Pesach Part 2: The Wicked Son

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

Just two weeks ago I wrote a blog post about preparing for this year’s virtual Seders and my unusual Seder experience in Seoul, Korea in 1978. As best as I can remember that was the first Passover I spent away from my parents and siblings. To try to bridge the miles my parents sent me an audio cassette tape of the Seder back home (long since converted to MP3 files). On the tape you hear my father assigning the part of the wise son to my elder brother… with my mother quickly chiming in … “Ted gets this part just because Marvin isn’t here.” I feel fairly certain that my family wasn’t alone in having a joshing rivalry about who would play each of the roles in the traditional reading of the four sons (now corrected as four children). And it wasn’t only the assignment of the wise child that got the joking started, but especially the role of the wicked child.

Over the years, as my wife and I began planning our own Seders, I started to improvise the text a bit… adding readings here, writing essays there. In April of 2001, I decided to take a new tack with the four children. I had just been hired by the National Archives to be the director of their museum and therefore the steward of the Charters of Freedom – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I rewrote the passages of the four children to reflect American Jewish history (for example, George Washington and his letter to the Touro Congregation in Newport was my “stand-in” for the wise son). I did some searching to find a really good candidate for the Wicked Son… and finally settled on a candidate who seemed to embody my concept of “Wicked”. Here’s what I wrote in 2001:

The Wicked Child

The Wicked Child isolates him or herself from the universal experience of liberation. The traditional lesson is about the child who rejects the symbols of the holiday, yet it is equally possible to accept the symbols but pervert their meaning. It may be hard to imagine how people enjoyed the feat of freedom when served by slaves. Many Jews fought and died to protect their states, homes and families on both sides of the Civil War, harder to accept are those who became spokespeople for inhumanity. Here are excerpts from a defense of slavery first delivered by Rabbi Bernard Illoway at the Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore on a “fast day” declared by President Buchanan on January 4, 1861.

“Who can blame our brethren of the South from seceding from a society whose government can not, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union against the encroachments of a majority misguided by some influential, ambitious aspirants and selfish politicians who under color of religion and the disguise of philanthropy, have thrown the country into a general state of confusion and millions into want and poverty?… If these magnanimous philanthropists do not pretend to be more philanthropic than Moses was, let me ask them, ‘Why did not Moses who, as it is to be seen from his code, was not in favor of slavery, command the judges in Israel to interfere with the institutions of those nations who lived under their jurisdiction, and make their slaves free, or to forcibly take away a slave from a master as soon as he treads the free soil of their country? Why did he not, when he made a law that no Israelite can become a slave, also prohibit the buying and selling of slaves to other nations? Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?”

In every age and every nation there will be individuals who will use symbols to rationalize evil, who will seek to justify abominations under the cloak of faith.

Over the next eleven years all the other passages related to the wise, the simple, the one who does not know how to ask would change (in fact, Baltimore’s abolitionist rabbi, David Einhorn, eventually takes the spot held by George Washington), but I never found a better substitute for Rabbi Illoway.

Which leads me to a particularly awkward moment just before Passover of 2012. I had just been hired to be the new Executive Director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. My predecessor, Avi Decter, invited me to deliver the D’var Torah at the first Board meeting I attended. This was going to be difficult on two counts – 1) I had never delivered a D’var Torah… this was not part of Board culture at either the National Archives or the Museum of Science and Industry and 2) I was still getting around the challenge of moving from being the steward of the Charters of Freedom to being the steward of the synagogue where Rabbi Illoway gave his pro-slavery address. Unfamiliar with the Parshat for the week, I decided to stretch the definition of a D’var Torah just a bit and turn my remarks toward the upcoming Passover holiday:

Inviting Back the Wicked Son

So, for ten years, Rabbi Illoway has played the villain at my Seders. This year I am the guardian of the very pulpit from which he spewed his hateful words about the biblical sanction of slavery. How do I reconcile this uncomfortable truth? 

Consider this – the Four Sons, in some guise, have been coming to our Seders for hundreds of years. In all those years, the Wicked Son has never changed his behavior. Every year he returns with the same complaint – “Why do you make such a fuss about your Jewishness? Why do you invest so much time and energy in preserving the symbols of your heritage?”

We’re not happy with his questions. We wish just once he could use the pronoun “we” rather than “you”. But the curious thing is that we keep inviting him back. He has a seat at the Seder the next year. On one level, he is there because he is blood. After all, he’s our son or maybe our uncle, our cousin or our niece.

But I think his presence also speaks to Jewish beliefs about education. On the one hand, we believe that even the most close-minded among us is susceptible to the right argument – we invite back the Wicked Son in the perpetual hope that he will listen to our chastisements and accept a place in the community.

On the other hand, we believe that the rest of our children have something to learn from the Wicked Son. For it is through his example that we teach the virtue of commitment.

And so next year, Rabbi Illoway will be returning to my Seder – not because he has been rehabilitated – but because he reminds us of the fact that we have something to learn from all the chapters of our history…the wicked as well as the wise, the simchas and the sorrows. And in embracing the true “WE” of our past – with all its foibles we are better prepared to face our future.

This year we plan to give Rabbi Illoway a break in favor of more contemporary evildoers. But I still stand on the principle that history matters in these troubled times because it is the vaccine that inoculates us from the misconception of hopelessness.


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