Steven Moskowitz

Set Their Teeth on Edge!

Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

I am still thinking about the Seder’s wicked child. This child asks, “Whatever does this service mean to you?” The Haggadah teaches that this child excludes himself or herself from our collective story. The wicked child only points the question at others.

And I am watching with a mixture of horror and bewilderment as college campuses erupt in anti-Israel protests and antisemitism. It was the university and its students that led the charge against the Vietnam War. And it was the university that cemented my part in our Jewish story. How did the Israel I so love and admire become the object of similar protests?

People want to believe that the protestors share a commitment to free speech. They think they share the worries of Israel’s majority about the Netanyahu government and its policies but do not begrudge the State of Israel’s very existence.

People convince themselves that these protestors can make the distinctions between the racist ideology of Itamar ben Gvir who currently chairs the Ministry of National Security even though he was barred from serving in the IDF and the noble Zionism of Isaac Herzog, Israel’s current president who advocates for the nation’s continued commitment to its founding democratic principles, or the actions of Aryeh Deri who currently serves in the government even though he was jailed for corruption and those of Mansour Abbas, the leader of the country’s United Arab list who said that the October 7th massacres stand “against everything we believe in, our religion, our Islam, our nationality, our humanity.”

People want to believe that when these students chant “Free Palestine” they are talking about a free Palestinian state living alongside a Jewish state not the destruction of the State of Israel or that they can see the clear differences between the actions of a few soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, who President Biden is considering sanctioning and the Jewish students sitting next to them in class. They appear unable to draw such lines of distinction. They shout down discussion. They banish disagreement. (I acknowledge that bullhorns by their very nature are contrary to nuanced arguments.)

Our seder was garnished with such debates. In the eyes of most (if not all) protestors there is no line between Israel’s different political parties. There is no recognition of the country’s internal debates about the prosecution of the war and the growing awareness among Israelis of the moral and strategic consequences of the devastation visited upon Gaza. Among these student activists there is no discussion about the mounting protests on Tel Aviv’s and Jerusalem’s streets against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership.

There is no nuance. There is no debate. They only seem to shout, “Israel is wrong.  Jews are evil. Hamas fights for justice. Palestinians are righteous.”

In these students’ eyes Israel and the Jews are all wrong and Gaza and its Palestinians are all right. They do not believe me when I tell them about the Tel Aviv cabbie who recently said Itamar ben Gvir is a Jewish racist. They refuse to accept that Hamas terrorists massacred people and brutally raped women or that Israeli soldiers’ primary mission is to rescue the kidnapped hostages and find those responsible for the October 7th brutalities.

They deny that Jews, as well as Palestinians, are indigenous to the land of Israel and that both peoples are deserving of justice for the pain and suffering history has inflicted on them. Both peoples warrant peace to live normal, ordinary lives free from fear. I struggle to hear such nuance. I wonder if the heated (and loving) discussions at our Seder exist in the very place that is intended to house them.

I strain to find the college campus within which I found my calling, a place that nurtured debate and dialogue, a home that confronted me with ideas I sometimes found uncomfortable and even unsettling, but never life-threatening. I was never spit on when walking across the quad or accosted after leaving the Hillel House.

The Haggadah reminds us, “This wicked child emphasizes to you not to himself or herself.  Since this child excludes himself or herself from the community and rejects a major principle of faith, you should set that child’s teeth on edge.”

For years I bristled at this language. “Set this child teeth’s on edge!?” That seems so harsh. That appears decidedly un-rabbinic. What kind of teacher speaks to a student like that? Should today’s professors and administrators be similarly harsh with their students?

We need to protect Jewish students from violence and harm! Then again, when the National Guard is called to college campuses it does not end well for the cause it defends (or the students they ostensibly are called to protect).

Set everyone’s teeth on edge. Make them uncomfortable. Confront them with ideas they might even find abhorrent. And this year we must add, “Protect all from violence and harm.” Protect each and every student.

Set everyone’s teeth on edge. Is this what our current times require?

Then I recall the Haggadah’s most important, albeit somewhat hidden, message.  The wicked child remains at the Seder table!

And I am left to wonder. How will we ever get back to the same table again?

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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