Good Questions at the Seder Table

Six years ago, my partner and I decided to host our first Passover Seder. Although we spent the official Seder nights with my family this year, this past Friday we hosted seventeen of our dearest friends for an unofficial but extremely Seder-like event. We studied and argued and sang and ate and drank wine late into the night – this year was a new record, finishing at nearly 4am! And we only ended because our bodies failed us, not because our hearts or our minds did.

Our Seders are, so I’m told, fairly unusual. We try to combine attentiveness to tradition with a sort of radical openness, both intellectual and emotional. (Our friend Amy summed it up when she said, “You’d best come to this Seder with an open mind and an open heart.”) We use the traditional text as our basis for discussion, but we’ve also read Ursula K. Le Guin, argued about semiotics, and studied Mishna at the Seder table. We ask everyone who joins us to take the Seder seriously as a Jewish ritual, but we include atheists and agnostics, Christians and Buddhists, and of course Jews of all stripes. There is room for anyone who is willing to ask a good question.

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about what makes a good question. In my post advising high school students about game research, I tried to introduce students to the idea of disciplinary thinking – that people with different disciplinary approaches will think different questions are good ones. I saw this happening in practice just the other day! I’m part of an interdisciplinary fellowship program, and at our seminar last week a colleague presented her work on how taxation and transparency affect political engagement. I thought it was a really well-designed study that effectively isolated the specific variables she was looking at – but the questions she was getting from, say, the historians and sociologists in the room were really not about the study at all. They were asking these wonderfully rich questions about the local political situation, and concepts of ownership, and how information flows, which were clearly rooted in the types of questions their own disciplines support. Sometimes I think half the work of the program is just getting us to understand the kinds of questions other scholars spend their lives grappling with!

But, of course, not all questions are disciplinary. When it comes to life questions, I’m inspired by this wonderful essay about why “Do you believe in God” is a bad question. Rabbi Mitelman essentially says that to ask a good question, you must let go of any preconceived notions you have about the answer. That’s a powerful technique to use in conversation – and, for that matter, at a Seder. At this year’s Seder, someone asked why we say the Hallel, a series of psalms in praise of God. What does it mean to praise God? What if one doesn’t identify as a Jew? What if one doesn’t believe in God? How metaphorical is our relationship to the text? What can we learn from it no matter who we are? These are not questions with answers, but they are questions that can lead to reflection and, one hopes, eventually wisdom.

Of course, disciplinary questions and “lifeworld” questions aren’t entirely separate ones. I find they intersect most often when I teach. Early in every semester, I tell my students, “When I ask a question in this class, I don’t always know the answer – and those are the best questions, because it means you can find something out.” The questions are always rooted in the (multiple) disciplines I use to engage with games, but the answers are genuinely unknown. It feels incredibly risky, whether you’re asking about game design or God, but it’s the only way to know the world as something more than what you think it is. As my friend Rob once put it, “The world is more interesting than any one person in it.”  And I really, really like the world that way.

One comment

  1. Gabriel Faith says:

    Thank you for that Mitelman link – the direction of the essay is not quite what I was expecting when I skimmed the headline and the beginning, but I think he’s making a really great point. The framing of questions and the answers we expect – especially for huge abstract theological/philosophical ones like “Do you believe in God”- has a huge impact on the kind of answer we’re going to get or the kind of discussion we’re going to generate. I also find that “do you believe in God” is not a very useful question: while my personal answer is “yes”, what that means to me is more about the way I frame my own existence in the world, the questions I ask about it and the way I behave in it than about any literal, tangible God Who Exists. I find that it’s useful to frame the world in this way, that it helps me organize my thoughts and understand my place, but that either asking or answering the question “do you believe in God” doesn’t get me very far. The interesting parts are the questions beyond that. (Let’s say ‘yes’. What can we say about morality, justice, and human social obligation then? What if it’s ‘no’?)

    Also, I missed being at your Seder this year, and I was thinking of you all.

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