The wicked son needs to be himself. He accepts nothing on trust, nor does he automatically comply with instructions. “What does this service mean to you?” he demands (Ex. 12:26-27).
I know that according to the Haggadah translators, he gets punished for saying, “to you”. “To us” wouldn’t have been so bad, but what he says seems to show he has no share in the community. However, doesn’t the wise son also say “to you” (Deut. 6:20-21), and no-one thinks of rebuking him!
The Haggadah says that the wicked son “denies a fundamental principle” (kafar ba’ikkar), but since when is community affiliation a fundamental principle which one must accept or else?
Yes, the Pir’kei Avot tells us not to separate from the community, but no-one regards the rejection of this dictum as a grave sin. So why give the wicked son such a rough ride?
If there is something wrong in what he does or says it must be found elsewhere. Compare his words with those of the wise son and you have the answer. Says the wicked son: “What does this service mean to you?” Says the wise one: “What mean the testimonies… which the Lord our God has commanded you?”
The wise son mentions God, the wicked son leaves Him out. To the wise son, all is from God. The wicked son doesn’t bring God into the equation. How did Pesach get there according to his reasoning? Presumably it just came to be; its source is in sociology or anthropology, not in religion. That’s where the wicked son has committed his offence.
Does the Haggadah go along with this point of view? Free yourself from the translations and you find that this is precisely what the Haggadah is telling us. Hotzi et atzmo min hak’lal, it says; not, “He (the wicked son) excludes himself from the community”, but “He excludes Atzmo, Himself – God, referred to by some of the philosophers as Atzmo – from the story”. That’s the “denial of a fundamental principle” of which the wicked son is guilty. Imagining the world can manage without God, that’s his offence.
Now the Seder service makes sense: Hakheh et shinav, it says: “Blunt his teeth” – i.e. “Give him a harsh retort”… or, as some read the passage, Hak’heh et shinnuyo – “Rebut his distortion”.
Do I still like the Rasha? Certainly… but I would be the first to try and persuade him he is wrong.