By Shragy Lowenstein
Originally published in Issue 1 of Apikorsus! magazine, April 2020
The frum world tells itself that it encourages questioning, but the experiences of those who have dared to question frumkeit tell a different story. A look at the chacham and the rasha of the Haggadah’s arbah banim shows us why.
As this first issue of Apikorsus! magazine is timed to go to print just before Pesach, it’s fitting that I revisit the Haggadah’s rasha. When I started blogging back in 2009, I named my blog “The Second Son,” a reference to the second son of the Haggadah’s arbah banim – the rasha. My very first blog post was titled “The Rasha.” It’s fitting that this article, the first that I’m writing for this new magazine, expands upon that post, drawing on what I’ve learned in the eleven plus years since I first wrote it.
It’s often said that Judaism encourages questions. The gemara is a litany of questions and answers, and it’s a stereotype that Jewish people answer questions with other questions. And it’s true – up to a point. The gemara is a series of questions and answers, but it asks only certain types of questions. Questions are used to clarify the point under discussion, but the assumptions that underlie the discussion are never themselves questioned. Jacob Neusner writes in The Talmud, “In Talmudic dialogues, people registered dissent in accord with the rules governing the iron consensus of the whole.”1
This continues to be true of the frum world today. Questions are encouraged, but, just as in the gemara, questions are encouraged only within certain parameters, with the understanding that everyone accepts without question the framework within which the discussion is taking place. One may ask only questions within the system, questions that don’t challenge the fundamentals of frumkeit. Woe to the person who questions the system itself.
One is encouraged to ask for instructions on how to properly perform a mitzvah; or to ask how what it says in the pasuk over here can be reconciled with what it says in the pasuk over there; or to ask how to understand something in the Torah that “seems” to contradict what we know to be true about the world. It is never okay to question the underlying assumption that it is worthwhile to perform mitzvos or that every seeming difficulty and contradiction can be resolved.
It is allowable to ask how we know that the system – frumkeit – is true, but only as long as one accepts the pat answers that are in circulation in the frum world. In one online conversation I had on this subject, one person declared, “Questions are allowed. Answers that are considered apikorsis are not.” In his mind, one may ask any question one wants. It’s only the answers that are circumscribed. But as soon as some answers are declared off-limits, real questions are no longer being allowed. All that’s being allowed are rhetorical questions that act as props to the accepted dogmas.
As Noam Chomsky, the controversial linguist and philosopher, famously said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”2
This quote captures the intellectual life of the frum world. Enormous amounts of intellectual energy are spent discussing and debating the minutiae of within-the-system questions, while about-the-system questions are strictly censured. Teachers attack questions and questioners for challenging Orthodoxy’s truths. This is not just my experience, but the experience of the majority of people who have gone through the frum educational system and have had the audacity to question the party line.3
The Pesach Seder is an event whose express purpose is to encourage children to ask questions. What kind of questions, though, are they supposed to be asking? The Haggadah demonstrates how we’re supposed to react to different types of questions. The chacham’s type of question is to be encouraged, and the response is to teach him what he wants to know. The rasha’s type of question is forbidden, and is to be met with rhetorical violence.
What’s the difference between the questions? It is often said that the chacham and the rasha ask the same question: essentially, “Why are you doing all of this?” The difference, we’re told, is that the chacham asks because he genuinely wants to know more about the practices, while the rasha asks merely so that he can make fun of them.
As with many things that meforshim tell us have deep lessons, the real reason for the similarity between the questions is boringly mundane: it’s a mistake. The sons’ questions in the Haggadah are quotes from the Torah. The chacham’s question is quoted from Devarim 6:20, and the text as we have it now says, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?”
This text is wrong.
There are many sources, both within and outside of the traditional Jewish canon, that have the question in Devarim 6:20 as “…God has commanded us.” These include the Mekhilta, the Yerushalmi, the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and many old Haggadahs.4
Despite knowing the real answer, we can still use the question of why the two sons’ similar questions elicit such different answers to illustrate a point about the frum world’s attitudes toward questioning. As they appear in our Haggadah, the difference between the two questions is not that of the seeker of knowledge versus the boor seeking to disparage the ritual, “good” versus “bad,” but is rather the difference between two different premises. The chacham asks, “What are the testimonies, decrees, and laws that God has commanded you?” He is starting from the premise that these actions were commanded by God, and is asking for clarification as to why God commanded these things and what, exactly, God wants him to do. The rasha asks a similar question, but one with an entirely different premise. He asks: “What is this work to you?” That is, why are you doing these things? What is the purpose? He starts from the premise that there is no apparent reason to be doing these strange things, and asks for justification for these actions. It’s the difference between within-the-system questions, which are encouraged, and about-the-system questions, which are forbidden. Those who ask the first type of question are considered wise, and are praised by teachers and other authority figures. Those who ask the second type of question are considered wicked, and in keeping with the Haggadah’s injunction to, “knock out his teeth,“ are met with rhetorical violence. They are called reshaim, apikorsim, accused of being evil, arrogant, or overwhelmed by their taivos.
From where we’re standing, outside of the system, those questions look very different. The chacham, while he may be clever, even brilliant, is someone who has never learned to see beyond the narrow bounds of the system within which he finds himself. For all his intelligence and inquisitiveness, he lacks real curiosity and the ability to examine the truths and norms of his society. The rasha does just that. The Haggadah’s version of the rasha is not an evil person, a bully who uses force and intimidation to achieve his ends. He’s a heretic, a skeptic, someone who dares to examine the underlying assumptions of the system within which he finds himself. He dares to think for himself. He is us.
Shragy Lowenstein has been writing about Judaism and the arguments for and against it since 2008. He is the author of Breaking The Kuzari, which systematically dissects the famous Kuzari Argument. In addition to his various literary projects, he works part-time as a freelance writer and copy editor. He can be contacted at Shraga_Lowenstein@verizon.net
1 Nuesner, J. (2006). The Talmud. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. page 124-125
2 Chomsky, N. (1998). The Common Good. Odonian Press
3 Of the respondents to the web survey conducted as research for the book Off the Derech, 51% felt they couldn’t ask questions in class, and 64% felt that when they did ask questions, the answers were not satisfactory. Margolese, F.(2005). Off the Derech. Jerusalem, Israel: Devora Publishing Company. p. 234
4 Kulp, J. (2015). The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary. The Schechter Institute ofJewish Studies . P. 210