Judaism Today: That Old-Time Religion

May I introduce you to one of the most anti-Semitic songs in our popular culture? The lamentable lyrics can be heard in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye strides center stage, flings his arms wide, and to a bewitching beat, bellows the word “Tradition.”

I dislike that song because it offers a false explanation for religious ritual. Saying that we Jews observe many of the rituals that our grandparents did is true. Saying that we do those things because of our reverence for tradition is utterly misleading.

If tradition were everything in Judaism, it would raise the question of why Orthodox Jews should be allowed to travel by Cadillac or fly the Concord rather than confine their transport to wagons or even camels. I dislike this distortion of Judaism because it has helped to fuel mass defection from the community. Indeed, it is hard for me to see how I myself could embrace a rigorous regimen of religious observance strictly because my father did it before me and his father, in turn, before him. I am not a mindless automaton and I don’t care to ape ineffective activities of our ancestors just because they are ancient. No, I prefer my actions to have good reasons. One good reason might he that God commanded me to do them, which is quite different from saying I do them because of tradition.

I may well swallow an antibiotic tablet when I have a fever, just as my late father did when he had a fever. You would be mistaken in concluding that I am therefore obeying tradition. I am actually obeying my doctor just as my dad obeyed his. The truth is that I am taking the antibiotic not because my father used to take them, but because we both obey the same set of medical rules. The reason for us both is that those little pills worked for him, and they work for me. A careless observer could think that in taking the tablet I am acting out a quaint traditional ritual; he’d be wrong. So it is too with religious observance.

I pray each morning. This is not because my dad did so but because we both obey the same set of spiritual rules. I furthermore think it harmful to the human organism, which is not designed for sudden change, to be flung almost instantaneously from the repose of restful slumber into the maelstrom of work or traffic. A spiritual pause serving as a buffer is good for me. That is partly why my father used to pray each morning too.

Yet don’t we all feel the value of the old and traditional? Does Tevye perhaps have a point about tradition?

We must distinguish between things and ideas. Things built today are invariably superior to those made yesteryear. While shoddy furniture is undoubtedly built today, it is bought only by those who wish it. Today’s fine furniture, however, is finer than ever and what is more, it is available at a cost representing far less of a family’s resources than ever before. More people can afford the kind of homes today that would have had monarchs drooling in envy a mere hundred years ago.

Televisions, computers, and cars just get better and more affordable. The same, however, cannot be said for ideas. They seem to deteriorate, becoming shoddier and ever more expensive.

Religious conservatives (a term that I feel should describe all Jews) venerate old ideas. We also revere the things that link us to ancient ideas. But we don’t value old things just because they are old. Personally, I would just as soon see the oldest McDonald’s restaurant razed to make way for a new building. I would never consider furnishing my home with ridiculously uncomfortable and expensive antique chairs. But I would love to be able to preserve the synagogue in which my great-grandfather prayed a hundred years ago or to own a chair on which George Washington sat.

I think that most of us need the authentication that antiquity can confer. Some of us seek our genealogical roots; some collect old maps, books, or paintings, and some try to prevent property owners from demolishing old and useless structures. But perhaps preserving ancient ideas can help prevent us from falling prey to overemphasizing the need to preserve ancient things.

Enjoying a good debate, I often find myself defending conservatism as a doctrine that sees the virtues of ancient ideas and new things. My opponents invariably prefer new ideas and old things. Oh yes, there is something else: They always seem to like Fiddler on the Roof.


  • Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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