Which of the Four Sons are You?
First, let’s get out of the way the little problem of there being Four Sons in the Passover haggadah instead of Four Children or–God forbid–Four Daughters. Let’s just say I’m going to make an editorial decision and use “sons” as interchangeable with “children,” and including “daughters,” in this post.
The Four Sons of the Pesach seder are archetypal figures representing various levels of Jewish identity. In the haggadah, they are meant to represent differing degrees of affiliation with the Jewish community. But I think it’s instructive to alter the perspective a bit and use the sons as paradigms for varying Jewish approaches to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
I wrote here last week about the scurrilous attack on Judge Richard Goldstone by a South African Orthodox rabbi who essentially labeled him the Wicked Son. He did this because the chair of the UN human rights panel on Operation Cast Lead allegedly deserted his people by accusing the IDF of possible war crimes. But Rabbi Perez got mixed up. Judge Goldstone isn’t the Wicked Son. He’s the Good Son. Why? Because the good son is the one who wants to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict not on a superficial level, but seeks to plumb its depths through its root causes. This Son is one who asks probing questions. In fact, Pesach is meant to be a night of questions (witness, the Four Questions). A good son asks good questions and isn’t afraid of the answers. Nor is he (or she) afraid to criticize his (or her) own people when it does wrong; and s/he isn’t satisfied with pat answers.
And since we’re talking about the Wicked Son, who is he or she? The Wicked Son is David Wilder and every settler who differentiates between good and bad Jews, between Jews who are allies and Jews who are the enemy. The Son who seeks to impose his narrow-minded racist notions upon not just the State of Israel, but the entire Jewish people. The Wicked Son is a know-it-all. He never doubts. He is always right. And his enemies, including fellow Jews, are not just wrong, but they are evil. An evil that must be eradicated from Israel’s midst. This son is wicked not just because of his bigoted views, but because his certainty, his smugness, his hate endanger his own people and the State of Israel.
Just as the haggadah says the Wicked Son would not have been redeemed had he been a Jewish slave in Egypt, so today’s wicked son, the one who believes he knows the path to Jewish redemption lies through conquest of land; this Son is dooming himself and his people to oblivion. A State of Israel that becomes a settler state or makes such alliances with the settlers that it becomes little more than an extension of them, is one that will fail, that will be washed from the pages of Jewish history as a failed experiment.
The haggadah notes two other types of Sons: one who is simple and one who “doesn’t even know how to ask.” These also correspond to Jewish types regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. There are those who simply don’t understand it, who see it as an unending Hatfield-McCoy range war. The question of the simple son is: “why should I care?” I have to confess I’m not as good at dealing with these people as I am with people who have a pronounced point of view regarding the conflict. It requires enormous patience not just to explain it in simple terms to such people, but to do so in ways that will persuade an uninformed Jew that the outcome of this conflict matters to them and to all Jews.
The vast majority of Jews, I’d say, are in the latter two categories. They are either simple/innocent or can’t even begin to understand what’s going on. Reaching them is enormously important if we are to find a way to peace.
I’ve written some worthwhile posts for Passovers past which you might find of interest. I translated a Sholem Aleichem Passover story from Yiddish. And I wrote a long meditation on the figure of Moses as an allegory for Jewish existence.
15 thoughts on “Which of the Four Sons are You? – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
Comments are published at the sole discretion of the owner.
Elsewhere you write “Moses has lived his whole life on the inside as a Jew and the outside as an Egyptian. But as an Egyptian he is the ultimate outsider. And this is how we Jews live in the world (or at least in the Diaspora). We are hyphenated and live in two worlds. We are as American as the Americans, sometimes even more so (think the Gershwins writing White Christmas). Yet, we bear our alienness within. We are outsiders even while some of us are the ultimate insiders.”
My sense is that the settlers, the people-who-are-sure, the David Wilders, are those whose longing to escape this double life, these “two worlds”, has driven them to what some (I and you, it appears) regard as evil or wicked.
I am little concerned with Wilder’s division of Jews into good and evil: Jews can elect to stay away from his wickedness; they can elect as I do to stay away from Israel entirely.
But the Palestinians cannot easily make this election (being mostly stateless rather than dual-stated like many Israeli Jews). And shouldn’t have to. They are the slaves that Pharaoh was mistreating, Wilder is the soldier with the whip.
And the world is waiting to see if the Palestinians can come up with a Moses. (The world, the powers, the states, the corporations, (sadly) the Jews — are not about to step in, being more aligned with Pharaoh than with justice.
Moses must invent himself. But, I feel sure, the Palestinian Moses — assisted by the Palestinian Gandhi(s) — will not take his people away to any different promised land; they are already there and many will return to it. There is room there for two people. The wise Jewish sons will be glad to move over, to make room. The wise Palestinian sons have already decided to make do with part of the land. It is the “wicked”, Palestinians and Jews alike, who demand the whole land and push against their own accommodating people as well as against the accommodating people (and the irredentists) of the “other”.
That means there may be some Palestinian Moses out there who will avenge the suffering caused by the Wilders by leading his people to freedom. “May it happen soon & in our day.”
Happy Passover Richard to you and your family! Thanks for your blogging – I read it every day despite the fact I rarely have time for comments.
Thanks Richard for this interesting post. I took some time reading about the Haggadah of Pesach, and the traditions laid out therein because of what you wrote. It is beautiful!
But… I also understand much better now how the humiliation of Goldstone worked when he was forced to listen to himself being compared to the ‘wicked’ son in return for being able to attend his grandson’s Bar Mitsvah.
If I were Jewish, I would attend your kind of Shul! It reminds me a lot of the kind of the interpretations of tradition and scripture in my own (liberal) Christian denomination.
Thanks. For a time I actually did consider becoming a rabbi believe it or not.
thanks for a wonderful post.
i come from a non-religous family in israel, grown in a kibbutz. this passover for the first time i asked my family what do the 4 sons represent. what does it mean? at first i was hushed by relative who were eager to get to the stuffing food part. but i insisted, and than my cousin opened up the interpretated hagada, and got us some answers. so i found out im the good one. thats nice 🙂 hopefully more and more good ones will come and help us change this place (israel) inside out…
happy freedom holiday
I feel sorry for the author. He has difficulty differentiating between good and bad, right and wrong, evil and righteous. He honors me as the ‘evil son.’ But he would not have been one of the ‘sons’ redeemed from Egypt. As is known, only one in five Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus. The others all died there, as they weren’t worthy of redemption. So too, the above author.
Not because of his description of me, rather because he defends a person who slandered the State of Israel and the Jewish people, defending themselves against those attempting to follow in Hitler’s path and destroy us, Richard Goldstone, may his name be blotted from our memory.
Perhaps the author and his friend would prefer to go back to Egypt and live there. Surely they would be welcomed with open arms. Chag Pesach Sameach!!
So, David, what makes you so sure that you know what’s good and bad, right and wrong, evil and righteous? that you and your fellow settlers are the ones worthy of redemption? Ever wondered that what you say sounds very much like those who accused the great prophets of the Torah who were fierce in their criticism of their contemporary States of Israel and Judah? Were the Prophets slanderers as well, whose names should be erased from your already much blotted memory?
It may just so happen that on the day of redemption, the Moshiach might think: “Well, that guy David and his friends in Hebron, they were really nasty towards their Arab neighbors. They came from a distand land, before I even called them, to agitate the local population and disturb the delicate ballance. They interpreted our scripture the way the Lord never intended by stealing Arab land, harassing and humiliating them, killing innocent people during the prayer. I’m not so sure they should be redeemed, now that all the nations of the world are turning unto me.”
Enjoy your Pesach!
During my visits to Hebron I have come across three children who have been blinded due to the acid that has been thrown in their faces by members of your community, David. Those children were not trying to destroy anybody; they were just trying to walk down the street. Trying to equate Palestinian victims of settler and army violence with Hitler doesn’t work any more, as the reality of life under occupation has been much more widely disseminated in the wake of Cast Lead. People don’t need the Goldstone Report to learn the truth about what is happening here. Last week a friend from England visited me – someone who is currently working at Ben-Gurion University and who knew very little about the conflict until recently. On the third day of her visit I took her to Hebron. What she saw of your community horrified her. Your own behaviour condemns you.
I don’t believe that redemption is something any of us has to deserve or be ‘worthy’ of, which is good news for people who blind children. It’s something we get just because God is good. I will pray for you to know it.
This accusation is an out-and-out lie! The fact that this is what our enemies accuse us of does not make it truth. I am intersted in receiving the facts behind the accusations, when the ‘attacks’ occurred, where, etc. Send this to me and I will be more than happy to check the information and get back to you. Hebron@Hebron.com
I would also suggest, if you are really interested in truth, when you come to Hebron, why don’t you visit with us also, and hear another side to the story, or doesn’t that really matter to you? If you are interested in hearing ‘what you want to hear’ then keep walking with your eyes closed in the dark. If you ever decide to open your eyes, feel free to be in touch.
I’m afraid, Wilder, that Vicky has far more credibility here than you. The fact is that settlers are guilty of heinous crimes against Palestinians including murder in cold blood. You can’t refute this nor can you claim it is a lie. As for the acid throwing incident, I’d venture to guess that Vicky can present documentary evidence of the claim & you can’t refute that either. If afraid it is you who is the liar. But of course you’re lying in service to the Jewish settler God aren’t you? So I presume lying in His service is a noble sacred calling. Lying on behalf of the Jewish people, isn’t it? Or more precisely, lying on behalf of the Judean people, since settlers are really more Judeans & less Jews.
Vicky is far more temperate than I am & might want to take you up on yr offer. If it was me the only reason I would take up yr offer is to try to force your zealots to explain their murderous behavior. But then again, I wouldn’t need to listen to you explain your rationale, since I already know basically what it is. Actually, what I would prefer is to hear you debate my friend Myron Joshua who lives in Kiryat Arba but rejects the extremist settler culture you represent. That might be an interesting conversation.
You talk about “opening your eyes.” It is YOUR eyes that are closed. You are living in a dream. A dream that is a nightmare for millions of Palestinians and Jews. You will never wake up from this dream/nightmare I’m afraid.
I will visit, certainly. I will contact you to arrange a good day.
My principal work is psychoeducation for victims of trauma. No matter whether I’m working with sexual abuse survivors in Britain or mentoring teenagers in Bethlehem, I often have to hear things that I would rather not hear. It’s not that I want to vilify you or your community; my primary concern is to provide a good service to people who are in distress, and who need help to rebuild their lives. Furthermore, you can’t afford to judge people if you work in my field. I don’t characterise anybody as ‘bad’ or an ‘enemy’. The only enemies are fear and ignorance, and we all have those to a varying degree.
The parents of the blinded children feel similarly. They spend about two minutes describing the attacks, and two hours talking about the practicalities of arranging eye surgery and the best way to treat the children’s trauma. They are a lot more interested in caring for their children than they are in talking about the people who hurt them. I can hardly bring these children into Beit Hadassah to present them to you, and I’m also wary about releasing their names in public in case the families are penalised for talking to me. (The IDF came pounding on one family’s door last week just because they saw me go into the house – there was a loud shouting match before I was permitted to stay.) But I can draw your attention to the protective wire ceilings that have been strung over certain streets in Hebron. These are overlooked by settler houses, and they are clogged with stones, bricks, rubbish – all things that the houses’ occupants used to hurl down on the people below. This has been described to me not only by Palestinian residents of the city, but by peace workers and soldiers who are stationed there – three very diverse groups of people. Members of each group have stated that settlers in these houses have taken to pouring liquids down from their windows, as the mesh can’t protect passers-by against these fluids. The stench of bleach and urine is overpowering in parts of the Old City. I see this (and smell it), I hear settlers shouting obscenities from the windows overlooking these areas, and then I meet people with burns to their faces and medical records that detail sight loss due to corrosive substances. Given the consistency in narrative from the peace workers, the soldiers, and the Palestinian residents, the things I have witnessed personally, and the overall context, it’s difficult for me to see why the residents would be lying.
I look forward to talking to you, particularly about Judaism, if that’s all right. I am trying to understand the spirituality of the orthodox settler movement.
Vicky, please demand that Wilder leave his pistol at home when he meets you.
And give him a link to “Breaking the Silence”. There’s a four-episode on dailymotion specificly about Hebron. And Yehuda Shaul, the founder, is an Orthodox Jew so maybe he could ‘move’ our Wildman.
Don’t forget to show him the grafittis “Arabs to the gaz chambers”, “Arabs to the oven”, “Kill all Arabs” etc in the first episode. But he maybe wrote it himself !
Given your background, I think you’ll find these two books by Erich Fromm very interesting: “Psychoanalysis and Religion” and “You Shall Be As Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition.” Erich From is one of the most profound thinkers of the 20th century. In his childhood and youth, he studied under some very respected rabbis in Germany. Then he went on to study social studies and psychoanalysis. He applied insights that he gained in his psychoanalytical work to the issues and problems of the contemporary society. In the former, he makes a distinction between authoritarian religion, which fosters dependency and blocks self-realization, and humanistic religion which generates human ideals and an ethical vision based in love of humanity. The two trends exist in every religion. The other book is a brilliant work that opened my eyes to our cryptic religion. Let the book speak for itself (sorry for too many quotes):
“The Old Testament is a book of many colors, written, edited, and re-edited by many writers in the course of a millennium and containing in itself a remarkable evolution from primitive authoritarianism and clannishness to the idea of the radical freedom of humans and the brotherhood of all people. The Old Testament is a revolutionary book; its theme is the liberation of people from the incestuous ties to blood and soil, from the submission to idols, from slavery, from powerful masters, to freedom for the individual, for the nation, and for all of humankind. It is the revolutionary character of the Old Testament which made it a guide for the revolutionary christian sects before and after the Reformation.
“I do not look at the Bible as the “word of God”, not only because historical examination shows that it is a book written by men–different kinds of men, living in different times– but also because I am not a theist. Yet, to me, it is an extraordinary book, expressing many norms and principles that have maintained their validity throughout thousands of years. It is a book which has proclaimed a vision for people that is still valid and awaiting realization. It was not written by one man, nor dictated by God; it expresses the genius of a people struggling for life and freedom throughout many generations.
“The editors of the Bible did not always smooth out the contradictions between the various sources they used. But they must have been men of great insight and wisdom to transform the many parts into a unit reflecting an evolutionary process whose contradictions are aspects of a whole. Their editorship, and even the work of the sages who made the final choice of the Holy Scriptures, is, in a broad sense, a work of authorship.
“The Old Testament is the document depicting the evolution of a small, primitive nation, whose spiritual leaders insisted on the existence of one God and on the nonexistence of idols, to a religion with faith in a nameless God, in the final unification of all humans, in the complete freedom of each individual.”
“The interpretation of the Bible given in this book is that of radical humanism. By radical humanism I refer to a global philosophy which emphasizes the oneness of the human race, the capacity of each individual to develop their own powers and to arrive at inner harmony and at the establishment of a peaceful world.
“Radical humanism considers the goal of humankind to be that of complete independence, and this implies penetrating through fictions and illusions to a full awareness of reality. It implies, furthermore, a skeptical attitude toward the use of force, precisely because during recorded history it has been, and still is, force–creating fear–which has made humans ready to take fiction for reality, illusions for truth. It was force which made people incapable of independence and hence warped their reason and emotions.
“There is one more aspect of the radical humanist interpretation that needs to be mentioned. Ideas, especially if they are the ideas not only of a single individual but have become integrated into the historical process, have their roots in the real life of society. Hence, if one assumes that the idea of radical humanism is a major trend in the biblical and post-biblical tradition, one must assume that basic conditions existed throughout the history of the Jews which would have given rise to the existence and growth of the humanistic tendency.
“Are there such fundamental conditions? I believe there are and that it is not difficult to discover them. The Jews were in possession of effective and impressive secular power for only a short time, in fact, for only a few generations.
“After the reigns of David and Solomon, the pressure from the great powers in the north and south grew to such dimensions that Judah and Israel lived under the ever increasing threat of being conquered. And, indeed, conquered they were, never to recover.
“Even when the Jews later had formal political independence, they were a small and powerless satellite, subject to big powers. When the Romans finally put an end to the state after R. Yohanan ben Zakkai went over to the Roman side, asking only for permission to open an academy in Jabne to train future generations of rabbinical scholars, a Judaism without kings and priests emerged that had already been developing for centuries behind a facade to which the Romans gave only the final blow. “Those prophets who had denounced the idolatrous admiration for secular power were vindicated by the course of history. Thus the prophetic teachings, and not Solomon’s splendor, became the dominant, lasting influence on Jewish thought.
“From then on the Jews, as a nation, never again regained power. On the contrary, throughout most of their history they suffered from those who were able to use force. No doubt their position also could, and did, give rise to national resentment, clannishness, arrogance; and this is the basis for the other trend with Jewish history.
“What from a mundane standpoint was the tragedy of the Jews–the loss of their country and their state–from the humanist standpoint was their greatest blessing: being among the suffering and despised, they were able to develop and uphold a tradition of humanism.”
“Any progress in science, in political ideas, in religion and in philosophy tends to create ideologies which compete and fight with each other. Furthermore, this process is aided by the fact that as soon as the thought system becomes the nucleus of an organization, the bureaucrats arise who, in order to keep power and control, wish to emphasize the differences rather than that which is shared, and who are therefore interested in making the fictitious additions as important, or more so, than the original fragments.
“Thus philosophy, religion, political ideas, and sometimes even science are transformed into ideologies, controlled by the respective bureaucrats.
“The concept of God in the Old Testament has its own life and evolution correspomding to the evolution of a people within a span of twelve hundred years. There is a common element of experience referred to by the concept of God, but there is also a constant change occurring in this experience and hence in the meaning of the word and the concept.
“What is common is the idea that neither nature nor artifacts constitute the ultimate reality or the highest value, but that there is only the ONE who represents the supreme value and the supreme goal for humans: the goal of finding union with the world through full development of specifically human capacities of love and reason.
“The God of Abraham and the God of Isaiah share the essential qualities of the One, yet they are as different from each other as are an uneducated, primitive, nomadic tribal chief and a universalistic thinker living in one of the centers of world culture a millennium later.”