Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

Balancing the wise and the wicked child

Defining Conservative Judaism in the 21st century rests upon our ability to embrace Jewish tradition while also unapologetically interrogating and challenging it
(iStock, Credit: shutter_m)
(iStock, Credit: shutter_m)

What is Conservative Judaism? 

This question has been on my mind lately. I was recently invited to join the Rabbinical Assembly’s strategic planning committee, a group charged with developing an actionable vision for the near-term future of Conservative Judaism.

Our initial conversations made it clear to me that our task will neither be simple nor easy; in part, I think, because it will require us to articulate shared principles, to define who we are and what we stand for as a movement. 

There have, of course, been numerous attempts throughout history to define Conservative Judaism. None of these definitions are bad, but none have ever become, well, definitive. And as a result, Conservative Judaism still has something of an identity crisis.

This year, as I thought about the challenge of defining Conservative Judaism in the 21st century, I find myself especially intrigued by one my favorite parts of the Passover Seder, “The Four Children.” The haggadah identifies four different types of children – a “wise” child, a “wicked” child, a “simple” child, and a child “who does not know how to ask” – each asking a distinct question. 

The archetypes are rooted in rabbinic midrash. On several occasions, the Torah predicts that, when adults observe Passover’s peculiar rituals and practices, their children will invariably ask what it all means. The rabbis interpreted this apparent repetition to mean that the Torah was referring to four different types of children, each asking a distinct type of question about Passover, and each requiring a response consistent with their disposition and capability.

The Torah itself does not describe any of the children or their questions as particularly wise, wicked, simple, or elementary. It’s only later that the rabbis characterize and categorize them. And in so doing, the rabbis sometimes change the answers provided by the Torah itself, or else proffer altogether different answers to the questions the Torah predicts. 

Take, for example, the rasha, the so-called “wicked” child. The rabbis chose to substitute the answer that the Torah itself provides in Exodus 12:29 with one from an altogether different passage, Exodus 13:8. 

The only other child who is given an answer that is different from the one provided by the Torah is the hakham, or wise child. The hakham’s question is taken from Deuteronomy 16:20. But the haggadah instructs the parent to respond not with the answer that is prescribed in the biblical passage, but rather with a teaching from the mishnah, “We do not conclude the Passover Seder with the afikoman.” 

The haggadah seems to be drawing our attention specifically to the dynamic between the rasha and the hakham. From the haggadah’s perspective, the wicked child stands at a remove from Jewish tradition, interrogating it as an outsider looking in, with a critical eye and a challenging posture. The wicked child wants to probe and inquire and investigate and analyze; he wants to know “why”. Perhaps it’s better to call him “The Outsider.” 

The wise child, on the other hand, positions himself inside the tradition; uncritical, but also incurious. The wise child seems unconcerned with “why,” and instead focuses on “what” and “how”. Let’s call him “The Insider.” 

The Outsider seeks truth but embraces nothing. That’s why the haggadah chooses to give The Outsider an intellectually interesting but emotionally aloof answer. The Insider, on the other hand, is so invested in the system that they are uninterested in truth. That’s why the haggadah chooses to give The Insider a technical answer that nurtures belonging, but utterly misses the point of the holiday. The Outsider gets to the heart of the matter; but without investment, getting to the heart of it doesn’t matter. The Insider is invested, but the investment is literally meaningless.

I think the haggadah invites us to explore and compare these two archetypes to teach that both extremes on their own are problematic. When we approach everything as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything. But unexamined orthodoxies are also toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. Ideally, we can find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating.

It strikes me that this is Conservative Judaism’s defining quality. To be a Conservative Jew is to relate to our tradition simultaneously as both an Outsider and an Insider. Conservative Judaism is an approach to Jewish tradition, a Jewish way of encountering the world, that seeks to find balance between extremes, unapologetically embracing Jewish tradition while also unapologetically interrogating and challenging it. It encourages adherents to embody both the wise child and the wicked child simultaneously, to be at once outsiders and insiders, benefiting from being rooted in Jewish wisdom, practice, and community, and also from holding Jewish tradition up to the light of reason. 

This approach is complex. But so is our world. It resists simple answers and easy explanations. Yet so does life. Those who position themselves only as Outsiders, who challenge the tradition without being wholeheartedly committed to it, are beyond the pale. But so too are those who position themselves only as Insiders, those whose loyalty to the tradition closes their minds and hardens their hearts. 

Those parameters, it seems to me, are broad enough to include the diversity of belief and thought – the commitment to intellectual pluralism – that has always been one of the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism, while also being sufficiently narrow to exclude approaches that we have always regarded as out of bounds. 

Is this wise, or wicked? Maybe it’s a little of both. But maybe, ultimately, that’s precisely what the haggadah is teaching: redemption is possible if we embrace a way of being that unites head and heart, mind and soul, one that seeks to harmonize the wise and wicked children within each of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
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