I have questions, but they just lead to more questions

“Why?” This is one of the first questions children learn to ask. As any parent knows, it is a stage of development that starts out cute and ends up maddening, with every follow-up question the same: “But … but … why?” For a time, we try to give earnest and truthful responses, but eventually we realize this exercise is not about right answers. It’s about the question.

We are a naturally inquisitive species, and our desire to ask “why” separates us from the other animals. But as we mature, we become more discerning. We learn that not every question is a welcome one. And when we cross a line, we find out pretty quickly.

Traditions tend to be in that off-limits zone. Family traditions are especially perilous territory, where even a straightforward question born of curiosity can be perceived as a challenge to the family system. “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” is a classic retort. Case closed.

Still, I’ve wondered what compels people to follow traditions when they have no primary connection to the source. Religious practice is rife with archaic customs, and the explanations offered are barely cogent. Here’s one: Why are the rules for avoiding leavened products on Passover so specific, while the latitude in making haroset, symbol of mortar made by Israelite slaves, is as wide as the Sinai desert?

I appreciate the Four Questions asked at the seder, but they just aren’t enough.

Often it takes someone or something from the outside to shake up the status quo. It happened in my family nearly 20 years ago, when we expanded our circle to include relatives we first met when they emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Arriving in San Francisco with limited Jewish knowledge, they relied on us to show them our ways.

Following traditions is one thing; being put in the position of explaining them quite another.

The funny thing is, it didn’t really matter. The relatives were mostly glad to adopt the new customs, and didn’t ask many tough questions. Sure, we glossed over a few of our answers, but isn’t that a tradition, too?

The biggest change, though, was that now we were a group of mixed cultures and could no longer take for granted that everyone was on the same page. That brought the haggadah under scrutiny, because it tells a story of persecution and personal liberation, a meaningful theme for our reconstituted family. I have never been a fan of the Maxwell House version, but using it was … well, a tradition. The time for change was upon us.

I went to work with my sister Dee-Dee to create a haggadah that would be personal and make sense to our family. We would update it, make it relevant, use clear language. We would retain the basic structure and rituals but strip out all the stuff we usually skipped anyway. We stayed up late, cutting and pasting and flouting copyright law.

When we used it at the seder, it went over just OK. People were nice and willing to try the new version, but I don’t recall an outpouring of accolades. I took notes as we read along, like a playwright seeing her work staged for the first time, and revised it for the following year. But somehow that second year there weren’t enough haggadahs to go around, and someone pulled out the stack of Maxwell Houses to supplement — and you can probably guess the rest.

Judaism is not dogmatic as far as faiths go, and questioning is an intrinsic part of the culture. A 2005 study of American Jews cited by the Forward found that this openness to questioning actually makes it harder to “speak to specifics” on our beliefs. In other words, we are encouraged and expected to ask questions, but that doesn’t mean we are rewarded with the answers. It just means more questions.

I think this year I’ll look past the talk about lice and parting sea waters and 40-year journeys in the desert, and simply try to appreciate what traditions enable us to do — acknowledge our roots, connect to the past, eat and be together. And I won’t ask why.


Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.