Tag Archives: Passover

The wise son of the Hagadah: Why textual criticism is cool

Just like Biblical criticism does not mean to criticize the Bible, textual criticism does not mean to criticize a text. It just means to try to look at a text (in the case of the Bible, the Biblical text) in a critical/scholarly/objective way. Specifically, textual criticism means looking at several different really old copies of the Bible, noticing when there are differences among them, and trying to determine which one makes the most sense in each case.

One of my favorite examples of textual criticism of the Bible answers a famous question often heard at the Passover Seder. In the Hagadah (the text used during the Seder), we are taught that the Torah teaches us about four types of sons who attend the Seder, two of whom are the wise son and the wicked son. What differentiates the wise son from the wicked son? The wicked son asks, “What is this service of yours (Exodus 12:26)!” The Hagadah explains that he is wicked, for he said, “of yours,” implying that he wants no part of the Seder and his people’s traditions. The wise son, for his part, says, “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (Deuteronomy 6:20)?” So he’s showing interest.

But wait: the wise son also said, “What are the decrees…. That YHWH commanded YOU!” He’s excluding himself, just like the wicked son did! So how does he come out being the good boy?
While many of us have heard responses to this question, I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, “The question is better than the answer,” as we’d say in yeshiva.

So a textual critic asks, “Wait a minute; what if the text that the original Hagadah had was slightly different from what we have in our Hagadah’s today, and maybe that slight difference would explain the apparent contradiction here?” Turns out that modern scholars who have looked at some of the various old copies of the Biblical text, including other old texts that cite the Biblical verses mentioned above, have found a very important difference!

As Jeffrey Tigay, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, shows in his wonderful article (here) on the Bible codes, this passage about the four sons appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Mekhilta (a compilation of rabbinic discussions of some of the legal parts of the Pentateuch), and both quote the wise son’s statement with a change in one word. Instead of “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded you (eschem)?” these ancient sources quote the wise’s son question, which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20, as: “What are the decrees, laws, and rules that YHWH our god has commanded us (osanu)!” In addition, the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, also has “us” in this verse, rather than “you,” suggesting that the Hebrew Bible used when making the Greek translation also had “osanu (us).” Thus in the original Hagadah, the wise son does not, in fact, exclude himself by saying, “the laws that God commanded you,” and so that’s why he’s not the wicked one.

And so modern Biblical scholarship, in this case textual criticism of the Bible, has answered a long-standing question, asked mostly by people who would consider textual criticism heretical. 🙂 But seriously, how could anyone find this heretical! Some of the best textual critics of the Bible are/have been Catholic priests, because they want to figure out the most accurate version of God’s word. Why can’t Orthodox Jews adopt the same attitude?


Atheists can celebrate religious holidays – like they play Monopoly?

I recently discovered a delightful collection of short clips from interviews of atheists that one Chris Johnson conducted on a whole range of topics.  According to Johnson’s website, he is a photographer who is “traveling through the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom putting together a book of photographic portraits of atheists.

“From the college professor, to the farmer in Kansas,” Johnson writes, “I want to document my fellow atheists and ask them what brings meaning and joy to their lives. The goal of the book is to visually capture the diversity of non-believers and the ways they maintain a better life, not in spite of their atheism, but because of it.”

That is, Johnson’s goal is to show that “the atheist life is a better life and it deserves to be celebrated.”

As we’ve discussed before, atheism is a judgment about the quality of the evidence for and against God, and so whether or not the atheist life is better or worse than the religious life has no bearing on whether or not atheism makes sense.  Still, I find it interesting to hear how atheists find meaning in their lives, define their morality, grieve, enjoy life, treat religious holidays, etc., differently from theists.

In my previous post, I showed a clip from Johnson’s interview with Julia Sweeney on dealing with death.  Here’s another interesting short clip, this one from his interview with Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of California, San Diego.  How does Professor Churchland, an atheist, celebrate Christmas?  (Can you tell she’s Canadian?)

And so Dr. Churchland’s two approaches are:

1)      Understand and appreciate the history behind the holiday.

I have had discovered the same benefit.  Whether it’s the origins of Christmas as a celebration of the winter solstice or, in my case, the origins of the Jewish holidays, I find that the awareness of how the holiday was originally intended and celebrated as compared to today quite intriguing.

For instance, if you’re a mainstream Orthodox Jew, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is the day when God judges all human beings for the coming year and Shavuot (Shavuos) is the anniversary of the giving of the “Ten Commandments” on Mt. Sinai.  However, as a Freethinking Jew, these holidays gain a certain richness when I appreciate that in Biblical times these holidays had nothing to do with any of this and instead had completely different reasons for their celebration.

I think it’s interesting to see how these holidays have evolved over time and to think about why they evolved the way they did.  E.g. in Biblical times, most of the Jewish holidays were agricultural, to thank their god YHWH (Hashem) for the crops, etc.  As society moved into the cities and the agricultural significance of these holidays was no longer meaningful, the Jews needed to develop new reasons to celebrate these holidays.  And so I find it interesting to see, for instance, how the Holiday of the First Fruits (Shavuot) evolved into the Holiday of the Giving of our Torah.

2)      Enjoy the theistic aspects of the holidays, the way we enjoy playing Monopoly.

I have found this part a little more difficult but still possible.  E.g. on Passover, when we’re reading in the Haggadah about all the miracles God performed for our ancestors as He took them out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm,” it’s hard at times just to put my mind into the game, so to speak.  On the other hand, when we’re singing Dayeinu or other holiday songs, I find it fairly easy just to enjoy the song and the connection with the tradition and community without being bogged down with the theistic implications of what I’m singing.

And a third approach that Dr. Churchland does not suggest but that I have found commonly employed:

3)      Draw your own meaning out of the holiday.

Going back to Passover, I think one reason why so many otherwise-unaffiliated Jews relate to Passover is because they have found in it a modern-day message.  Rather than celebrating the one-time event of the supposed exodus of our ancestors from Egypt 3,300 years ago, many Jews are really celebrating the fact that Jews have managed to escape the bondage placed upon them countless times throughout history.

In addition, those who have overcome personal struggles such as addiction no doubt think of Passover as a day to celebrate freedom from personal slavery.  Similarly, when I celebrate Succot (Succos) – the Holiday of the Gathering of the Crops, I feel gratitude for the various “crops” that we have been fortunate to “harvest” in the previous year through our modern-day vocations.

The above is not to argue that an atheist should celebrate religious holidays but rather to demonstrate that those who choose to do so have multiple reasons for what they do.