The Haggadah and the Purpose of Questions – Simon Eder

Redemption in Catalonia and Bosnia, The Sarajevo Haggadah
Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, found that kids ask an average of 40,000 questions between the ages of 2 and 5. Adults on the other hand are known to ask on average less than ten questions a day which means that somewhere between primary school age and adulthood we lose as much as several hundred questions a day.

There is nothing quite like tapping into a child’s intrinsic curiosity and sense of wonder. In lockdown, spending more time with our kids we have encountered some intriguing questions – ‘Why is my shadow following me?’ ‘Where does the sky end and heaven begin?’ ‘Who are God’s parents?’ All too often education seeks to dull this spirit of inquiry as a focus on instruction sets in. As we grow older fear and insecurity replace curiosity and our questions diminish.

Today we shy away ever further from our meaning-seeking status as our obsession with social media means that we trade statements in our echo chambers rather than choose to expose our vulnerability with open questions. Today our devotion to keeping up appearances means that we remain far away from Bruce Lee’s veneration of the question such that; ‘’a wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can from a wise answer.’’ Bombarded by information as we are, our sense of wonder dimmed by the sheer noise of our daily lives – we have lost touch with what wrestles in our soul, we have forgotten how to ask good questions.

Judaism has placed the value of questions at its very heart. The Talmud is full of questions being raised in discussions on the Torah. The Responsa literature consists entirely of questions and answers and even sometimes answers a question with another question. The joke has it, as Rabbi Jacobs reminds us: ‘’Why does the Jew always answer a question with a question? Why not?’’(1) In the world of the Yeshiva the story is wryly told of the student who remarked that he had found a wonderful answer if only he could discover the question to which the answer could be addressed(2). I have often quoted the aphorism that I once saw outside a Church in Cambridge that read:  ‘’Unanswered questions are better than unquestioned answers!’’ that indeed neatly sums up the Jewish way.

Seder night, which of course begins with the question: Ma Nishtanah? (why is this night different from all other nights?) is a long tutorial in the art of creating space for questions. Growing up, my parents encouraged us to ask questions at the seder, far above and beyond those in the immediate text and akin to the yeshiva story it was they who asked the best question among us rather than the person who gave the finest answer that was accorded the highest accolade.

Plato in his Theaetetus has Socrates himself define the beginning of philosophy as wonder (thaumazein). It is this state which leads to the art of asking questions – none more simple than ‘’What is it?’’ That definition is then repeated throughout the history of philosophy from Aristotle(3) to Whitehead: ‘’Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains’’(4). There is perhaps no setting more pregnant with possibility and filled with potential wonder than the seder table – with its multiple symbols, songs and traditions. It inculcates from the very outset an environment conducive to meaningful questions and in turn conversation that opens up the human heart. As food accompanies story and ritual those who partake undergo a journey that cuts through space and time.

There are few more powerful occasions throughout the Jewish year than seder night, when there is an innate feeling of connection to other Jews who throughout the world are also embarking on their own journey from slavery to freedom. We might also sense, on this auspicious evening, that we form a link in a chain dating back to the first exodus and extending well into the future. In sensing this, there is then perhaps a further awakening that just as it has been our people’s questions that have enabled us to reach this point, so too it is our bold and daring questions that must help shape our bridge to the future.

Surveying the types of questions that we have asked, generation after generation it seems that there are three types in which the Haggadah is interested.

Where Have We Come From?
The first group appeals to tracing our origins. The four questions: why is matzah eaten, why is maror eaten, why is food dipped twice(5) and why do we recline(6) invite us to experience and quite literally internalise through association what befell our ancestors. Piquing our interest through questions surrounding our past reminds us of the Almighty’s intervening hand in history. Through them we come to realise that existence is not some series of random coincidences. It cannot be as Bertrand Russell would have it in A Free Man’s Worship:

‘’That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system’’(7)

Tracing our past through questions as we do on Seder night, retelling our people’s remarkable story of survival we may indeed discern a purpose through life’s pages.

In deciphering the origins of the ‘four sons’, which are based upon the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud who find four references in the Torah to responding to your son who asks a question, we also align ourselves to a long held tradition within Judaism of asking questions, sometimes the most profound of which have been reserved for none other than God Himself. It was after all Abraham who asked of God, ‘’Will not the judge of all the earth do right?’’(8), Moses who questioned: ‘’O’Lord why have you brought trouble upon this people?’’(9) and with no preamble, Habakkuk who dives right in by asking, ‘’Why does God not respond to the evil in the world, and in particular, my nation?’’(10)

The biblical narrative is of course not only filled with the questions that some of our great spiritual forebears have had for God but also the questions that God has had for us. Indeed the very first question that God asks in the Torah – ‘’And the Lord God called out to Adam and said, ‘Where are you?’’’(11) is perhaps the most powerful. After Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge God went to look for them. His question is of course not literal but an existential one and is one which we too must surely ask of ourselves throughout our own lives.

As the haggadah elicits us to contemplate and question how we have arrived here, we recognise therefore that our questions are indeed a mark of faith. As Nahman of Bratslav has it, the man who has no questions about God is not a believer at all.

Where are we going?
The second type of questions that the Haggadah prompts are those which orient us to thinking about the future. The entire structure of the seder centres for example around the four cups of wine representing a redemptive unfolding and inviting questions as to what a messianic future might hold. Many of the songs throughout the seder from Dayenu, the benching right to Chad Gadya lead us to a point of peace or time of messianic fulfillment, one in which death is swallowed forever. The overarching positive tone struck perhaps helps to turn our ever-present questions of doubt towards an optimistic note of hope for an emerging future.

Faced with the choice of slavery or freedom it is the latter that we must choose. The haggadah thus reinforces Judaism’s central message that faced with a question of life or death, it is the former that we should opt for. Its message echoes some of those  final lines of Moses to the people: ‘’I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.’’(12)

As we face the future, following perhaps the most difficult year that many of us will have had in a generation, the prophetic words that Arundhati Roy utters at the end of her recent book Azadi, accords with the Haggadah’s summons to imagine a more hopeful future. Roy sees today as the gateway between one world and the next and to get there she cautions that:

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and our hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and our smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’’(13).

There is no element more pertinent for sustaining child interest than the episode, after the meal when we open the door for Elijah, which is always accompanied by a flurry of questions. Elijah’s incorporation into the seder is of course also designed to evoke a future orientation as symbolically tradition has it that he will herald the ultimate redemption.

A further understanding for Elijah’s inclusion in proceedings is perhaps  for the approach that he took when confronting the prophets of Ba’al at the showdown on Mt Carmel to answer definitively once and for all the question of who was the true God. He turns to the people and says:

‘’How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Ba’al, follow him!’’ But the people answered him not a word’’(14)

Tradition from folk -etymology holds that the phrase ‘teyku’ used by the Talmud to signify that a debate is unresolved meaning ‘let it stand’ is an acronym for ‘’Tishbi Yitaretz Kushyot Ve-ba’ayot’ the Tishbite (Elijah) will answer questions and difficulties. This is to signify therefore that in the Messianic age Elijah will provide the solution to every halachic problem. This is perhaps a little far-fetched but perhaps the implication from the face-off on Mt Carmel is that his symbolic role is to force us to face difficult questions, maybe those that we would rather ignore. It is after all, only through confronting our challenges that we are able to grow.

How do we get there?
The final set of questions that the Haggadah invites are those about how we conduct the seder, why we do certain things? How do we interpret the law? How do we tell the story and make it relevant for today? In short, how do we construct our present reality that might enable the stepping stones to a messianic future.

Writing, as the French philosopher Derrida argues, is originally hermetic and secondary. As he says in Writing and Difference:

‘’God separated Himself from Himself in order to let us speak, in order to astonish and to interrogate us.’’(15)

God’s separation therefore enables a world of questions. Even ‘’the Law becomes a Question and the right to speech coincides with the duty to interrogate. The book of man is a book of question.’’(16) The space for questions then, for commentary and ongoing striving for understanding – this is what animates the seder over and above the words of the text. This is what allows customs and innovation to be achieved and what permits our seders to flourish anew as they continue to adapt to ever changing external conditions.

These questions – Where have we come from? Where are we going? How do we get there? animate the Haggadah and so much of our wider Jewish lives too. Their contemplation are key to restoring childlike curiosity and to opening up a dialogue and partnership with the Divine. This year we ask them as slaves, next year may we ask them as free people.

  1. Jacobs, The Jewish Religion; A Companion, p.257
  2. Jacobs, The Jewish Religion, A Companion, p.399
  3. Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b
  4. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p.168
  5. Pesachim 116a
  6. Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah, 8:3
  7. Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, p.39
  8. Genesis 18:25
  9. Exodus 5:22
  10. Habakkuk 1:1
  11.  Genesis 3:9
  12.  Deuteronomy 30:19
  13.  Roy, Azadi, p.214
  14.  1Kings 18:21
  15.  Derrida, Writing and Difference, p.82 16. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p.81