There is a logic in the sequence in which the four sons appear before us one after the other. For it happens that in his attitude to religion a Jew can commence like the wise son and work down, consciously or unconsciously, until he ends up like the inarticulate or apathetic son who does not know and often does not bother to ask. It also happens that a person can start off on the fringe of Jewish life, with hardly a spark of Judaism to be seen, and yet find himself moving closer and closer to the position of the chacham.
Jewish identity is like that, never static, always moving. All the time, some are moving away while others are moving back. It is as if there were two escalators installed side by side, one moving down and out of Judaism, the other coming up and back to Jewish commitment.
The first begins at the level of the chacham, the wise son who is an active, knowledgeable, observant Jew. Then something goes wrong. Perhaps a bitter personal experience shakes his faith. Perhaps there is an experience of disappointment or disillusion. Perhaps he has come with a query, with a fair question, and has got a rebuff instead of an answer.
So the result may be that his convictions become weak and he begins to rebel. His tone changes and he asks impatiently, disputatiously. He no longer asks in order to understand, but in order to argue and to embarrass. The erstwhile chacham has become a rasha.
With time even this peters out. He loses interest. He drifts away. He becomes a tam. On odd occasions he associates with the community, but his participation is minimal and mediocre. The escalator has carried him almost as far as it can. He reaches the point almost of no return. He is she’eno yode’a lish’ol, As a Jew he is inarticulate, apathetic, almost invisible.
Yet he may not be entirely lost. The Talmud says, “A Jew, even though he sins, is still a Jew.” And it is still possible for the fringe Jew, the peripheral Jew, the she’eno yode’a lish’ol, who seems unable even to ask, to begin to move back towards Judaism.
The spark that sets him off may be unexpected and accidental. Many things can arouse an interest in God and religion. It may be an occasion, like a Yom Kippur (and one should never write off or despise a “Yom Kippur Jew”). It may be a personal crisis, such as bereavement or Kaddish (and one should never minimise the potentialities of the Kaddish shule-goer). It may be a meeting with a charismatic person, a moving book, film, play, work of art or piece of music. Many and varied are the things that can make one discover God again and decide, “I can never be anything but a Jew”.
The next stage sees him as a tam. He starts to ask questions, however fumbling at first. “What is this Jewish heritage of mine?” he gropingly asks – mah zot?
Then perhaps he begins to have doubts. He is tempted to become a rasha and give the whole thing up. “Is this religion thing really for me? Am I not taking on more than I can cope with?” But doubts come to any normal, sensitive person. And out of the crucible of doubt is true faith refined and born.
So he finds himself learning more and more, becoming increasingly committed to the new, satisfying experience of Jewish living. He is on the way to becoming a chacham.
These then are the escalators which side by side lead in their opposite directions. They sum up graphically the situation in modern Jewry. At one and the same time there are some who, alas, are on the way out – and others who thank God, are on the way in. They meet halfway: the chacham who will end up as she’eno yode’a lish’ol, and the she’eno yode’a lish’ol who will finally become a chacham.
This is the situation in modern Jewry. Day by day we see it before our own eyes: Jews are opting out, and Jews are opting in. We may still be losing more than we are regaining. But there is no call for pessimism.
On the verse, “And it shall come to pass when our children shall say to you: ‘What does this service mean to you?'”, some of the Rabbis remark that when children ask in this way it is a sad day for Israel, for it shows that our children are ignorant. But others say that the day when young people ask questions is a yom-tov, for where there is an awakening spirit of enquiry it shows that interest exists, and where there is interest our future is secure.
Make no mistake. Young people are asking questions. Many WANT to be re-caught for Judaism. Many WANT to know more and to keep more than their parents. There is hope for our latter end.