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The four hermeneutical children of the seder

In the middle of a meal whose very name means 'order' comes the moment when we ask, are we having fun learning now?
The Four Questions (Ma Nishtana), from the Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous illuminated manuscript from circa 1350 ce. (Cc via Wikipedia)
The Four Questions (Ma Nishtana), from the Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous illuminated manuscript from circa 1350 ce. (Cc via Wikipedia)

So many ways to parse consciousness. How to see the order in the disorderly passage of time, what actually transpires at any given historic moment, what if anything is the source of meaning in life’s events. Turn it over, turn it over. So says Rav ben Bag-Bag in Chapter 5 of Mishnah Pirke Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” as good a pretext as any for a culture of endless rumination. Though we may not be able to penetrate to the core of the meaning of life itself, we ought to have more of a fighting chance at understanding the meaning of Passover.

This is the challenge placed squarely at our feet by the Baal HaHaggadah, the master of the Haggadah, the story, the real deal, the 911. There may be one designated leader at the Passover seder, or the burden may be shared among any and all of the participants in this culturally sanctioned orgy of obsessionality. Preparing for Passover is kashrut on steroids, as evidenced by the ‘Bedikas Chometz’ kit recommended for the most thorough job of removing all the leavened products from the household. A feather, a candle and a wooden spoon. It doesn’t get more OCD than that. And then there’s the cooking. Ask any woman who keeps a kosher home. So it is in this atmosphere of exhaustive preparation that we at last… Enter the Seder. Cue Bruce Lee movie music. The word ‘seder’ is one of the more obvious clues that we have entered the realm of the obsessive. A meal whose very name means ‘order.’

Such heavily ritualized preparation suggests one or both of two things. Either we are preparing for a situation which entails undertaking a kind of dangerous, possibly life-threatening, ordeal; or we are inviting into our midst an exotic and lovely presence requiring a courtship with the utmost care and attention to protocol. The pursuit of knowledge may easily be both. So how does the leader stay on track under such arduous circumstances? How do you know if you’re doing it right? Yes you can read dozens of guidebooks for the expedition into the wilderness of the seder, but when the sandals meet the road, where are  your guideposts? How do you make course corrections? How do you even keep going? And, some might archly ask, how do you keep the children from being bored silly? Enter the children. Yes, our little arbiters of truth that keep us honest in our most high flown imaginings. Parenting, like running a seder, is a task heavily imbued with love and fear. We could substitute awe for fear, and that could fuel another night of obsessive discussions, but for now let’s stick with the element of danger. Something bad could happen, nu?

So built right into the middle of the seder, just like the map you finally consult when you concede you are lost on your journey from here to there, is a little feedback exercise, if taken rightly. The Four Children. There they sit at the table, their dark little eyes boring a hole into the leader’s feverish brow. Does he or she dare approach these curious beings in the current state of the seder? Has the leader managed to create a sense of order thus far without deadening the participants’ enthusiasm for the festivities? Are we having fun learning now?

The Four Interrogoteurs of the seder are often reduced, falsely, to four types of children. It has nothing to do with a typology of children, and participants are to be discouraged from labeling their own children, or more likely siblings, according to the stereotypes of this passage. In fact we have evidence from medieval haggadot, such as the Rylands Haggadah, that these four types are not even represented pictorially as children at all, but as adults of various stripes, albeit adult children. The programmed answers to The Four Children taken from passages in the Pentateuch are mere suggestions of responses, meant to prime the intuition pump of the one who gets the hot potato, the question of the child. So who are these Children of the Bread of Affliction anyway?

They are The Four Hermeneutics of the Seder Table. Four ways of parsing reality in the pursuit of knowledge. Four ways of framing a question to induce four different states of mind in the recipients of those questions. Take the so-called Hakham, the Wise Child. The words of The Wise Child form a labyrinth in the mind of the listener as the child recites an obsessive litany of the rules and regs of Passover as part of the erstwhile question. Erstwhile in that it is actually no question at all but an elaborate bit of inductive reasoning that avoids the action of the Passover story altogether. The child appears wise in that he joins in the centuries of tradition by which the rabbis capture the wild beast of the story and render it invisible in a labyrinth of words to all but those who know the labyrinth. Mission accomplished, by one way of thinking. The danger has been forestalled, but the beauty? There is a beauty in labyrinthine structures, but it may not be the same beauty as that which has been captured within the labyrinth. It is a matter of choice.

The Rasha, the Evil Child. His question is a poke in the eye, a disputation of the whole body of practice in which the crowd at the seder table is engaged. In one medieval illuminated haggadah he is depicted as a Saracen warrior, sword dripping with blood. He is The Adversary, the one whom we call Satan in other contexts, Heaven’s quality control chief according to one way of reckoning. There is no evading The Rasha’s question. The leader is instructed to break or blunt his teeth. Perhaps a metaphor for the rather forceful use of argument. Disputation is not foreign to Jewish discourse. In fact the custom of the pairing together of adherents of opposite philosophical bent as study buddies, chavrutot, is as old as Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud records for our edification hundreds if not thousands of such disputations. Some of them end in resolution in favor of one or the other of the disputants, after a series of sages has weighed in, sometimes over the course of many decades. Some of them remain teiku, unresolved. The hermeneutic of disputation is one that forces the mind of the other into opposition, whether or not the disputants are actually wholeheartedly opposed to one another’s views. It involves the fleshing out of arguments by the one, and the cutting away of that flesh by the other. A bloody business. Once again the focus is on the resolution of the argument, the argument of the last sage standing, whether or not it partakes of a comparable beauty to the subject that may have prompted the argument to begin with. But some of us do like a good argument.

The Tam, the Simple Child, is depicted in the medieval versions as a shopkeeper, a simple man caught up in the concerns of the world. Certainly not a scholar. Or is he? Our forefather Jacob was described as a ‘tam’(Genesis 25:27). His degree of learning is undisputed. Job too was a tam, a man who had the temerity to dispute his Creator. Then there is the lover of the king in The Song of Songs(Song of Songs 5:2), simple and pure, though hers is the point of view that prevails at the end of the whole erotic poem. There is something powerful in the simplicity of the Tam, something that compels the respondent to…respond! The Tam’s simplicity is perhaps that of the skilled psychoanalyst, asking the barest of questions in order to elicit the cleanest, most tam-like, response on the part of the analysand. The hermeneutic of the Tam alerts the mind of the explicator of the seder to keep it simple, cleave to the facts as much as possible, to the p’shat or simple meaning of the text. In the end the Tam elicits, in the mind of the truthful respondent, the unembroidered tale of the Passover, as a heartfelt autobiographical tale. There is a sweet emotional beauty in that simplicity, albeit of limited appeal to those seeking a more intellectual thrill.

Finally there is The-One-Who-Knows-Not-How-To-Ask, the most complicated of names, rivaling the forty two letter name of God. That One, for simplicity’s sake, is often depicted as a fool or simpleton. This Holy Fool merely sits and stares at the proceedings at the seder table, presumed by the others to be perplexed, illiterate or speech-impaired. This fool is no simple fool. Jewish tradition, much as Shakespeare, has its hallowed tradition of the Wise Fool, the badchen at the wedding or at the Purimspiel. The Purimspiel, the crazy representation of a world upside down at a holiday celebration when we are instructed to get so drunk that we cannot tell the hero Mordechai from the villain Haman.

A profound epistemology is at work here in The-One-Who-Knows-Not-How-To-Ask. His silent presence is a provocation, comic or otherwise. Think Harpo Marx or Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Or Zen roshi. It is this One who realizes that as soon as you begin to formulate a question, any question, you have already parsed the world into the constituents that are aligned with that question and those that are excluded by it. To ask a question, therefore, is to agree to participate in a fundamental act of self-deception, of limiting oneself to the purview of that question. That is precisely what The One does not want to do when faced with the beauty and the danger that is inherent in Passover. A beauty and danger that has yet to be revealed directly by any of the specific interrogations that have been undertaken as the night has worn on. More correctly, this fool is The-One-Who-Knows-How-Not-To-Ask.

Where does this leave us, all this wandering in hermeneutic circles? It leaves us precisely where we have planned for this night to be all along. We are in an enactment, a physical condensation of the unconscious mind of Yiddishkeit, the dream of three thousand years of Jewish existence. The seder is a lucid dream. It has the crazy logic of dreams, the wild apposition of actions and objects that do not clearly bear any relationship to one another. There is no narrative arc. There is only immanence, numinous immanence that, truth be told, not one of us can totally put our fingers on. But our fingers, and our mouths and our eyes and our ears and our noses, are completely engaged in this multimodal dreamfest. If you were caught unawares at any point in the seder and forced to answer immediately “What is all this?,” your answer at one point might be totally different than at another. That is because your mind is flowing and changing under the influence of the seder’s thaumaturgic magic. In the realm of miracles, your mind is no longer your own. And that, my friends, is both beautiful and dangerous. Chag sameach! Next year in The Vision of Peace!

About the Author
Michael Diamond’s day job is as a psychiatrist and doctor of medical qigong in the Washington, DC area. He has published occasional verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, one cat, a cockatiel named Peaches and a tank of hyperactive fish. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, as in camera obscura, from Latin, meaning "dark room", also referred to as pinhole image, the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen into the chamber provided. A glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.
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