One rabbi said it was bad that the children should ask. How reactionary, you might think! How can it be bad for children to ask, even though it is a little tiresome? But Rabbi Levi explained, “When your children ask, it shows they are ignorant… and ignorance carries its own warning for the future.”
Other rabbis adopted the opposite approach. “When your children ask,” said they, “it is a good sign, for where a spirit of enquiry means interest, and a revival of interest suggests hope for the future.”
Today, even though Jewish commitment is not always so strong, young people are seeking to know. Once a person would say they had a froom (religiously observant, ed.) grandfather; now an increasing number are speaking with amused tolerance of their froom grandson or granddaughter.
Young people are asking. But we have to know how to answer. If there is no answer, they will give up asking. A modern thinker has written, “On the continued discussion between the generations depends the future of Judaism.”
If there are four types of son who ask, there are four types of parent who reply – the Wise Parent, the Wicked Parent, the Superficial Parent, and the Parent Who Knows Not How to Reply.
The Wise Parent, what does he say? He looks at things intelligently and he realises how important it is to know and understand your Judaism. He encourages the search for knowledge and commitment. If he knows the answers, he presents them. If he does not know, he says to his child, “Come, let us search together”.
The Wicked Parent, what does he say? He opposes or even ridicules the child’s interest in Judaism. “What,” he says, “do you want to become meshugga froom? I’m not religious and you’re not going to be either!” But just as the wicked son cuts himself off from the community, so does the wicked parent. He sabotages the chance of our faith surviving in his children.
What does the Superficial Parent say? He simply says, Mah zot? – “What’s all this about? Why are you asking me rabbinical questions? Do you expect me to be a professor? Isn’t it enough for you that I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it? I give to Israel, don’t I?”
The superficial parent can’t understand the things of the spirit. All he needs is his races and his cards and to enjoy a Jewish joke. He does not realise that today we have a generation of young people who repudiate their parents’ compromises of conscience.
The fourth parent, who knows not how to reply, is unconcerned, apathetic and far from Jewish life. He was born a Jew but he has no Jewish commitment. His children have to help their parents along. It is as if the Haggadah said to the child of the fourth parent, “You who have caught a spark of Judaism and are seeking to come closer to Torah – you take the initiative, and try and bring your parents with you into a true Jewish commitment.”
Once it was, “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” Now the command is sometimes reversed: “You shall teach them diligently to your parents.” It is happening more and more often that because of their children’s questions, and because their children are becoming interested in Judaism, parents are reassessing their own Jewishness.
The tragedy is that so many are status-quo Jews, dayyenu Jews. They keep as little as possible of Judaism. The minimum is good enough for them. To be a dayyenu Jew is a good thing, if you put a question mark after the dayyenu and ask, “Am I doing enough as a Jew? Am I making enough effort as a Jew?”
Please invite the questions, and make an honest attempt to answer, so that the great Passover night dialogue between the generations may continue, and our people, faith and tradition may be assured of survival.