Creating a Safe Space-Time

The recent death of Stephen Hawking made me think of his famous work, A Brief History of Time. This book has been described as the most bestselling book that no one has ever finished. I was no exception. There was simply no way I could comprehend much of what was written (the illustrations were kind of cool–all I remember was showing a bowling ball on a sagging mattress to demonstrate the bending of space-time…or something.)

Pretend for a minute that Professor Hawking had been in the room with me while I was trying to decipher his book. At some point, he might have asked me, “Do you have any questions about what I wrote?”

Could I have even come up with one question? The material was so far over my head, so incomprehensible, so removed from any context or anything I had ever experienced–I would likely have sat in a slack-jawed stupor–unable to even formulate the first question.

In that moment, I would have become the seder’s infamous Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask.

In many Haggadot, this last of the four types of learners at the Seder is often pictured as a baby or very young child. Someone who has not yet learned how to even speak, and therefore is literally unable to pose a question. But this overlooks so many educated and intelligent individuals who for whatever reason have simply not had the benefit of a Jewish education, who have never been a part of any Jewish ritual–but who want to be. It just so happens that what many of us consider the most basic Jewish knowledge is simply not part of their background.

Soon enough, the Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask becomes the Child Who is Afraid to Ask. We may say, “There are no stupid questions!” but do we succeed in actually creating such an atmosphere? Is there a secret comfort that we take in being “in the know”? Is it satisfying to use our Hebrew and Yiddish expressions with each other, laughing at our inside jokes, while realizing that not everyone around us is in on it?

This is one instance where I think the ancient rabbis got it right. It’s our job, whether at our own Seder tables or as a Jewish community, to make sure that we’re not being exclusive or cliquish, that we don’t somehow think we’re more Jewish than others because we already know this stuff. Let’s make our congregations and our communities judgement-free zones where any person, irrespective of Jewish background, can feel welcomed and comfortable seeking knowledge.

As long as they don’t ask me to explain space-time.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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