Wednesday, April 27, 2005

That Inner Wicked Son

When one grows up in a very regimented society, it's not unexpected to have very clear examples of the right way to live one's life constantly pointed out. Conversely, it's also not uncommon to have many examples of the absolute wrong way to conduct oneself also highlighted. In both subtle and straightforward ways, one can often hear the messages conveyed of "how a ben-torah is supposed to behave", or how one shouldn't do X because "that's how shkotzim act", etc. Most of the time I'm sure these messages have their intended effect of influencing individuals to conform to the prescribed image. Yet there are also times when, even as one professes loyalty to the stated dogma, one can't help sense a flicker of uncertainty regarding these portrayals, because deep down, one feels some sort of connection to the questionable activity. And not just in the sense of a weakness or base attraction, but an authentic and genuinely sincere affinity.

For me, one of the most acute examples of this experience has got to be the point in the pesach seder when we read about "The Wicked Son." The haggada describes one of the four sons as not being very interested in all the rituals, and openly questioning why he must be involved in them. For this appalling crime he is branded wicked. Growing up, what was I supposed to tell myself as I read this section? While I might not have consciously admitted it to myself, I knew very well that I totally identified with this characteristic of the wicked son. Despite my being a dedicated and properly behaved frum kid who for the most part took all of his religious duties quite seriously, in some deeply hidden part of my heart that I dared not explore, I knew that I would much rather be without all these burdensome practices. Of course I wouldn't have ever contemplated doing so, but if I had ever allowed myself to express myself as this son did, I'm sure it would have been a highly cathartic experience for me.

But this kind of behavior is wicked! It's wrong! It's bad! And how do we deal with such defiance? We knock his teeth out. True, it might seem excessive, but this is the Torah way of dealing with such people. And in case he doesn't get the message from his divinely ordained thrashing, afterwards we unambiguously let him know how we feel about his kind: "If you had been at Egypt you woudn't have merited being redeemed." i.e. "We don't even want you."

With traditions like these ingrained into our religious experiences, how can people wonder what makes some of us feel less than positive towards religious Judaism?

(PS - Another example of an "official" portrayal that always made me uncomfortable was the text in the Hadran: "We work, and they work... We run and they run...".)

29 comments:

daat y said...

how about seeing that there is apart of you that is also 'chacham' and therefore you continue to express yourself on your blog. I hope you will find it.

The Hedyot said...

It's not about how I perceive myself. It's how I feel Judaism perceives me.

daat y said...

judaism does not outlaw your thoughts generally.aren't there any positive memories.

daat y said...

tell us about the seder with the family you enjoyed being with.

Rachel Ann said...

My understanding of the wicked son was not that he had questions, but that his questions were delivered in a tone which indicated that no matter what the logic or response of the other party, the wicked son would simply dismiss the answer, disparagingly. He wasn't questioning to get an answer, to learn, to debate the issue. He was questioning to demean.

The Hedyot said...

tell us about the seder with the family you enjoyed being with

See this comment for a brief rundown of my yom tov experience.

The Hedyot said...

aren't there any positive memories?

Sure there are. There's always both good and bad in everything. But firstly, usually the positive experiences weren't as formative as the negative ones. More importantly, there's no need to point out how damaging positive experiences are.

The Hedyot said...

My understanding of the wicked son was...

Yes, I've heard that pshat, and so many others too. There are also explanations which spin it as not actually hitting him, but rather as taking the edge off his attitude, etc. These are nice, and I think they should be promoted, but the "pashut pshat" approach, the one that's obvious to everyone, is the severe one.

Rachel Ann said...

I guess I never considered knocking his teeth out as being literal. More along the lines of "at the end of my rope" or whatever.

The Hedyot said...

I don't think anyone really takes it literally. But they do take it as advice to deal with the son harshly, punishing him for his impetuous attitude. And while actually knocking out teeth might not be common, many kids can tell you about how they were hit pretty badly for similar behavior. (Although I never was.)

Rachel Ann said...

Abuse is abuse, however it is justified it doesn't make it moral, But people will hark back to many an otherwise "good ideas" to excuse poor behaviour. (btw I linked to your post which is tangentially connected to mine. Your post made me think :-) and that led to my post.)

Meyer said...

MY FRIEND, it's not Judaism that has a particualr view of you or anyone else! it's the brand of ultraorthodoxy that you were orieneted that has this effect on you. Read the book by Gil Mann and you'll see that there are many paths to Judaism. Adapt and make yourself comfortable with the world but than what would u have to blog about!

Mirty said...

I always felt sorry for the wicked son. I thought he got a bum rap. So he said "You" and saw himself as separate from the others. Maybe he was a teenager and just learning how to differentiate his own ideas! Me and the wicked son have a thing going on...

debka_notion said...

Interestingly, coming from a liberal Jewish background, I never even encountered the pshat of that text until a year or two ago. Maybe that's one thing that the liberal community does well that the frum community could learn from, if they can manage it.

ari said...

RYBS (in harraei kedem) said the RAMBAM calls someone who takes himself away from a group while they are suffering is a kofer.There is nothing wrong w/ questions as long as you would have helpped your brother had you have been next to him during slavery.

mnuez said...

Huh. Just finishd Mishlei's latest offerings and I can't help but see a serious connection between his post and yours. In All The World's A Stage, I guess he'd say that the author and director wrote a few bad-guy parts and thus mae it possible for people to act those out. Interesting.

Shlomo said...

Chochom: I want to understand Cheyrus better. Having the Ol Mitzvos is much better than having the shibud.

Rasha: Understand what better? How about some evidence for the event? Do you really believe that nonsense? You became free to just to become a slave again? Ever hear of irony? Arba Kosos just aren't enough for me tonight!

Tam: Don't get me involved in your arguments. Fight now and you'll make Tate start yelling. Dayeinu!

Eino Yodeah Lishol: That soup smells good. I bet they didn't have THAT in Mitzrayim!

Mis-nagid said...

"My understanding of the wicked son was not that he had questions, but that his questions were delivered in a tone"

That makes no sense. There is no wicked son. He's a character. The problem that Hedyot raised is that the author of the wicked sons's position portrayed any questions as bad. Yes, the author may have meant that the rasha was not open to answers, but that's part of the problem: the stigmatizing of questioners.

Anonymous said...

"but that's part of the problem: the stigmatizing of questioners."

Bullshit. There is probably no society on earth that encourages questioning as much as Jewish society. Every Jewish kid knows that the way to their parents and teachers heart is asking a good question. yes, there are teachers that don't follow up on that but they are almost always acknowledged to be BAD teachers. There are axioms, but you can question them too, as long as you are sincere.
Jewish society, and jewish religious society is built around questioning.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, the author may have meant that the rasha was not open to answers, but that's part of the problem: the stigmatizing of questioners."

no, stigmatizing of people who are not open to answers is stigmatizing of someone WITHOUT real questions, someone who thinks he has all the answers. Very different.

The Hedyot said...

...jewish religious society is built around questioning...

That's one of the most widely believed myths about religious society. The truth is that that idea only applies as long as the questions don't challenge fundamental and dearly cherished beliefs.

Or, in certain rare cases, the heretical question is allowed as long as the questioner isn't taking his question too seriously. That means to say, he can ask a question that challenges a tenet of Judaism, as long as he knows that he can't follow the logical conclusions of his questions if the answers are not in line with the accepted views.

daat y said...

'
follow the logical conclusions.
but those sadly are your conclusions.As you know one doesn;t die from questions.Have you found a better system to believe in.'

Rachel Ann said...

That makes no sense. There is no wicked son. He's a character.

Of course he is a character, an analogy, I understood that. He stands for those who don't question as much as mock; there is a difference. The questions were "bad" only because they weren't really questions they were digs by the "speaker" to the person who led the Seder. Someone asks another person; "is that really your face or are you wearing a bag of garbage?" is being derisive, they are not trying to pose a serious question.

Similarly if I tried to get someone who doesn't believe in G-d to admit that they have uttered a prayer to G-d in desperate times, I would be missing the point wouldn't I? Desperation often brings with it magical thinking, and it is completely plausible that someone who does not believe in G-d may make a statement out of fear and not real belief.

I can not force someone to believe in G-d by using logic, as G-d is, by nature, supernatural. I can feel sympathy for someone who doesn't feel a personal connection to G-d, a sympathy that, most likely, the agnostic/atheist will feel is out of place.

Anyway, to return to my point from which I have digresed, a habit as bad as my spelling, real questions are welcomed by those I would consider good Rabbis and teachers. Poor teachers just want to be imitated and followed without thought.

JCScott said...

And how do we deal with such defiance? We knock his teeth out.

No, “הקהה את שניו” means we blunt his teeth, stopping him from corrupting others (especially the She'eno Yodea Lishol).

Also note that the “wicked son” is not answered directly, perhaps because every child who is going “off” needs to be dealt with in his own way, and a “one size fits all” response is more damaging than none at all. (My own interpretation.)

++j

Anonymous said...

Da'at Hedyot:

The wicked son can't be that bad -- after all, he showed up to the seder! Think about it: Why would a truly wicked son even bother showing up for a seder with his brothers and family if he was so evil? If I were feeling evil or rebellious, then the LAST place I would show up to is a family seder. You want to hear your "wise" brother blabber on all night long? He's so frum, he continues asking questions all throughout the meal, and says - "Lets eat the afikoman now before chatzot, and the continue with all my chidushim." Or how about the "Tam" -- he's clueless. Try repeating the answer 50 times and he still doesn't get it.

For all this you have patience? Yet, year after year, the "wicked" son still shows up for the seder. To get his teeth knocked in? He's "wicked" but not stupid. Therefore, I don't think he's so bad after all.

The point of saying "Had you been in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed" is just a parental rebuke like, "Fail another social studies test, and I'll throw you out of the house."

After 2000 years of exile its more than natural to have so many "wicked" children, and its not there fault. With so little dynamic rabbinic leadership, the glaut has poisoned our collective minds.

--Ploni.
ploni@hotmail.com

Rachel Ann said...

You may have a point about why he is "wicked". I agree that more dynamic leaders, one's who really work hard to bring out the best in everyone, are necessary. And you also have a point about him "being there." As my Rabbi has always said, "there's the son that never shows up".

As for the "wise son" blabbing all night long, the wise know when to shut up as well. The simple son, I've always understood to mean either one of two conditions. He really is not intelligent, or he understands things on a more pure (spiritually) basis.

Ploni said...

Its hard to imagine a really smart son these days (knowing when to shut up). If "Talmeedei Chachamim Marbim Shalom BaOlam" (increase peace in the world) -- then I guess our yeshivot are doing a real lousy job of producing Talmeedei Chachamim.

Anonymous said...

the first time I saw "hadran" I had a bad reaction as well. I still do somewhat.

BUT, I did come across something that made me object less. There is another yehi ratzon, somewhere in brachot that has a much more "elu v'elu message. Something to the effect of "having to earn a living and not having time to learn much is legitimate, but I am so thankful that I personally have time to learn"

the main difference, I think, is that the "yoshvei kranot" in hadran are just bumming around and being lazy, not accomplishing anything at all.

Perhaps I'm overly modern/liberal, but I still felt a bit funny saying those lines at my last siyum

--Rivka

barry said...

Not to take away any of your angst, but you need to look at a dictionary. Hakheh et Shinav is not EVER properly understood as knock his teeth out.
Hakheh is not Hikah..Look at the spelling in Hebrew--it's a kuf, not a chaf/kaf.
It means--literally--to blunt or take the edge off, not to strike.
This is not spin, it's pshat--and you and others have been disserved
by poorly translated haggadot--or by Rebbeim who did not take the time to think about what they were reading.