by: Denise Robinson
The Bible Meets Broadway: Fiddler on the Roof
Matt. 15:1-9; 2 Thess. 2:13-15; 1 Cor. 10:31-11:1
This Sunday’s musical Fiddler on the Roof wrestles with the struggle between tradition and traditionalism in Judaism and in a Jewish community. Fiddler on the Roof is based upon a collection of Yiddish stories about Tevye the Dairyman. The musical opened on Broadway on September 22, 1964 and ran for 3,242 performances. The film version opened in theaters on November 3, 1971. It won Academy Awards for best cinematography, best music, best picture, and best actor in a leading role. The show takes place in the mythical village of Anatevka located in what was known as the Pale of Settlement in Russia in the year 1905. The Pale of Settlement was an area in western Russia, particularly in Lithuania, the Ukraine, and eastern Poland, in which Jews were permitted to live; they were excluded from living in the rest of the country. As the curtain opens, we see perched precariously on the roof of a house a fiddler playing a melody. As the fiddler plays, Tevye, the central character in the play appears. He is a husband to Golde and a father to five daughters, three of whom are unmarried. He is a milkman who barely makes ends meet by delivering milk from door to door. Gesturing toward the fiddler playing on the roof, Tevye describes his people as fiddlers on a roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking their necks. “It isn’t easy,” he says; in fact, it’s dangerous. So, why do the people of Anatevka stay? Because Anatevka is their home. Living in Anatevka requires balance, he says, and how do they keep their balance? Tradition!
They sing how because of their traditions they’ve kept their balance for many years. Tevye and others from the village describe how the various roles of father, mother, son, and daughter are set by God’s design. Tevye says: “We cover our heads and always wear a little prayer shawl to show our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I tell you: I don’t know. But it’s tradition!” Born into a community in which tradition tells you how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, and how to wear clothes, Tevye struggles with how things are. He sings, “If I Were A Rich Man,” and ponders what it would be like to have a big house, for his wife to have servants, and how wonderful it would be to be respected and to have the opportunity to spend more time in prayer and in the study of God’s Word. He concludes: “Lord, who made the lion and the lamb. You decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan? If I were a wealthy man.”
As his daughters are coming of age, Tevye is, according to tradition, supposed to pick husbands for them with the help of Yente, the matchmaker, but the daughters have other ideas. They want to go against tradition in the name of love, and it creates havoc. Tevye asks his wife, Golde, if she loves him and they come to the realization after twenty-five years of an arranged marriage, that it’s nice to know they do love each other. Perhaps there is something to tradition after all. But the oldest daughter chooses love and a marriage to a poor tailor over marriage to an older, wealthy widower butcher. The next daughter chooses love and marriage to a socialist who is banished to Siberia. The third daughter elopes and marries outside the Jewish faith by marrying an Orthodox Christian and that is, alas, too much against tradition for Papa. Sticking to tradition, he disowns her. In the end, tradition cannot save Anatevka or the Jews living there: they are forced to pack up their belongings and leave their homes.
When you hear the word “tradition,” what comes to mind? What are your initial thoughts to traditions? Are they positive influences in our lives, or are they negatives? Do they open life up or close life down? Do they provide structure for freedom or deprive us of freedom? My answer is – it all depends. In Tevye’s village of Anatevka, traditions helped them to endure a hard life of poverty. Traditions helped them survive harsh persecution. Their traditions helped them know who they were and what God expected them to do. Tradition helped them keep their balance. At the same time, however, some of their traditions enslaved them. No new ideas were encouraged and no new behaviors were allowed. They were not open to newness. And that is where the drama, the conflict, begins. When his daughters desire to marry for love, Tevye is caught between tradition and his love for his daughters. Something has to give.
But everything in life can’t be subject to change, can it? When it comes to life, and when it comes to faith, we are up on a shaky roof – and we need balance. Matthew 15:1-9 shows us Jesus’ reaction to those living according to tradition without an appreciation of the meaning of those traditions to faith in God. Jewish authorities came from Jerusalem and noticed that the disciples were not washing their hands before eating. Now this was not a COVID violation or even a matter of eating with dirty or unclean hands. You see, the Jews had a tradition for handwashing which was written down in a collection of rules called the Mishnah. The rules for handwashing dictated everything from collection of the water to storage of the water to the actual method for washing the hands. In short, the disciples were not following Jewish tradition and the Pharisees and scribes what to know why. Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, Jesus tells these religious scholars that he is well aware that even as they talk about keeping and honoring tradition, they are actually breaking God’s commandments. It seems that these Jewish elders were failing to support their parents – instead claiming to give the money to God while keeping it to benefit themselves. God’s commandment was to honor their father and mother, and they found a traditional loophole that allowed them to get away with ignoring their obligations under the commandment. Jesus calls them hypocrites because while they performed all their rituals flawlessly, their hearts were not right before God.
In his book, The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan, a late church historian, wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Pelikan was addressing those who believe tradition, such as liturgy, hymns, communal prayer, need to be removed from the church in order for the church to grow. Notice the name of the book is The Vindication of Tradition. Pelikan argues in defense of tradition that it has kept faith alive for thousands of years and from generation to generation. Traditionalism, on the other hand, are those rules and rituals which divide us, exclude some while benefitting others, and lead to legalism rather than love of God and love of others, and Pelikan argues these things kill faith. The Apostle Paul believed in conserving the best of tradition while moving out in living faith toward a new future. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Ch. 2, v. 15, he wrote: “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught.” But, at about the same time, in 1 Corinthians, he said: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away, see everything has become new.” And in 1 Cor. 10:31 he reminds us to do everything for the glory of God keeping in mind that we are to be imitators of Christ. In the Gospels, there is a balance between old and new, between conservative and liberal, between traditionalist and progressive. But where do we find that balance? For the Apostle Paul, the answer is not where, but in whom. The balance is found in the teaching and life of Christ, who lived and died for the glory of God. The standard is no less than to strive to be like Jesus. We measure everything by Jesus. We walk with Jesus through the pages of the Gospels. We listen to him, learn from him, and catch something of his spirit. We see his love for God and love for all people. And we are called to become imitators of him. Jesus observed certain traditions in his own life: he worshipped God, he prayed, he quoted from Hebrew Scripture. But he knew that traditions without love of God and others were meaningless – in fact, they were worse than that because people placed traditions above God and used tradition to hold themselves above other people and in so doing turned people away from faith in God.
Traditions can be either dangerous or essential. They can be dangerous if they blind us to new truth, if they stifle growth, if they make us satisfied with the status quo, or if they cause people to reject faith in God. Traditionalism, the dead faith of the living, will never bear fruit. Dead faith goes through the outward motions and lacks inward love of God. Traditionalistic faith can be found in churches in one of two ways: it can be found in dying churches with no desire to reach out and it can be found in seemingly thriving churches that dumb down faith instead of telling the truth about what it means to be Christian, to take up the cross and follow Christ’s path. At the same time, the right traditions are essential in helping us learn from the past, in giving us a perspective from which to see, and in providing a firm foundation from which to step into, a new future. A tradition like The Apostles’ Creed reminds us of the essentials of our faith and that we stand within a living tradition given to us by a living Lord. A tradition like Holy Communion reminds us of Christ’s love, his redeeming death, his promise to be with us always, and his assurance that he will come again. As Tevye said, the right traditions help us to know who we are and what God expects us to do. The past becomes the present as Christ himself joins with us and we become new creations in Christ.
So, how do we affirm the importance of right traditions? First, we remember that when we stand before God, what will matter is not that we’ve performed religious rituals, but that we have worshipped and obeyed God from the heart. Second, we get rid of whatever traditions we have that isolate us from others or keep us from welcoming others into what is, after all, not our church but Christ’s church. We embrace traditions that teach us and lead us to be more like Christ.
Our living God is calling us to a living faith within a living Church in the midst of a dying world. You are not dead. Don’t pretend you are. God has work for you here. God has work for us here. Living a dead faith is pretty simple: attend church occasionally, recite some words on the screen, sing a hymn or two. A living faith that calls us to live and to love like Jesus is much more demanding but, in the end, it is much more rewarding. Is your faith alive?