper, into the murky realms of Freud and Jung, if we’re to get some handle on it—to make the unconscious conscious, the latent manifest? The Seder feeds nicely into the Jungian notion of the “quaternity” archetype. Fours are everywhere: the four prescribed cups of wine, the four “questions,” the four “sons” who are envisioned as asking their questions. Can this be coincidence? I ask portentously. Hmmm …
And the “four sons” are a story unto themselves.
I’ll post about them next week.