Just a Thought: On the Four Sons

Now is the time to use our definitions as foundations of strength and reemerge from our self-imposed corners to reunite as a single people.

PASSOVER HAGGADA, 1930 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After Elijah, the most famous guests to grace the Passover Seder are the Four Sons. We are told that one is Wise, one is Wicked, one is Simple, and one Doesn’t Even Know to Ask.
The brilliance of the Haggada is that it can be reinterpreted anew by Jews of different eras and different geographical communities.
For me, the Four Sons represent the four generations of American Jewry.
The first generation is embodied by the Wise Son, the Hacham. The Wise Son acquired his wisdom through long hours of studying Torah in the best of Europe’s yeshivot before the Holocaust. But alas, the pogroms and persecutions were too much for him to bear, so he fled Europe for the “Goldeneh Medina”: America. Arriving in the early 20th century, he tried his best to make a living on the Lower East Side of New York by peddling on Henry Street. Most days, the Wise Son sold nothing, but his Shabbat observance prevented him from being gainfully employed anywhere else and all but damned him to a life of poverty.
The Rasha, the Wicked Son, followed the Wise Son. Born in America, he was embarrassed by his Wise father and his Old World ways. He was embarrassed by his father’s Yiddish accent and the Judaism that he represented. The Rasha rebelled against it all in his attempt to assimilate and distance himself from his dad. He traded his kichel for apple pie and his yarmulke for a baseball hat, disdaining any connections to his past.
The Rasha’s son is the Tam, the Simple Son. Tommy was raised by his Wicked father, but enjoyed a relationship with his Wise grandfather. Although Tommy received no Jewish education and never attended synagogue services, his grandfather pressured his father, the Rasha, to give him a bar mitzva. Although the emphasis was more on the bar than on the mitzva, Tommy at least knew he was Jewish and even attended a few Passover Sedarim that his grandfather led.
Tommy’s son is the Ben She’eino Yodea Lishol, the one who Doesn’t Even Know to Ask. Ben was raised by his Simple father Tom and had the Rasha for a grandfather. The Rasha did not prevail upon Tom to make a bar mitzva, and he certainly did not make a Passover Seder for his son and grandson to attend.
Sadly Ben barely knows he is Jewish and doesn’t even know what the questions are when it comes to exploring his heritage, should he choose to do so.
YET THESE four represent but one slice of life for many American Jews in the 20th century.
In the 21st century, we need to be smarter and more welcoming. We seem to have spent the last hundred years trying to draw lines that define us as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, haredi, secularist, humanist, and “just Jewish.”
Now is the time to use our definitions as foundations of strength and reemerge from our self-imposed corners to reunite as a single people.
I am not talking about a wishy-washy “kumbaya” moment. No one needs to yield their deeply held beliefs. An Orthodox Jew and a Reform Jew are still going to disagree fundamentally about the nature of God and mitzvot (and this is a good thing). I am a believer in competition. Competition not only improves the selling of the product, but enhances the consumer experience.
What I am looking for is more respect between the tribes. As an Orthodox Jew, I do not believe that Reform Judaism is correct. In fact, I think it is wrong.
But I respect those who practice it and believe deeply in their right to be wrong, and I would hope that Reform Judaism can afford me the same right and respect.
As the Eternal People, we need not fear the long arc of history and should let Providence decide who is correct. Until that time, let’s concentrate on the stuff that we do agree on.
The Passover Seder is an occasion on which Jews of all kinds gather from all over to be together for one brief moment. At our Sedarim this year, we have an opportunity to gather all Four Sons together and discuss the meaning of Jewish peoplehood. The Seder is modeled on the ancient symposium in which learned individuals would gather to discuss important subjects that required measured thought and intellectual acumen. Let’s bring those resources together at our Seder and try to discuss with our fellow Jews a fifth question not mentioned in the Haggada: “Now that we have left Egypt and have an incredible sovereign state with a strong Diaspora, where do we go from here?”
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many posthigh- school yeshivot and seminaries.