Theology at the Theatre: Fiddler on the Roof
What are some of your family’s traditions? With Thanksgiving approaching and Advent and Christmas fast on its heels, we’re entering a season that is often steeped in traditions – cultural traditions, religious traditions, and family traditions. Have you had to create or recreate or bend or break traditions in your family? This year in particular, I’ve been thinking about how our Christmas Eve patterns have changed through the years. When I was little, we’d eat dinner at my grandparents, and then attend worship together. And then, we’d go back to my grandparents’ house to open presents. Eventually, the tradition changed because my family started going to church in Rome, and they had two Christmas Eve services, and it was too hard to go to service, drive to Westernville for worship, and drive back to Rome for the last service, and we were all involved in the choir and bell choir and reading and it was just too much. The tradition had to change, and it was hard to make that change, hard for my grandparents in particular, but it was the right thing to do, to fit our changing lives, and our deepened relationship with our community of faith. Of course, then I became a pastor, and my Christmas Eve traditions have changed again, and remain flexible each year to accommodate my schedule! But I’ve had one constant every year in ministry on Christmas Eve: my brother Todd has performed monologues during worship for me. He’s my brother who is a professional actor and a theatre professor, and every year for the last 14 years he’s been Joseph or a Shepherd or King Herod or Wiseman and helped me bring the Christmas story to life on Christmas Eve. This year, though, Todd is a serving for a year as a professor at the University of Idaho, and he’s not sure he’ll be able to make it home at Christmas time. I’ve been feeling sad, both about not having Todd at home for Christmas, but also for the gap he’ll leave on my Christmas Eve worship experience. This year, my tradition of Christmas Eve will have to change again.
What are some of your traditions? Ideally, our traditions help us make meaning, help us experience more fully the meaning of whatever event our traditions are attached to, like Todd helps us more fully immerse ourselves in the Christmas story. But sometimes traditions can also keep us from moving forward, from growing in ways we want to, even if the tradition in itself isn’t a bad thing. I loved Christmas Eve at my grandparents – but it wouldn’t have been right for us to hold on to that tradition instead of becoming more involved with our faith community.
Today, we’re talking about Fiddler on the Roof. It’s the musical in our series that I know the best. Although my brother Todd is the professional actor of the family, I love theatre too, and twice I’ve been in community theatre productions of Fiddler, playing small roles like the hat maker, or more recently being typecast as the town gossip in the little village of Anatevka. Fiddler tells its main theme in the very opening monologue and song. In the opening scene, Tevye, the lead character, a poor milk man, asks the question and gives the answer that frames the whole story. He says,
“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! Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Throughout the musical, three of Tevye’s daughters marry in turn, but each match poses a challenge to Tevye’s sense of tradition and how things are meant to be done. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks her father to be let out of the arranged match for her, so that she can marry the man she truly loves, Motel, the tailor. Tevye groans and complains, but finally agrees that they can marry for love. Then his second daughter, Hodel, wants to marry revolutionary Perchik. When they approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye refuses at first, but finally gives in. And then finally his youngest daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian man, Fyedka. She, too, seeks to change her father’s heart about her match, but Tevye says “enough” – he has bent enough and let go of too much tradition. Near the end of the story, he does, at least, pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka, even if he cannot fully come to terms with the marriage.
As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as lighthearted as it is at times, the questions asked are serious ones, important ones. How far should you change traditions to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? How far is too far to bend? When do the traditions hold us to what is good and important, and when do they keep us from moving forward, from growing and changing in healthy ways? What traditions are based on simple habits that have extended over generations, and when to they represent the unchanging truth?
Today we take up the gospel of Mark, as we look in on a conversation between Jesus and a group of scribes and Pharisees. If you are at all familiar with the Bible, I think it is easy to come to a scripture text and see the Pharisees and think: “Aha! The bad guys!” whenever you encounter these religious leaders. But the Pharisees, of course, didn’t view themselves as bad or faithless or villains. They were, in fact, religious leaders, devout Jews, who tried very hard to follow the law of Moses carefully and interpret it for daily living. They emphasized upholding the rituals, the traditions. They insisted on using oral tradition as well as written tradition, and in that way were viewed as quite liberal by other Jewish sects. For example, they added qualifications to laws like "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" so that executions were less frequent. On the other hand, however, their additions to the law through oral code sometimes added many new requirements for people to follow, like around issues of observing Sabbath, for instance. And their learning and education began to set them apart from the rest of the people, making them a kind of aristocracy. These kinds of practices, all these additional rules and looking down on those who didn’t follow them all, these were the practices of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus most often criticized.
The Pharisees have noticed that some of the disciples of Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Their concerns weren’t about hygiene, but about ritual cleanness – an act of spiritual purification before eating. Mark notes for us that the Pharisees have elaborate washing rituals that they engage in before eating, traditions handed to them by the elders. They question Jesus: “Why aren’t your disciples following the tradition of the elders?” And Jesus responds with very pointed words: He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ And then, to the crowds he says, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus indicates that somewhere along the way, the Pharisees stopped being concerned with carefully explaining God’s law, and started being concerned with doing things a certain way because that’s how they’d always been done. Somewhere in there, actually following God’s commandments got lost, in favor of human tradition. But what matters to God is the shape of our hearts, the state of our souls, not the nitty-gritty of these outside practices we adopt to practice our faith.
Jesus says that the Pharisees – and since he’s talking to religious leaders, we can assume he’s speaking to us, too – he says that we add so much stuff to the list of what we have to do to be a good and faithful person, and then get so worried about doing this little stuff, that we miss the main point, the core stuff, that Jesus asked us – commanded us – to do in the first place. And when we start worrying more about the stuff we’ve added on than the stuff Jesus told us to do, all that extra stuff becomes a form of idolatry, which is anything we make more important to us than God. In our Disciple Bible study, we’ve been reading through the writings of Paul, and Paul repeats Jesus’s theme frequently: he warns us very sharply several times against doing anything that puts obstacles in between us and God, or especially between others and God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that all their traditions have become obstacles between them and God, between those they teach and God.
Rev. David Lose writes, “Jesus is challenging [the Pharisees] as to how their traditions contribute to them fulfilling their mission.” “You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many Lutherans [substitute your community] does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!” We love our traditions. I love our traditions. They have helped to mediate the faith to us in countless ways. But what if they’re not doing that for the emerging generation? What if we’ve come close to worshiping the traditions instead of the God they were supposed to point to? And what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission – whether to care for our aging parents, feeding the hungry, opening our doors to the homeless, making our building available to after school tutoring, sharing the Gospel with folks much of the church rejects, partnering with the community to care for more of God’s children, whatever – what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions? What then?” As a community of faith, we have to be continually examining our hearts, our spirits, our practices, and our traditions, and making sure we never lose sight of our mission, never let anything get in the way of our primary task: sharing the good news about Jesus and God’s reign with others.
At Ohio Wesleyan University, where I went to undergrad, we had a tradition, one that I know other colleges have as well. There was a big rock outside the main dining hall, and different groups on campus would make a bonding activity of painting the rock, a practice allowed by administrators, I might add. Different groups would either sign their names in paint, or paint it in school colors, or do something creative, like make it into a giant ice cream cone. But I’ve always been curious: how big is that rock, really? I’m not sure how long the tradition of painting the rock has been around. But it’s been a long time. And if you peeled away all the layers, chipped away all the paint, would that rock be so small you could actually just carry it with you? Jesus told us what the greatest commandments were: to love God with our whole selves, and to love one another. Have we added so many layers to these tasks that we’ve made them into boulders that no one can carry with them?
I want to be clear. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. Having traditions isn’t bad. I love some of the traditions, old ones and new ones, that my family shares. Jesus himself participated in the traditions of his time and place and culture. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following Jesus, can never become more important than actually following Jesus. Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is a heart that is seeking after the way of Jesus. Amen.
 Bock, Jerry and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof, script located at: http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/fiddler-on-the-roof-script.html
 Lose, David, “Pentecost 14B – Tradition!,” In the Meantime,