Friday, March 13, 2009
I'm with Tevye - Tradition is How We Keep Our Balance
Last night I had the privilege of seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time. It was a stage rendition of the famous musical done at my son's high school. Oh, and did I mention that my son was in the play?
I suppose it seems odd that I am enjoying this play for the first time only in my middle years. Still, enjoy it I did. And probably more so precisely because of my age.
In many ways I related most closely to the central character Tevye. He is the poor milkman in the Russian village Anatevka, struggling to make ends meet in the pre-revolution year of 1905. Although he freely admits to his many struggles and frustrations in occasional prayers to God, he still values the tightknit Jewish community that comprises his world.
In his first monologue Tevye addresses the audience and explains to them the meaning behind the "fiddler on the roof" visible behind him, which serves as the theme of the play. It is a simple, yet profound testimony to the value of tradition - especially in our day when tradition is so often devalued in favor of change.
Tevye: A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!
Tevye: Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as... as a fiddler on the roof!
Although Tevye is Jewish, his point would be well taken by a Christian as well. We, too, have our traditions, and their value to the community of believers has been to help us "keep our balance." In their enthusiastic rush to throw out the honored traditions of the church, many modern reconstructionists completely miss that they are jetisoning the very means whereby the church keeps from swinging into dangerous extremes. For example, without the tradition of the liturgy every pastor is free to substitute his own thoughts and feelings in place of God's Word. These so-called "creative worship" liturgies end up as little more than personal commentary unanchored by any stable truth. The experiments with the liturgy over the years have therefore had disasterous effects in such places as the disruption of the confession of the church, both of sins and faith. Without a solid base we leave our poor people as little more than "fiddlers on a roof," weaving precariously on the edge of falling into spiritual injury and death.
In the play Tyve sees his treasured traditions devalued and abandoned one by one. Much of the story surrounds his struggle to adapt to the change that is disrupting his family and even the future of the very village he calls home. The village is divided, in some ways, between those who embrace change over tradition, and those who cling to tradition. As his daughters choose mates to marry Tevye feels forced to make his own choices between the tradition he values and the love he has for his own children.
Unfortunately we too often feel forced to make the false choice between the honored traditions of the faith and the ability to adapt to our own changing world. Yet, to relinquish these traditions is to lose our balance. Life is aptly described as those who are trying to "scratch out a tune without breaking their neck." It is precarious at times. But Tevye is right. We need our traditions for stability. Shalom to the Tevye's of the church!