Here are the remarks that Jay Stanton offered at Tzedek Chicago’s Passover seder last night. Jay was formerly Tzedek’s rabbinical intern – and I’m delighted to announce we’ve just hired him to be part of our staff for the coming year:
In a traditional seder, four children are described: a wise child, who likes learning all the ins and outs of Jewish law, a wicked child, who pokes fun at the whole idea of a seder, a simple child who seeks basic information, and a child who does not know how to ask. These archetypical children help us explore what it means to fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children about the Exodus from Egypt.
I have a confession to make; I am a wicked child. Of course, there are the ways society and the Jewish community in general have cast me as the wicked child: being queer and trans and supporting Palestinian rights not least among them. But I’m also a self-identified wicked child. I am personality-wise and ethically the kind of person that voices my disapproval of standard approaches and doesn’t care what you think of me in response. I’m a contrarian by nature, and I like asking difficult questions. Last year at this time, I asked all of us what we were doing here when we could be somewhere else doing something to make the world better. And here we are this year, doing this peculiar ritual yet again.
I’m a wicked child. I want to know what this means to you and why you think this is the way we should celebrate liberation. Wouldn’t it be better to hear directly from people who have escaped modern slavery and to have real conversations about global abolition of slavery and how to establish reparations to address the ongoing legacies of slavery in America? Plus, the Exodus never happened; the seder is an exercise in remembering alternative facts, which is to say lies.
I told you I’m a wicked child. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one here. Despair not! Wicked children are valued by Jewish tradition. Because the Talmud values contrarians. Because the seder itself values the wicked child. After their question, “What does this ritual mean to you?”, the wicked child is not sent to bed without their supper. Instead, the parent responds in kind.
“This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt. For me, and not for you, because if you had been there, you would not have gone free.” It’s a contrarian response, not a real argument. In our Exodus narrative, more people than the Israelites left Egypt together. In Hebrew this is called ‘erev rav, translated as a very diverse group or coalition. I imagine the wicked children marched out of Egypt as part of the liberation coalition, where they found ample opportunity to critique the choices of the liberatory leaders, like leading the group directly to a body of water while being chased by the Egyptian military. Maybe a frustrated wicked child yelled at Moses, “What are you going to do now? Hold up your staff and just wait for God?!”
Voices of critique and dissent have pushed our conversation toward progress, inclusion, and more ethical behavior for thousands of years. They are enshrined in Talmud and indeed in the Haggadah. Judaism is enriched, not threatened, by a multiplicity of opinions and approaches.
To put it differently, the vital role of wicked children in our Passover seder exemplifies spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom, one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values, is more than active inclusion of atheists, agnostics, and non-Jews in our midst. It is an affirmation of the ‘erev rav as a diverse, universalist community, and it is an elevation of critique from an obstacle to overcome to a necessary part of collective liberation. We not only allow the wicked child to derail the Passover seder, we need them. Judaism needs its wicked children.
Just as political freedom provides a check against political tyranny, spiritual freedom provides a check against spiritual tyranny. Both human and so-called divine spiritual authority have tendencies toward the coercive and oppressive. We could dismiss this problem as one that only affects the religious right. However, we are also at risk of spiritual tyranny here at Tzedek Chicago. We could give too much power to our spiritual leader and follow Brant even if and when he’s wrong, but spiritual freedom gives every one of us the tools to speak up if Brant starts leading us down the wrong path. We are a community for people who share Tzedek’s specific values, and we say freely that people who object to them can find other Jewish communities. There’s not much distance between that and establishing some kind of review committee to determine whether you faithfully adhere to every line of each of our core values in every aspect of your life. Don’t worry; we’re not going to establish an Inquisition. Spiritual freedom ensures we are universalist not only in our outcomes but also in our process. When our leaders are wrong or when we feel excluded, we get to speak up and remain wicked children at the table.
As a wicked child, I wonder how the rest of the wicked child Passover conversation goes. If I were continuing it, I would caution the parent, saying “Now you sound like the oppressor. Do you want to be like Pharaoh?!”
Mah ha’avodah hazot lakhem? What does this ritual mean to you?