Jason Byassee: Tradition, tradition.

Fiddler on the Roof, contrary to the impression some have of its most famous tune, shows tradition is a multi-valent thing.

I had heard the most famous song from the score for Fiddler on the Roof used to illustrate the misuse of tradition. The village of Jews in Czarist Russia have a fiddler on Tevye’s roof, playing away a tune that alternates between chipper or haunting, depending on the moment in the play. Why do they have this fiddler? They don’t know. They just always have. Tradition! Tradition! (See the film version of this song here.)

This, I heard a modernist theologian say, is a misuse of tradition. Keeping on doing something when the rationale, or even goodness of the thing, is lost. It is often said that the slogan of a dying organization is “We’ve always done it that way.”

I wondered about this watching Fiddler recently here in Durham. The lead was played by the legendary Chaim Topol, who won an Oscar nomination playing Tevye in the film version more than 30 years ago. He’s played Tevye in the play 2500 times, and he can still fill an enormous theater with his bass voice, can still keep up doing the dances, and can even make an audience member seated a mile away laugh with just a twitch of a facial gesture. He has done this role so often it has become part of him, and so he is free to do it well.

The play suggests “tradition” is a multi-valent thing. When the Czarist constable comes to tell the Jewish community they must leave their homes, Tevye asks why. “I don’t know,” he says. “This is how we must do things.” Here is tradition in the demonic sense: an order handed down from a distant potentate, executed by loyal but insufficiently moral functionaries, crushing a precious community that had lived there for years.

Elsewhere “tradition” is presented as sweet, but passé. It might be that fathers have always chosen spouses for their daughters based on finances and strengthening family and village life. “But times are changing,” as Tevye’s daughters keep reminding him as they defy his wishes for their spouses.

But what about the traditions of the Jews generally? The Torah given at Sinai has been passed down in written and unwritten form, argued over incessantly by rabbis, lived into by Jews today as it has been for millennia. The play’s best moments are Tevye’s own arguments with God. “We know we’re you’re chosen people,” he protests to God during the community’s persecution, “but couldn’t you choose someone else once in a while?” Tevye often misquotes “the good book,” to the consternation of his rabbi, but the delight of the audience. “As the good book says, ‘man who spits in sky gets spit in eye’.” It says no such thing, he knows it, so does the audience, and it works.

Yet the whole crux of the play is that Judaism is beautiful, and here a local instantiation of it is pressed into non-existence, as has been done by oppressors all the way back to Pharaoh. The Jews survive by God’s goodness and in a rich array of new instantiations. There’s something deeper here than Judaism kitschified into showtunes for legions of gentiles.

Of course we always reappropriate tradition selectively. Not everything can stay the same for the families that leave rural Russia for America or the holy land. But the Jews show that the burden of proof is on those who would change. Sometimes that burden can be met. Rarely.

Years from now I will “pass on” (the literal root of tradition) to whoever will listen that I saw Topol perform. And that’s not even a God-given rule for life.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.