Can I be the Wise and Wicked Son?


With Passover around the corner, people are busy cleaning, cooking, and coming up with new thoughts to say during the Seder.  Every year, a few days before the Seder, I always try to come up with unique ways to view the different sections in the Magid portion.  The Seder is probably my favorite Jewish ritual all year – it’s a ceremonious meal entirely centered on Jewish discussion and debate – the aspects of Judaism that I appreciate the most.

It should be of no surprise that this year I have been heavily contemplating the paradigm set forth by the passage of the 4 sons who attend the Seder.

The Torah speaks of four sons one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.  The wise son, what does he say? “What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws that God, our Lord, has commanded you?”  You should thus reply to him, [teaching him] the laws of Pesach [until the final concept]: one may not eat any dessert after the Paschal sacrifice.  The wicked son, what does he say? “What is this service to you? [By saying,] “to you,” [he implies]: “but not to himself.” Since he has excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith.  Therefore, you should blunt his teeth and tell him: “It is because of this, what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” By saying] “for me,” [you imply]: “but not him.” Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.  The simple son, what does he say? “What is this?”  You should tell him: “With a strong hand, God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.  The son who does not know how to ask, you must open him up, as the verse states: “You shall tell your son on that day: ‘It is because of this, what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’ (Haggadah)

There are, of course, many interesting and classic questions that one could ask on this passage.  For one, both the wise son and and wicked son both used the term “you,” but while the wise son is praised and given an answer that really has nothing to do with the question, the wicked son is harangued for his use of this word.  Next, we can comment on the fact that the Rabbis had to do a bit of exegetical gymnastics to arrive at the paradigm of these four sons from the verses in the Torah.  If one looks in the context of each of these verses in the Torah, there is no clear reason as to why each of the sons were given their perspective labels.  There have been many answers to these questions over the years and I do not feel it to be necessary to shuffle through them.

What I do wish to explore, however, is how the Haggadah defines each of these terms.  We generally think of the Wise son as the antithesis to the Wicked son, representing polar opposites on the “Jewish spectrum”.  However the opposite of Wise is something more along the lines of Foolish, while the opposite of Wicked is probably Righteous.

What accounts for these labels of these two sons?

The Wise son is depicted as one who is eager to learn, as he asks a very specific and detailed question.  “What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws that God, our Lord, has commanded you?”  In answering his question, you should in turn teach him every law having to do with Pesach, down to the last tiny detail.

However, we must ask ourselves, is this son actually wise?  Where is the Wisdom?  A truly Wise person would probably be the one answering the questions, not asking them!

The standard definition of Wisdom is:

having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true or right; possessing discernment, judgment, or discretion

This definition is nowhere near the definition that the Haggadah gives.  It seems that the Haggadah’s definition for Wisdom is an eagerness to learn.  There is no critical analysis on behalf of the Wise Son, he just wants to know all of the details.  This is not really Wisdom, but rather a search for Knowledge, which is classical defined as:
acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation 
It seems that the Wise son is not “wise” in the standard sense.  He is the man who wants to know all of the facts, but there is little to no actually thinking involved.

On the flip side, when we look deeper into the text of the Wicked son, we can quickly see that there is nothing inherently Wicked about him.  He comes to the Seder, and rather than being interested in the small details, he wants to know why the other Seder members find this ritual meaningful.  “What is this service to you?”  Perhaps he is new to religion and really does not understand why a group of people value sitting around a table talking for hours about seemingly insignificant details.  From his point of view, discussing archaic sacrificial laws are of no service to him, and he may genuinely want to understand what use these “services are to you?”  Or maybe this son is one who used to be religious and is now skeptical.  For theological reasons he can no longer finds the service meaningful, but he comes maybe due to some sort of familial obligation.  Once he is at the Seder he wants to join in the discussion, “How do you guys still find this service meaningful?” he may ask.

Whatever the reason for the Wicked son’s question, it really makes no sense to call him Wicked.  Wickedness is a moral trait, while his question seems theological in nature.  He has not done anything wrong, hurt anyone, or even really insulted anyone!  All he did was question a group of people as to why they find this ritual “meaningful.” Just as it would make more sense to call the first son, Interested in Knowledge, it makes sense to call the second son Skeptical or Questioning.

One can seemingly conclude that the Haggadah is connecting theology to morality.  The idea of connecting these two attributes is ubiquitous throughout Rabbinic thought.  One who strays theologically from the accepted path is wicked, just like one who steals is wicked.   Since the Wicked son is questioning the value of these rituals, he is immediately seen as excluding himself from the Jewish people, and is punished horribly for his actions.  All the while, the Wise son, who is just soaking up all of the information without analysis, is lauded.

The dichotomy of these two different sons is a great example of how many Jews are viewed today.  The “Wise Jews” are the ones who have “simple faith” and are willing to go throughout their lives soaking in everything that they are told.  Since these people are the “Wise” ones they will often times be the leaders of the community or the educators of the next generation. Meanwhile, the community is so afraid of questions that the second a question is asked from a skeptical nature, that person is seen as a threat and attacked by the community:

Since he has excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith.  Therefore, you should blunt his teeth and tell him: “It is because of this, what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” By saying] “for me,” [you imply]: “but not him.” Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The problem with our community is that the Wise son is seen as the opposite of the Wicked son.  Either a person is accepting of what he is taught, or he is wicked.  The Wise son knows facts, but he has a very limited understanding of the big picture.  The Wicked son may be skeptical, but he still showed up at the Seder, remaining part of our community!  Even in his skepticism he is still present at the Seder, spending a few hours of his life learning about Jewish practice and history.  One can only imagine where he will be for Seder the following year after getting his teeth blunted.

I want to propose that the future of Judaism does not lie with the Wise son.  People are becoming increasingly skeptical and want to be able to question longstanding family beliefs in par with the Wicked son.  However, the future does not lie with the Wicked son either.  The Wicked son seems to be uninterested in the particular details and rituals associated with Judaism.  He is questioning the big picture, without trying to understand any of the specifics.  The fact that the family bashes him for his question does not help either, but if the Wicked son never takes the time to understand the details of our tradition, how legitimate is his challenging of the bigger picture?

The future of Judaism will only be able to live on through a hybrid or synthesis of the Wise and Wicked son.  The future lies with students who value the Jewish tradition and rituals with their small details, but who also step back to try and ask the “bigger” or even more skeptical questions.  While we may know a few people who fit well into the exact categories of Wise and Wicked, the majority of thinking Jews that I know fall somewhere in between.

We are the generation of the Wisely Wicked sons.  While each of us examines the four sons this year at our Seder, I implore you to really think about the differences between the Wise and Wicked son, and ask ourselves – Which one are we really?

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