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Maureen Kendler and the four children: an invitation to diversity

  • Adina 2014 pic (2)
At our Pesach Seders this week, I will be reminded of one of the most beloved educators of the Jewish world who passed away last month. I learned so much from Maureen Kendler, but this week I will be considering how she taught me to invite diversity in our community, in our home and at our Seder table.
by ADINA ROTH | Mar 29, 2018

Maureen had been the head of Educational Programming at Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ eminent institution, the London School of Jewish Studies, in 2007 and was more recently a teaching fellow there.

She was also a veteran of Limmud UK and helped lay the foundation stones for Limmud South Africa. She came out a few times from 2008 to help build Limmud SA into the vibrant, volunteer-run educational organisation that it is today.

I had the good fortune to meet Maureen on her first visit. From the very first time that I listened to her teach, I knew I was in the presence of a superb educator. She was a woman who loved Jewish text and who took herself seriously as a Jewish educator.

Maureen was also loving, approachable, down to earth, rigorous, extremely well read and deeply kind.

Limmud is a values-driven organisation and over the years, when Limmud was faced with ethical quandaries, Maureen helped us to think through our values and base our decisions on Limmud principles. One of the core principles of Limmud is diversity and in one of our conversations Maureen transmitted a profound lesson about what diversity really means. It happened like this:

Maureen’s four children were visiting from all over the globe. Maureen was an Orthodox and observant Jew and her family was celebrating Shabbat together. She described how some kept Shabbat according to Jewish law, while others did not. Her one daughter kept going upstairs to check her phone messages. Some of her children were in smart Shabbat clothes, others were in their pyjamas.

Friends arrived for the Seudah, the third meal of the day – some were clad in jeans, having driven down to be together, while others walked very long distances to be there.

As Maureen looked around her Seudah table at those in kippot and those in pyjamas, those who had driven and those who had walked, those singing zemirot and those chatting about politics, those checking their phone messages and those praying in the corner, she thought to herself: This is the kind of Shabbat I love.

I took a profound lesson from Maureen’s heartfelt description of her diverse family Shabbat. Her home was truly a space where her four children could be Jewish and be themselves in ways which were congruent to them.

While Maureen was observant, she was able to encompass a modern challenge: not all our children will follow in our footsteps, but there is a space and a seat for everyone at the table. In fact, her statement was stronger than that. For, while many will find the space to be tolerant of their children’s choices, Maureen was able to see that the differences among her children, in levels of practice and in engagement with ritual, as not just something merely to be tolerated. Rather, she could see that each child, with each perspective, was enriching the Shabbat and, indeed, the Jewish experience.

This makes me think about another group of children: the four sons of the Haggadah. Each year, the Passover Haggadah presents us with an opportunity to engage with four archetypal children or students: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the ‘one who does not know how to ask’.

The rabbis of old in the Jerusalem Talmud, who penned the original description of the four sons, were grappling with a timeless question: How do we engage with diversity, in our homes, around our tables and in our wider community?!

When I was growing up, it often felt to me as if we were describing four sons, but really, we all wanted to be the wise one. It doesn’t seem as if the rasha is really valued: who wants to be told: ‘Had you been there you would not have been redeemed’? And in today’s world as much as the world of the rabbis, does anyone want to be the simple son or the one who cannot even ask a question!?

My perspective on the four sons was richly challenged when I encountered A Different Night, a beautiful Haggadah compilation by Noam Zion. He includes art depicting the four sons through the ages. Among the artworks was a piece by Tzvi Livni from Israel done in 1955, called Four Attitudes to the Zionist Dream

In his artwork, the religious son is depicted as being preoccupied with Jewish ritual, while the wicked son is transformed into the builder of the Zionist state, aligned with a spade, an army lookout post and an irrigated field. For Livni, the realisation of the Zionist dream, at least in 1955, was not due to the wise son, who knew how to ask all the right questions and study Torah, but because of the wicked son, the rebel, who threw off the yoke of Jewish learning and embraced a relationship with the musculature of the body and the rigours of the land.

This contrasts strongly with older Haggadot, in which the wicked son was imaged as a soldier, either mounted or on foot, associated perhaps with the persecutors of Jews at the time.

Of course, Livni’s art inverts the hierarchy so that the rasha becomes top of the hierarchy while the wise one is seemingly less valued. But it remains interesting that at different stages in history, we might value different children and regard them with varied lenses. Similarly today, with our awareness about different intelligence types, we might want to re-imagine the potential of the simple son as simplicity, as opposed to a simpleton, or reconsider the one who doesn’t ask the question as a practitioner of silence, a neglected commodity in our world.

How we relate to the four sons is a fundamental measure for how we relate to our brothers and sisters in our community. Artist David Moss writes that “every child is unique and the Torah embraces them all”. But in our community are there not some children or ways of being that are more valued than others? Is our community a space where the four children are ascribed equal value at the table?

Maureen shared her special Shabbat vignette with me, but in her anecdote she shared a deep philosophical truth – that the wholeness of the Jewish community can only exist when each human being can be present, not in spite of their difference and not concealing their differences, but rather, because of their differences.

Of course, this creates a certain discomfort as the wise son is confronted with his wicked counterpart and the simple son is confronted with someone who loves to ask questions. But discomfort is inherent to diversity. Being able to sit with the discomfort brought on by engagement with the other implies a deep and mature diversity.

Maureen was able to hold this kind of diversity at her Shabbat table, which created a mature unity, a unity that doesn’t erase difference but that celebrates it.

Before Maureen passed away, she wrote this to me: “Please continue to teach with me in mind; that is my greatest wish.” As I sit down to the Pesach Seder this year, and talk with my family and friends about the four children, I will be asking whether we as a community tend to favour one child over another and spurn the others.

Is there a way we can challenge our biases and create a Pesach Seder and a wider Jewish community that holds this deep diversity?

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