The Right to Question

Bo | Pesah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 15, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

The custom at many a Seder table is to have the youngest child recite the famous four questions which open the evening’s dialogue. Often the child, still several years away from knowing how to read, recites from memory, having learned them by heart in pre-school. The performance is more than a moment of pride for parents and grandparents. It is a taste of the spirit of Judaism which the child will only come to appreciate years later. Judaism is a religion that not only permits but encourages us to ask questions. Because things are sacred does not mean that we have forfeited the right to think for ourselves.

Isidor Rabi, Austrian born Nobel laureate in physics who taught at Columbia, used to attribute his success to his mother. “When I came home from school she would never ask me, ‘What did you learn today?’ Only, ‘Issy, did you ask a good question?'” I have always regarded that story as quintessentially Jewish. Whatever her level of education and observance, Rabi’s immigrant mother sensed that Judaism placed a premium on asking good questions. The centrality of revelation never put a damper on the human right to question the divine.

At the very outset of the Jewish journey, we find Abraham challenging God’s intention to destroy the decadent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Would not fifty innocent inhabitants be enough to save the entire population? “Far be it from You to do such a thing to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike (Genesis, 18:25).” And Abraham does not let up until he has persuaded God to redeem the two cities for even ten innocent people. What a contrast to the silence and passivity of No·ah when informed by God that, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them (Genesis, 6:13).”

God’s appearance does not compel instant subservience. Moses at the burning bush demands of God a personal name. A nameless God is inaccessible if not non-existent. Prophets would repeatedly contest God’s will to draft them into divine service. The very name “Israel” bestowed on Jacob by his mysterious nighttime assailant seems to anticipate and validate the paradigm: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and prevailed (Genesis, 32:29).” To be a member of Israel is to be endowed with an independent state of mind, that is never more gloriously exhibited than in the book of Job where an unshakable conviction of human innocence challenges a constricted view of divine justice.

Nor do I find it accidental that the first two paragraphs of Mishnah, the compendium of Jewish law that follows the canon of Hebrew Scripture by several hundred years, are both put in the form of a question, each with three distinct answers: namely, “When may we begin to recite the Shema in the evening?” and “When may we begin to recite the Shema in the morning?” Though generally the style of the Mishnah is declarative, it opens in an interrogative mode because asking questions is the hallmark of the rabbinic method of extracting meaning from biblical texts. To query and debate becomes the engine that drives the formation of the talmudic corpus and deepens the human apprehension of the divine. At work here is an intuitive awareness that asking a good question is already half the answer and that growth is a function of constantly re-examining accepted truths.

The reason for my discourse on the deep probing structure of Judaism is this week’s parashah, which is the origin of the Passover Haggadah’s passage on the four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one yet unable even to ask. The passage follows shortly after the four questions and amplifies the importance of drawing our children into the reenactment of our national epic. It also touches on the difficult topic of what constitutes a good (or better, a permissible) question. Not all questions are worthy of serious consideration. The portrait of four different questioners is an ingenious rabbinic construct assembled from only the slightest of biblical building blocks. The question of each child is drawn from another biblical verse. Thus the wise child asks: “What mean the decrees, laws and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you (Deuteronomy, 6:20)?” The wicked: “What do you mean by this rite (Exodus, 12:26)?” And the simple only: “What does this mean (Exodus, 13:14)?”

What each of these verses shares is a reference to children asking their parents about the meaning of Passover. Only one other verse in the Torah associates a child with Passover, but in this instance there is no question, only the parental obligation to tell: “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus, 13:8).'” The absence of a question is what prompts the midrash to connect this verse with the child too young to formulate an inquiry of any sort. In sum, the Torah portrays Moses as acutely concerned with the eventual commemoration of the exodus from Egypt even as he sets forth what the Israelites must do to avert the calamity of the tenth plague. Leave it to the eagle eye of the midrash to detect that in four separate verses pertaining to the future observance of Passover, Moses explicitly refers to the presence of children, and that insight in turn gives rise to the exquisite educational homily familiar to us from the Haggadah: “The Torah speaks of four types of children.”

The repetition is not to be dismissed as mere rhetoric. In each verse the midrash perceives a different class of learner. Three are distinguished by how much they know and parents are to respond in language appropriate to their age and knowledge. The fourth, however, the wicked child, is set apart by his or her attitude. The tone of the question already conveys alienation: “What do you mean by this rite?” Its stress on the second person “you” implies that the child has already left the fold and its use of the term “avodah,” which can mean labor as well as worship, suggests that the observance of Passover has become only a burden. The Haggadah urges that a question freighted with such hostility be handled harshly. No one so estranged can hope to re-experience the miracle of the original exodus. Indeed, anyone filled with such doubt and disrespect at the time of the exodus would have been left behind.

In light of this midrash, the Seder both celebrates and circumscribes the right to question. Our children are invited to participate to the hilt by showering us with whatever questions might be on their minds. Judaism does not take refuge in dogmatism. And yet not all inquiries are welcome. An invalid question is defined by its tone and intent rather than its substance. No search for truth can advance very far without empathy. Thus any question that derives from someone who is both in and of the community and is garbed in respect deserves to be addressed.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Bo has been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.