This week’s portion contains the very bedrock of Judaism: the charge to tell the story of the Exodus to every “next generation.” Our challenge is not the message we are to tell — the insistence on freedom could not be more relevant. What should concern us is the particular “next generation” to whom we are supposed to be doing the telling.
“Next-generation” problems are not new: Already in the second century, the rabbis anticipated them, by conceptualizing children as wise, evil, simple, or unable even to ask the right question. Seven centuries later, that “Four Sons” midrash entered the Haggada and has been a favorite Passover reading ever since. The “evil” child, especially, has attracted commentary through the ages.
The notion of four childhood types derives from the fact that the Torah pictures our retelling the story four separate times, once in response to a child who says, “What is this service to you?” (Exodus: 12:26), as if to say, “To you, not to me!” The Talmud Yerushalmi has the evil child add, “What is all this burden that you impose upon us year after year?” Evil children, then, are those who willfully read themselves out of the chain of Jewish tradition. The Passover seder and its message are treated like burdens to be avoided.
The interpretation of evil as Jewish self-hatred bordering on would-be apostasy continues in modern times. An 1883 Chicago Haggada pictures the evil son leaning back in his chair and smoking a cigarette while the seder goes on around him. In 1928, illustrator Otto Geismar depicted the evil son thumbing his nose at the seder participants.
This was not the only interpretation however. Many rabbis, including such luminaries as Rashi (11th-century France), and the halachist/mystic Eleazer of Worms (12th- to 13th-century Germany) rejected it, leaving room for others, most noticeably a radical shift that pictured the evil child as a universal type, not just a variant version of internal Jewish identity-formation.
In 1526, an illustrated Haggada from Prague initiated the custom of depicting the evil son as a soldier. That Jewish antipathy to militarism was continued in Haggada after Haggada; for centuries, the evil son just changed uniforms to reflect whatever the dominant armies of the time happened to wear. The most striking example is a modern image by artist Jacob Steinhardt, one of the many Jews who loyally served in the Prussian army during World War I. By 1923, he saw the folly in it all and cast the evil son as an earlier version of himself: a young man with a wicked smile and a military helmet typical of the Prussian Junker class.
We have, then, two models from which to draw, and the problem is that neither of them works for our time. For all our appropriate hesitancy about war, Jews are hardly defenseless victims of foreign armies the way we were in the Middle Ages. After Hitler, especially, we can hardly claim the luxury of absolute pacifism; we know now that properly outfitted armies are a grim necessity for anyone who would remain free. But the image of Jews running away from Jewish identity is just as inaccurate to our experience. The many Jews whose Jewish identity is marginal differ from their predecessors in that they are hardly evil. The cigarette smoking son from 1883 and the nose-thumbing son of 1928 personify the Hebrew characteristic l’hahis, “spitefulness.” These were self-hating Jews who turned against Judaism out of malice. Not so their contemporary parallels, whose ignorance of Judaism derives from indifference, not from antagonism.
Perhaps the time has come for us to dispense with the very concept of an evil son. We have a fifth type of child now: the challenging son or daughter, a learned sophisticate who asks us to justify Judaism in terms that are at least as convincing as the many other competing claims to identity in today’s complicated world. The onus is on us to do so. But that should not be hard. We need only remain true to our story, the story we read this very week. What could be more compelling than the message that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, that God took us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and that ever after we remember the ethical messages inherent in being strangers in a strange land?
Make that our message, and we will have no problem initiating the next generation into Jewish continuity, for Jewish continuity will be something worth being initiated into.