There’s no debate – Fiddler on the Roof is part of the Jewish American canon. It’s given us a classic story, many popular songs and two dance moves that aren’t the Hora – the Bottle Dance and the Tevye Shimmy.
But it’s also given us a terrible metaphor for Judaism.
“A fiddler on the roof – sounds crazy, no? 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.”
These are the very first lines of the movie, spoken by Tevye in the opening song “Tradition”. So, being Jewish is crazy. And dangerous. And it isn’t easy. OK, not a great sales pitch for Judaism.
But surely there must be some benefits to fiddling on the roof…otherwise we’d just get down from there, no?
“You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home.”
That’s the pitch?! We stay, not because we gain anything by being on the roof, but because that’s what we’re used to and we don’t want to leave? Habitual Judaism: do it, because that’s what you do.
Maybe there wasn’t a need to articulate reasons for staying on the roof back in the day, when Judaism was so ingrained that “leaving” would have been extremely difficult in the rare instances when it was even an option.
But Judaism does not play the same role for most American Jews today. For those on the roof, seeing how easy it is to leave, the “it’s your routine” argument doesn’t suffice as a reason to stay. Besides, most of us aren’t on the roof at all – we’re on the ground floor deciding whether climbing up is worth the effort, sacrifice and risk. We need the case for engaging, not the case for staying.
So, why fiddle on the roof? Tevye has only one word for an answer: tradition!
“You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you… I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.”
This may be a funny joke, but it reflects an uninspired relationship with Judaism. Tradition without explanation is arbitrary and empty. It’s the routine argument all over again, except, instead of it being what you’re used to doing, it’s what previous generations were used to doing. Just because someone did something 200 years ago doesn’t mean it has inherent meaning. We believe in the idea of progress precisely because we don’t believe that the way things were is necessarily the way things should be. Tradition for tradition’s sake is not a value, and it’s certainly not a foundation upon which to build a Jewish identity.
Maybe it’s not fair to give Tevye this burden of representing an inspired Judaism. His character wasn’t intended as a model of the ideal Jew. Still, whether by causation or coincidence, his understanding of Judaism as something that is important because it’s old, not because it’s relevant, is shared by many American Jews today.
While this may have provided Tevye with sufficient motivation to stay, it certainly isn’t a compelling reason for us to engage today. We need to find a new metaphor. To do that, we’re going to have to put the fiddle down and get off the roof.