Another Rosh Hashanah 5776 Sermon: What Fiddler on the Roof Can Teach us About Tradition and Change

Copy of the Original Broadway Program (1964)“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, 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? We stay because the Center is our home… And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.”

Click here for Topol’s version of Tradition

“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered at services and always wear a prayer shawl. when we pray. 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… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

A Zero Mostel I’m not . . . but like a generation of others who grew up in the sixties and seventies I was raised on a steady diet of Fiddler on the Roof. From Sunrise, Sunset at practically every Jewish wedding, to the Sabbath Prayer that supplanted the traditional Shabbat candle lighting liturgy at more secular Jewish camps; from singing L’hayim To Life! countless times at the back of school buses on youth group outings, to the popularization of the word Yenta in American slang, Fiddler was inextricably woven into the fabric of American Jewish life, even as it became a cultural icon of our time.

It is now a half-century since Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway. Yet Tevye and his family arrived in New York much earlier. Fifty years before Fiddler became a smash hit, the well known Yiddish author, Shalom Aleichem — on whose stories the musical is based — introduced Tevye der Milchiger, Tevye the Dairyman, and his family to the Yiddish theater of New York. Irony of ironies, his plays about Tevye were dismal failures, each closing after only a few weeks. The recollections of shtetl life held few charms for members of the immigrant generation, engaged as they were in the struggle to build a new identity in a strange land. Those who passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, would have been astonished to learn that Jewish and non-Jewish theater-goers of a later generation would go gaga at the sight of a big bearded Jew with a jiggling belly, singing “Tradition, tradition!”

But the 1960s heralded a tectonic shift in the cultural foundations of American life. Alissa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, has this to say: “In the nineteen sixties Fiddler on the Roof served as an engine of Jewish acculturation in America, [while] for the next generation of assimilated Jews, it became a sacred repository of Jewishness itself.” In other words, as Jews traveled ever farther away from the shtetl, the nostalgic look at Eastern European life through rose-colored glasses became a safe way to validate the break with past. Far from being a play about tradition, it is a play about fiddling with tradition; a study in “how far one can bend without breaking,” to quote our friend, Tevye.

Thus, in many ways the show is a parody of shtetl life. Consider that in Fiddler the rabbi is not a figure of authority, but a bit player; he is beloved and respected, to be sure, yet ultimately irrelevant. The matchmaker is comical and lovable, but oblivious to the concept of romantic love, which the audience knows must win the day. In the world of tradition, Tzeitel would have married Lazar Wolf, not Motel the Tailor. Indeed, in Shalom Aleichem’s actual story, when Chava marries the Russian Fyedka in a Russian Orthodox Church, Tevye sits shiva and declares her dead to him. By contrast, in Fiddler, a door is left open to the possibility of future reconciliation when he whispers, “God be with you” and gestures to Tzeitel to share his words with Chava. In short, Fiddler allows us to feel good about tradition recast as an escapist fantasy regarding the “good old days” that no one would want to relive. When the actors leave the stage and the house lights come up we are quite content to live in a world without the rigidity of small-town Eastern European life.

The tension between tradition and change isn’t a uniquely Jewish concern, of course. Eight thousand miles away, Fiddler on The Roof has met with incredible success in Japan, where it has been produced hundreds of times since 1967, enjoying a major revival in Tokyo just last year. The late Joe Stein, the librettist for Fiddler on the Roof, loved to tell a story about a Japanese producer who asked him how Americans could understand a story that was so Japanese! Click here for To Life! L’chaim in Japanese.

But you need not travel to Asia to understand that everywhere is Anatevka, including our own Jewish community. We, too, sometimes without being fully aware of it, are caught in a riptide between the currents of tradition and change. The centripetal forces of life cause us to embrace change one day and reject it the next; to venerate tradition, but then to set it aside. An oxymoron to be sure, but our religious life is one of “tradition and change”.

This message is integral to Rosh Hashanah. The central section of the Musaf Amidah is entitled Zikhronot, Remembrances. It urges us to sanctify the present by recalling the past. Yet it is followed by Shofarot, which speaks of the Shofar as the instrument sounded to usher in new experiences in the life of our people: the giving of Torah was announced by the Shofar; its notes heralded the start of sacred assemblies; and according to the prophet Isaiah, a great Shofar will one day announce the return to Israel of those lost in the land of Assyria and cast away in the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 27:13). Today we stand on threshold of a New Year, but we examine the past deeds that led us to this moment. Three times in our liturgy we proclaim, “Hayom Harat Olam — a rather odd phrase in Hebrew — which is usually translated as, “Today the world was born.” Yet we can just as easily read it as “Today itself is eternally pregnant” — pregnant with possibility. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration in the present embracing both old and new.

At the Jacksonville Jewish Center men and women sit together, yet our service is largely a traditional Hebrew one. We count women equally in our minyan, but the majority of women chose not to wear tallit or tefillin, despite the encouragement of clergy. We allow for instrumental music, but only up to a certain point in our Friday evening services during the summer months when sunset is later. Our synagogue calls to the Torah as b’not kohen, women whose fathers are kohanim. They do not, however, participate in duchenen, the recitation of the Priestly Benediction at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

These particular differences and countless others are neither whimsical nor happenstance. They are rooted in varying aspects of Jewish law and tempered by the unique character of our synagogue’s history, culture and community. As a Conservative synagogue, halakhah has final say but all the above enter into the consideration of what to change . . . and what not to.

There’s a story told about a woman who always cut away the edge of a brisket to cook the smaller piece separately. When asked by her daughter why she did this, she responded, “It’s what our family has always done. Perhaps my mother can tell you why.” When the young woman asks her grandmother, she receives the same reply. It is only when she inquires of her elderly great-grandmother that the latter explains, “When I was first married we were poor and couldn’t afford a proper roasting pan. The only way I could fit the meat into the pan was by cutting off a piece and cooking it separately.”

The message? For several generations no one thought to ask about the origin or reason behind the truncated brisket.  In other words, traditions have a way of becoming self-validating entities; they persist even when the practical reasons for their continued observance no longer exist. Traditions can make us feel secure and at home; they reassure us that in a sea of change, there is a safe harbor of continuity with our past.

Judaism, however, takes a more nuanced view.  The Babylonian Talmud relates that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he found God placing crowns on the Hebrew letters in the Torah with strokes of the divine quill. Moshe inquires about the function of these crowns, and God informs him that, in the generations to come, a great scholar would derive heaps upon heaps of interpretations from each jot and tittle. His curiosity aroused, Moses asks to see this man, whereupon God transports Israel’s greatest teacher to the classroom of Rabbi Akiva. Sitting at the back of the room, Moses is distressed to discover his inability to follow the conversation — could it be that he, who had transmitted the Torah from God to Israel, was stymied by the give-and-take of the very tradition he handed down? Yet at that moment, in response to a disciple’s query about the origin of a particular law, Rabbi Akiva answered, “הלכה למשה מסיני — It is a law given to Moses at Sinai” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b).

If Jewish tradition were frozen in time, this story would be meaningless. Clearly, the Midrash is telling us that tradition is not impervious to change, but that such change is only meaningful when rooted within the authenticity of the tradition itself. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the tractate Hullin teaches that we must accept the novel views of Torah scholars, but only when they quote them in the name of their teachers . . . which begs the question as to how a view can be new if one learns it from one’s teacher! What the Talmud is really saying is that we can embrace change, but such innovation must come from within the system and implemented for the sake of strengthening Jewish life, rather than simply taking the path of least resistance because it would be easier to do so.

While children are supposed to learn about the “three Rs,” rabbis who wish to be effective spiritual leaders must aspire to the “three Gs”: they must GUARD, GOAD, and GUIDE their communities. As guardians they must protect the health of Judaism’s vital organs by preserving the authenticity of tradition and the integrity of its practice. As goads they are change agents, having to prod, promote, inspire, spur and challenge their congregations not to fall victim to complacency or veneration of what was simply because it was. And in their role as guides they must use the entirety of their knowledge and skills to help congregants navigate between the traditions that nourish Jewish life and those that impede its growth; the changes that can add vitality to our dance with God and those that threaten to undermine the integrity of our ideals.

Our synagogue is many things to many people, but there is nothing more fundamental to our existence than serving as a House of Prayer. After all, no matter how excellent our schools, no matter how vibrant our programming, without worship we would no longer be a synagogue. As for the choreography between continuity and innovation, it finds its most vital expression in our sanctuary, for it is right here that congregants — from those who come a handful of times a year to those present every week — encounter the most dramatic dance of tradition and change.

As guardian, goad and guide, on this Rosh Hashanah, I wish to share a vision of with you of what our communal worship might one day look like. Whether these ideas reach fruition will be determined by our conversations at large. In articulating these thoughts, my most important goal is not the particulars of what I propose, but to raise a far larger question. Beyond the issue of halakhic permissibility, which innovations will energize services, and which will undermine their religious integrity? What traditions are so vital that their elimination would be unthinkable, and why? In ten years will a worshipper at the Jacksonville Jewish Center experience the very same service we do today? What would excite us about change? What would scare us? In the months and years to come I will certainly make the case for specific changes . . . but above all the foregoing are the questions we can’t afford NOT to ask.

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Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Sanctuary

Take a moment to look around this sanctuary. This room has been the site of a thousand b’nei mitzvah, a couple hundred weddings and scores of funerals. In 40 years we have celebrated more than 2,000 Shabbatot in this space. But the sanctuary’s design reflects the vibe of a different era, a time when synagogue worship spaces were linear and frontal, an era when the focus was less on creating a synergy within the seats and more about keeping all eyes on the clergy. Within this room there are, so to speak, multiple zip codes, families and friends who have laid claim to particular rows or sections. Show me a map of the sanctuary and I will tell you who sits where. This is a tradition!

Yet let me be heretical for just a moment If we were building the Jacksonville Jewish Center today, our thinking about the layout of the sanctuary would likely reflect a very different set of principles than those that guided the sanctuary design of the seventies. Were I to imagine a redesign of our sanctuary, here’s what I would see: a front bimah at a single, lower level to allow for greater access to our beautiful ark and a sense of it being closer to the congregation. Instead of our hazzan davening from the front, there would be a raised platform in the middle of the room so that the words of Torah and the music of our liturgy would emerge from the very center of our togetherness. Instead of forward facing theater-style seats which subtly create a sense of being a spectator rather than a participant, the seats would form a 3/4 circle facing one another with an open space between the bimah and the ark for dancing with the Torah and one another. Perhaps most radical of all, rather than our seats being bolted to the floor, they would be movable to allow us to create different seating configurations depending on the service and the numbers present.

What I’ve just described to you is actually a more traditional approach to sanctuary design, yet it would certainly be a dramatic change for us. There will come a time when we need to renovate this room . . . when it does will we choose to replicate 1975 for the sake of nostalgia, or be willing to push the envelope for a new vision? There are no plans afoot at the moment to make any changes to the sanctuary, but in my role as goad to constructive change let the question stand as one worthy of discussion.

As synagogue guardian of Jewish law, so long as I am the spiritual leader of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, our Shabbat and holiday services will always consist of a primarily Hebrew liturgy, a kosher Torah reading and the chanting of the haftorah, the recitation of the Sh’ma and its blessings, the Shaharit and Musaf Amidot, while the hazzan’s repetition of the foregoing will remain a regular feature of worship. It is inconceivable to me that we, with our proud traditions and history as a Conservative synagogue that has never settled for religious minimalism could ever uproot the liturgical trunk of our davening.

Yet I am equally convinced that the time has arrived for us to create an alternative service on Shabbat mornings. We are actually many congregations within a single community, each with different perspectives. I am the rabbi of the Shabbat regulars who desire and love a traditional service, but I am also the rabbi of those on the periphery who might find a very different worship experience more meaningful, and as a result, attend more frequently. There are times when we need to be one community doing one thing, but there are also times when we must acknowledge that one size does not fit all. To implement a second service successfully will require careful design, one that resists invidious comparisons — it’s not about offering “sanctuary light”, and it’s not about “great taste” vs. “less filling” to quote the old Budweiser commercial.

To that end, during the coming year I intend to visit vibrant non-traditional services in several cities across America, and to begin a larger conversation about how we would integrate a second service into the larger picture of our worship. If we are successful, some enthusiasts will want to know why we can’t make over the sanctuary service in its image . . . and we will explain our belief in tradition and change.   If we are successful, we might find some sanctuary regulars complaining that they are concerned, lest an alternative service draw an entirely new group of Shabbat attendees uninterested in traditional sanctuary worship . . . and we will articulate our commitment to tradition and change. And if we are really, really successful, we will ulitmately realize that we are a community of many colors, and that growing the size of the pie strengthens the fabric of the larger community. Ask yourself this: Even if there were two services going on at the same time, would we really be a weaker synagogue by having more people, new people, in this building celebrating Shabbat?

Will the time come when we add the matriarchs in some fashion to the Amidah? Some will shout “yes”, others will yell “no”. Tradition and change. Shall we take a firmer hand in expecting middle schoolers to attend Shabbat services as a non-negotiable requirement for b’nei mitzvah? Will our USYers lead our Friday night service once a month? Tradition and change. Should kohanim duchen not just on the High Holidays, but on the pilgrimage festivals as well? Might we at some future point allow for hand drums or other forms of percussion at Shabbat services (as it is, we already have a Cantor who plays his lectern like a drum), even as we continue to refrain from other instruments for halakhic reasons? Tradition and change. Will we we cringe because this wasn’t done at the Center in 1980, or can we have faith in the possibility that change can animate and strengthen tradition? It is false to believe that we have to choose between the ghosts of our grandparents and the souls of grandchildren.  Rather, the task is how to introduce our grandchildren to their grandparents in new ways that speak of ancient truths. As the great Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook once described it, “It is to renew the old and sanctify the new.”

In the coming year I invite you to partake in the conversation about how to grow our spiritual life as a synagogue. These conversations will deepen our awareness of the vortex of tradition and change, whose eddies swirl around us, whose currents carry us down the river of time, past the banks whose landscape changes with each passing day.

Marc Chagall, Music (1920)

We are fiddlers on a roof with feet planted firmly at the very spot where the shingles of custom and innovation reach their apex. We hold in our hands the magnificent Stradivarius of the Jewish past, but we play it with a bow of change whose movement across the strings of our heritage creates the notes we hear in the present. Because there can be no change without tradition, and no tradition without change, we will sanctify the new and renew the old as all the fiddlers of past Jewish generations have done on the parapets of Prague and Provence, the gables of Cracow and Castile, and the roofs of Jerusalem and Jacksonville. Tradition . . . and change.

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