Is the Haggada short on sons?

The Haggada’s authors divided Jews into groups referred to as “sons.”

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April 19, 2016 20:29
4 minute read.
Haggada

After treatment: Colorfully illustrated French- and Hebrew-language Haggada, Vienna, 1933. (photo credit: US NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)

 
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One story in the Passover Haggada falls short of contemporary diaspora reality: that of the sons. Today this breakdown of Jews into four categories leaves out many individuals due to the post-modern fragmentation among the wide array of Jewish people abroad.

The Haggada’s authors divided Jews into groups referred to as “sons.” The first is the “Wise Son,” and the second is the “Wicked Son,” seen as the Jewish outsider who questioned the significance of Jewish religious customs. The third is the “Simple Son,” and the fourth son is so ignorant he doesn’t even know what to ask. The last rabbi of the Chabad movement, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, already felt that four categories were insufficient. He added a fifth son – the one who doesn’t even show up to the Seder.

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Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), has indicated the sorry state of what is currently the largest Jewish movement in the United States. At the organization’s biennial meeting at the end of 2011 he said, “The fastest growing group in Jewish communal life is the lifelong unaffiliated and the lifelong uninspired.” About the URJ Jacobs said, “Eighty percent of our children are leaving the synagogue by the end of 12th grade.”

Following Rabbi Schneerson’s lead, in post-modern Diaspora societies one could indeed add a few more sons. The sixth could be the child of a mixed marriage who is brought up simultaneously in two different religious environments.

He may even attend the Seder. One might call him the “Confused Son.”

One could also add a seventh son – the one who expresses his Jewishness by attacking other Jews, or Israel. He may ask: why did God and the Jews oppress Pharoah and the Egyptians? One might call him the “Self-Hating Son.” Such a son may represent those who believe “let my people go” in modern times refers to so-called Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. In past centuries, some Jewish converts to Christianity showed an extraordinary hatred for Judaism. But they did not pretend that they were Jewish.

Today, many from this group of Jewish Israel-haters consider it an advantage to claim their Jewishness in order to make their incitement more effective. Many self-haters probably find the regular Seder too painful in view of the sufferings which eventually befell the Egyptians. They may feel the need to add sections emphasizing the evil perpetrated by the Jewish slaves on their Egyptian masters, and to demonstrate that the Egyptians really were the victims here.

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There may even be an eighth “Non-Son,” one who perhaps would like to be a stepson – the person who sometimes “feels Jewish,” whether among Jews, or in general when Israel is attacked or anti-Semitism is mentioned. In the Diaspora, the Seder ceremony is often also attended by non- Jews who are married to or friendly with Jewish family members, or simply interested in the Seder, one of the most broadly observed Jewish traditions today. This is also reflected in the number of suggestions for an interfaith Seder to be found in a Google search on the term. Seders have also become increasingly popular among Jews for Jesus and other Christian groups that find parallels between the story of Exodus and that of Jesus.

This multiplication of sons and frequent revision of the traditional Haggada, rather than symbolizing Jewish fecundity, offers an illustration of post-modernity and its fragmentation of Jewish identity. Traditional Jewish identity has changed, broken down and splintered, especially in recent years. Leading American sociologist Steven Cohen says, “in the 1960s, there was still largely a consensus that being Jewish was a matter of obligations. Such norms can derive from God, parents, nostalgia, tradition, halacha [ Jewish law], and/or belonging to the Jewish people. One could violate these, but then one felt guilty about it.” Cohen observed that for most American Jews nowadays, Judaism is an “aesthetic understanding” and being Jewish has increasingly become a matter of individual choice.

What Cohen says is confirmed by a variety of studies, including those from the Pew Research Center.

A 2013 study, titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that self-identification by Jews differs significantly from generation to generation. Ninety-three percent of the generation born between 1914 and 1927 identify as Jews on the basis of religion, while the remaining 7% see themselves as Jews with no religion. However of the generation born after 1980 only 68% self-identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and self-identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

Rather than subject the Haggada to typical post-modern extrapolation and extension, we should best let this ancient text stand as is. The Haggada is an educational book, a historical narrative in which Jews relay to their children the story of the Exodus and becoming a free people. In preference to adding new sons, we should let the story of the Haggada lead us on the Seder into a discussion of a viable sense of modern Jewish identity through shared consciousness and fate.

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