Thursday, May 15, 2014

Shabbat Hagadol, a month late


The Pesach seder is the most observed Jewish ritual, beating out fasting on Yom Kippur, and lighting Hanukah candles. Every Jew thinks s/he knows what the seder is. The reality is much more interesting. The Pesach seder is an ever-evolving ritual expression of Jewish life. Torah commands us to refrain from eating, or even owning hametz. We are told to eat the matzah and maror, to offer the Pesach sacrifice, and to teach our children “what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” Mention of the seder is absent from our rituals until the first century. Perhaps it developed as a response to the first destruction; perhaps as a response to exile and inability to make the annual pilgrimage. Whatever the reason, by the time of its mention in the Mishnah (circa 70 CE), it is an entrenched practice. Scholars have proven the seder’s origins, from the practice of reclining to the asking of questions, and even the multiple cups of wine, find their basis in the Roman symposium, a popular activity among the intellectuals of the time. Through this, and later evolutions, the development of the seder becomes a window into Jewish life. One of the easiest places to see this is in the portrayal of the four sons. Early artistic renditions universally portrayed the Wise Son as a scholar, the Wicked was a soldier, and the Simple and the One Who Cannot Ask as less important. Time changes this. In 1879 a US Haggadah showed Wicked Son smoking at the seder, sitting in his father’s place at the head of the table. Forty years later, the Wicked Son is a boxer, a sport played by many first or second generation American Jews to earn money to move away from the stigma of being immigrants. In 1927 Germany, stick figures show a Wicked Son mocking and a Simple class clown. By the advent of the State of Israel, the Wicked Son is no longer a soldier. Jewish soldiers were our pride and joy. Instead, we see four new images- the Wise Son is a religious zionist; the Wicked Son a businessman using the land. The Simple Son is a new immigrant, just off the boat, and the One Who Cannot Ask is a Hassid. The 80’s had us examine ourselves to see there’s a little of each type in all of us. The early 21st century introduced daughters into the picture, but there was still gender discrimination- the Wicked Child was a tomboy. A 2006 illustration from Israel shows the Wise Child as a businesswoman and a scholar. The Wicked Child is a protester, The Simple Child seems to be searching for spirituality in other places, and the One Who Cannot Ask reclines of the edges of society. The latest crop of illustrations uses modern media references. Last year there were Star Wars and Glee options; this year the choices come from the HBO series Girls.
The discussion of the Four Children should be one undertaken with both seriousness and levity. It is a discussion about ourselves and our interaction with the world around us.