In Advance of Jewish Disability Awareness Month: There Are No Four Children

Hey, all, guess what? It’s January. That means next month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month! And wouldn’t you know it? This week’s Torah portion on the traditional cycle is Parshat Bo.

A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

Used under Creative Commons license

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “And…so?” But Bo contains this nugget:

And it will happen, when you come to the land which Yahweh, your god, is giving you–just as he said–that you will take care to perform this worship [the Passover lamb and blood]. And it will happen that your children will say to you, “What is this worship to you”? And you will reply, this is the Passover sacrifice for Yahweh, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt. (Ex. 12:25-27a)

Notably, this is the statement of the “wicked” child in the Passover Seder.

It is also in Bo that we see the biblical texts that were eventually turned into the questions posed by the “simple” child and the child who is “unable to ask.”

The child who is unable to ask receives instruction from this verse: “And you will speak to your child [literally ‘your son’] that day: ‘Because of what Yahweh did for me, when he sent me out of Egypt'” (Ex. 13:8). The child who is “simple” derives from this text: “And when your child asks you, ‘What is this?,’ you will say to him, ‘With a strong hand, Yahweh sent us out from Egypt–from the house of slaves'” (Ex. 13:14).

Note that none of these verses, in their original contexts, have anything at all to do with the state of the child asking the question. There’s nothing particularly “wicked” about a child, whom the text implies was not a witness to the events commemorated by the Passover sacrifice, asking what something means to a parent. There’s nothing that implies a child unable to ask is present in any respect in Ex. 13:8: it reads as an affirmative requirement that a parent explain the reason for the consumption of unleavened bread for seven days. And there’s nothing that implies the idea of a child being “simple” in Ex. 13:14; it is the question itself that is simple.

Indeed, the “wise” child–whom we are often led to think is the paradigmatic one–poses a question and receives an answer not only from outside Parshat Bo, but indeed from entirely outside the book of Exodus:

When your child asks you, in the future, “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments which Yahweh our god commanded you?,” you will tell your child: “We were slaves of Pharaoh, in Egypt. But Yahweh sent us out of Egypt with a strong hand; and Yahweh placed signs and wonders–great and fearful–before our eyes, against Egypt, against Pharaoh, and against his whole house. And he sent us out from there in order to bring us [here], to give us the land that he had sworn to our fathers” (Deut. 6:20-23).

Note that the context of the “wise” child’s question and answer is not, as it happens, that of Passover’s description at all–in fact, it is not long after the first paragraph of the Shema, and is in a section of text that is one of many restatements of the deuteronomic view of covenant and commandment.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog that I dislike the tendency to use the Four Children as a basis for stressing the need for inclusion of individuals with developmental differences. But as I revisit these texts for the first time in 2015, I’m struck by how absurd the use of the Four Children is as a model for categorizing children at all. These texts in their original context are about an affirmative obligation to teach and to respond, and perhaps give clues on how one calibrates that instruction.

These are not texts about pigeonholing individuals. There is no “wicked” child in Exodus 12. There is no “simple” child in Exodus 13, nor is there a child unable to ask. There is no “wise” child in Deuteronomy 6. There are children, and there is an obligation to help those children reach their full potential–and that is true whether one is a humanistic Jew, a haredi Jew, or something else entirely.

When we use texts like the Four Children–even if we tweak them here and there–we essentialize individuals when we ought not do so. Education is different for each child–whether that child is deemed to be neurodiverse or neurotypical, ill or well, physically different or not. Our obligations only increase in the face of those differences, because our duty is to make sure the child is given every opportunity and every tool to allow development of the child’s innate abilities to realize her or his full potential.

There are no Four Children. There are millions of them, and they deserve our best.

Shabbat Shalom.

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4 thoughts on “In Advance of Jewish Disability Awareness Month: There Are No Four Children

  1. I’ve seen many clever things written about the Four Children, but you’re right, in the end it’s pidgeon-holing. Sometimes that is a step up from “one size fits all” teaching, but from one size to four isn’t much of a step.
    Nice catch, about the sources, and thank you for the insight that sometimes the Haggadah needs a bit of editing.

  2. Pingback: Jewish Disability Awareness Month in Y(our) Community | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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