No Questions, No Interest
A few decades ago, when I was studying at Bar Ilan University, my Professor of Developmental Psychology, who taught us the science of how children learn, commenced his very first lecture of the semester with a general threat or promise. He said that he believes very strongly in questions; if no one asks any questions in the first 10 minutes of the lecture, he doesn’t really know if we are alive or interested, or if what he is saying actually makes a difference to us. He said that if no one asks any questions in the first 10 minutes of the semester, he would promptly conclude the lecture and leave.
We didn’t think much of the 10-minute promise until later in the semester as he had just started his lecture, approximately 10 minutes into the lecture, he just closed his notes, packed up his bag and walked out. We were in shock. We then remembered his promise. He was also known to throw little tidbits and oddities into his presentation. He once said, “it’s a proven hereditary fact that if your parents never had children, you most probably won’t either”, and people diligently took notes without even a question!
Children’s Voice at the Seder
The Seder night makes us question the science of modern pedagogy. Research and survey data tells us that the average middle years child (upper Primary or junior High School) sit through the day and hear approximately 200 to 400 questions posed to them throughout all of their classes. Teachers use the questioning technique to spark interest, to check understanding, to ascertain recall and to assess students. But does posing questions really assess their learning? Maybe it assesses the quality of their recall or how good they are at guessing the answer that is in our head.
To the contrary, if you look at the Seder and its structure, it is all about the children’s questions, the children’s voice.
Every Jewish festive and Shabbat meal starts with kiddush over a cup of wine followed by Hamotzi on the Challah or Matza. Yet the Seder adopts a totally different order. Right after we make kiddush, we wash our hands but without a bracha. We then dip a spring vegetable into salty water. Why do we do that? In fact, if you look in the Code of Jewish law – Shulchan Aruch, the reason we do so is to spark the curiosity of the child and cause them to ask questions.
A short time into the Seder, we meet four different sons – the Wise, the Wicked, the Simple and the One who doesn’t even know how to ask. Each of them, in their own way, besides the last child, poses questions.
The Wise son doesn’t rely on his faith or the fact that he’s a good boy. He believes, and his faith is not an inhibitor to his curiosity, but rather it encourages him to ask, to challenge, to probe, to seek new knowledge and understanding.
Even the Wicked son, who many people grapple with, is actually someone we can deal with. The Seder bothers him. In fact, everything at the Seder bothers him and he’s vocal about it. We can engage him in conversation. He has room in his mind and heart to argue with us. That means that at least he is interested in the dialogue.
The son that we struggle with the most, is the One that doesn’t even know how to ask questions.
Who are really the Learners?
An Israeli psychologist and researcher once came into a North American school. She was a student of the famed researcher and author, Benjamin Bloom, and she invited two groups of students, one at a time, to enter the room where she was conducting her research. The children of the first group were top academic students. She invited them in one at a time and she sat there in silence and slowly she said to them, “I’m a Professor in a University”, and then a few moments later she said, “I’ve actually come here from Israel”, and she dropped little tidbits. The top students generally sat there, patiently listening, waiting and wondering what was the point of the conversation. They didn’t question, challenge or say much at all. She then invited in the more energetic, robust, students who sometimes got into a bit of strife or trouble at school. As they walked into the room, they started posing questions, “What am I doing here?”, “Why am I being singled out?”, “How come I have to be taken out of class now?”, “What’s the point of all of this?”, “Have I done something wrong?”, “Am I in trouble?”. They kept on asking questions. In fact, a question means that the child has space, room and desire in their skull to find out the answer. Who are really the smart learners?
Judaism Embraces the Question
When a child poses a question, we actually have a window into their soul and their being, into their curiosity and what they desire to know. In fact, the entire Seder teaches us to value the importance of the child’s voice, to be curious, not to accept, but rather to challenge. Challenging is the very essence of much of Jewish culture. We don’t accept what we see around us in the world. We don’t accept the injustices, the problems and challenges that we see in society. We are taught to protest, to question, to challenge and try to change the status quo. This is one of the reasons why Jews were in the forefront of so many social revolutions. Whether it was against bigotry, hatred and racism in different countries or whether it was against oppressive regimes or communism, Jews were in the forefront of challenging and trying to define a better future.
This could also be one of the reasons why within a lot of Jewish day school systems we find so much dialogue, discussion and challenge, and sometimes a lack of acceptance of policy, practice, and rules. It is ingrained in our culture. In fact, the very essence of Talmudic study, which is the basis of Jewish wisdom, learning and culture for the past two Millennium, is about challenges, questions, hypotheses, and shattering the hypothesis and coming up with better ones, until we reach a conclusion.
The Haggadah – Nuturing Curiosity
The very essence of the Haggadah makes us question whether modern pedagogy is correct? Is it about the teacher’s voice, posing questions for the children to regurgitate knowledge, or is it about the children’s voice. Enabling child centric exploration; nurturing their curiosity and sustaining a curious approach to life and the world beyond the time that it naturally begins to wane.
The Seder itself is designed for us to trigger our children’s interest in our tradition – our mesorah.
As we sit down to the Seder for the 3335th time, we spark our children’s curiosity, and teach them the longest, single, unbroken chain of ritual and practice in any religion on the planet – the Seder celebration. It is also a time to look into our own family history, the sacrifices our ancestors made to be Jewish. To be curious about our parents’, grandparents’, and our great grandparents’ experiences at the Seder, so that we and our children can in turn enrich our own Jewish knowledge, learning and identity, and our children can transmit that to their children after them.
Wishing each of you a Chag Kasher V’Sameach and enjoyable Sedarim as our children share all their knowledge, their songs and their curiosity with us over Pesach.
Chag Sameach and have a wonderful holiday.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.