Listening to the ‘wicked child’ who dares to challenge Israeli policies
Rather than excluding nonconformists from the Jewish community, we should acknowledge that their love for the State of Israel is what drives their challenging questions.
I’ve always had a sneaky fascination with the wicked child. According to tradition, he’s present at every Passover Seder table asking awkward questions. He’s the nonconformist who threatens to undermine our entire Jewish community and its beliefs.
While some rabbis had little patience with his line of questioning, others recognized that he comes to the Seder because he cares. His questions may be uncomfortable for us, but they represent his struggle to maintain his place in the Jewish community by uncovering the relevance of ancient rituals to contemporary modern society and its values.
The “wicked child” does not limit his inquiries to religion; he also has questions about the State of Israel. The British Zionist Federation has just denied membership to its own “enfant terrible:” Yachad, which defines itself as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace voice of British Jews”. Like its American cousin J Street, Yachad is home to thousands of Zionists, many of whom were previously disaffected from the Jewish community. In Yachad, they found a place to express their love of Israel together with their reservations about some of its policies. Now they have been told that they fall outside Zionist consensus.
This exclusivist approach is unfortunate. In the recent elections, some thirty political parties publicly challenged Israel’s governing party and while some voted to the left, and others to the right, most Israelis voted for parties offering alternatives to at least some of our government’s policies. Does this put them all beyond the pale? Are we also Zionist rejects?
At the heart, Judaism is the desire to create a just, spiritual society filled with loving kindness. We are taught to pray for the welfare of the government, because without that there would be chaos, but love of Israel must not be confused with the love of a particular Israeli government, nor is parroting government policy a religious virtue. In fact, our rabbis were deeply skeptical of those who drew too close to the ruling power. Mordechai lost support from some of the rabbis because of his over engagement with Persian politics (Rashi on Esther 10: 3 and Megillah 16b) and even Joseph the righteous predeceased his brothers because of his over-identification with Pharaoh’s regime (Talmud Berachot 55a).
Our prophets were fearless in their criticism of Jewish rulers. Even the great King David was not exempt from very public condemnation by Nathan the prophet:
“You are the man! . . . Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? . . . You did it (sinned) in secret, but I will do this thing (expose and punish you) in broad daylight before all Israel.” (II Samuel 12)
Are our current rulers more righteous and infallible than Joseph, Mordechai and King David?
Just as the right-wing has important questions about the wisdom of negotiating with implacable enemies and the importance of safeguarding the boarders of Israel, those on the left are entitled to ask difficult questions about the morality of ruling over millions of Palestinians; denying them the basic democratic rights of voting and freedom of movement, as well as the demographic dangers facing the country.
The wicked person sits at the Seder table surrounded by his wise, simple and infant brothers and sisters. The wise ones are respected for their intellectual curiosity which enables them to deepen their understanding and live as a better Jews.
Brilliantly, our rabbis noted that the wise child’s question is identical to that of his wicked counterpart; only the tone of voice and motivation is different.
A Zionist is someone who believes in the right of the Jewish people to national sovereignty in the Land of Israel. We urgently need to reshape our narrative and understand that, so long as the “wicked child” loves our country, respects its laws, does not compromise its security and treats everyone who resides here with respect, he is not wicked at all. Rather than excluding Jews from the community, let’s widen the tent, listen attentively to alternate views and build a safe, secure, just Israel.
As our rabbis teach, “Who is wise? Someone who learns from everyone” (Ethics of the Fathers 4: 1).