A nation that knows not to ask
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 22, 2006
Commentators on the Haggadah have long been perplexed by the quotation of the same verse in response to the evil son and the one who does not know how to ask. The question becomes even stronger when we realize that the answer to the wicked son is not that found in the Torah in response to his question.
In short, the author of the Haggadah deliberately drew a connection between the wicked son and the one who does not know how to ask. But why such a negative view of a son incapable of formulating even the simplest question?
Some commentators have suggested that it is not stupidity but apathy that explains the failure of the fourth son to ask. Unlike the evil son, he is not bothered if his fellow Jews wish to participate in absurd ancient rituals. But like him, he feels completely alienated from everything associated with the Seder night. He doesn't ask because the proceedings are irrelevant to him.
Of all the many failures to be laid at the door of the Israeli educational system, the most serious, and that with the greatest implications for Israel's future, is the creation of a generation of Jewish youngsters indifferent to their nation's past. A member of the founding generation once lamented, "We sought to create a generation of great apikorsim (deniers) and succeeded only in raising amei ha'aretz (ignorant boors)."
Since then the situation has only worsened. Thirty years ago, secular Israelis my age knew the country and every settlement in it, with the appropriate Biblical references. Today few know their way beyond the beach and the local mall. Over half of Israeli high school students have never visited Jerusalem.
That great apikorus David Ben-Gurion insisted on a place for Talmud, Tanach, and Biblical archeology in the basic school curriculum of the nascent state. He understood that the "Third Jewish Commonwealth" could only survive if connected in the hearts and minds of its citizens with what had gone before. That required basic Jewish literacy.
What secular Jewish student knows anything of these subjects today? Or even of Jewish history? Hillel Halkin accurately summed up the worst offence of a 9th grade history text prepared by the Ministry of Education over a decade: its studied neutrality concerning Jewish history. "Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people that he is reading about, that he is flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood; nowhere that their story is his."
Thousands of young Israelis trek to the Far East annually to explore Eastern mysticism. It never occurs to them to learn something of the treasures of their own religion first. Nothing in their education has given them any hint of a tradition that fully absorbed many of the greatest minds in history. The recently published Letters to a Buddhist Jew – an epistolary exchange between Rabbi Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, an articulate Jewish Buddhist – should be required reading for Israeli students who assume that all depth lies outside their own tradition.
Even basic Jewish pride has disappeared. During the Holocaust, there were Jews who had passed for decades as gentiles who came forward to share a common fate when the Jews of their town were rounded up for extermination. Yet when the UEFA insisted that Tel Aviv Maccabee play last Rosh Hashanah, and the UEFA spokesman taunted Israeli Jews with the necessity to choose between football and synagogue, few hackles were raised and the option of forfeiting was never seriously entertained.
As novelist Aharon Appelfeld charged last year, modern Israelis "flee from being Jews." Every reminder that they are Jews "makes them flinch [and] arouses disgust in them." The result is a "black hole of identity" in place of the "internal organs of the soul."
Nor is this self-alienation accidental. It is, in large part, the result of a systematic attack on Jewish identity by major institutions of the state. In the turbine case, our Supreme Court forbade the government from giving any value, no matter how miniscule, to the prevention of Shabbat desecration, and ruled that only economic considerations could be taken into account. More recently, the Court ruled that there is no valid municipal interest in instilling Jewish national identity through bans of the sale of pork meat, something which has been abhorrent to all Jews for millennia.
The draft constitution prepared by the Israeli Democracy Institute would codify the Court's jurisprudence and render unconstitutional any law having its roots in the religious history of the Jewish people.
Given the demands of daily life in Israel, we do not have the luxury of being the only country in the world to educate its young to be, indifferent to their past, at best, and contemptuous of it, at worst.
On Seder night, we celebrate our birth as a people. May this year's telling of the Exodus from Egypt trigger some curiosity about our national mission in all those Jewish sons and daughters who presently do not even care enough to ask.
A Chag Kasher Ve'Sameach
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Pesach
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