03/25/2013 02:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

The Four Children of American Judaism

The four children of Passover -- the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child and the one who does not know how to ask -- get a lot of play this time of year. And for good reason: They're profound blueprints for the spiritual journey.

In fact, they could be understood as stages in the religious growth of many American Jews. That is, we move from silence to basic speech, then into seeking meaning and, eventually, into an integrated, engaged wisdom.

The child who does not know how to ask may reflect the ways in which we started our Jewish education. Most American Jews did not grow up in an observant home, did not even know that there were questions that could be asked of Jewish life and practice.

Even after getting through the process of Hebrew school, or through the bar mitzvah process, many Jews have glimpsed only the most fundamental basics. And since, for most American Jews, that's where Jewish education stops, that's where too many adults wind up remaining in their Jewish thinking. Children are, perhaps appropriately, taught a childlike version of Judaism. But frankly, many corners of liberal Jewish education don't try to reach much further than that, or give 13-year-olds the tools to see that there's more depth to be had when they make it over the horizon. Many Jewish adults can, like the simple child, ask, at best, the most basic of questions: "What is this?" The answer the simple child is given is correspondingly general.

In this model, the "wicked" child is not "bad"; rather, the wicked child is seeking understanding -- taking a step back, to be sure, but still engaged in the process, still asking questions. The "wicked" child pushes beyond the Hebrew school level, asking, "What is this service to you?" The basics aren't enough anymore--now it's time to seek meaning. It's the move from a kid's way of thinking about Judaism to an adult understanding, to something more sophisticated, something important and deep. Since he doesn't doesn't have that sense of spiritual relevance for himself, he asks, "what is this to you?" In the traditional text, he's excoriated for separating himself from the community, but this is actually a pretty common phenomenon, at least these days. If you've never known your religious tradition to be personally meaningful, you might ask someone for whom it is what it is that they seem to see that you don't (yet). What do you see? For those who grew up in an observant home, this is the time that they start to ask what it means to be Jewish on their own terms, and may step back for a moment -- either intellectually or more formally -- to put some distance between themselves and their families' observance of the tradition in order to better understand it on their own terms.

It's only then, once there's a sense of personal meaning, that a person might be willing to ask about the "testimonies, statues and laws," as the wise child does. That is, for Jews who haven't grown up with a ritually engaged relationship to the tradition, it's often only after there's an understanding that all of this stuff is much more meaningful and personally impactful than previously suspected (or learned) that the actual performance of Jewish ritual life becomes more interesting. If I know that it's actually meaningful and not a bunch of empty gestures for no reason, I'm more likely to want to know how I can do it. And for those who grew up ritually engaged, this often looks like a time of renewed excitement and commitment to Jewish religious practice.

And the thing is, this isn't a one-time process. In an engaged, fully awake Jewish life, we may find ourselves becoming silent, simple, searching and wise again and again and again, and our understandings of meaning and practice growing and changing all the time. The most important thing is to be brave enough to start asking in the first place.