“Fiddler on the Roof” is without a doubt one of the most iconic Jewish films of all time. Humour and tragedy combines to give a wonderful insight into life for us Jews in eastern Europe in the early 1900s. Some of the lines (“If I were a rich man…”) have entered popular Jewish parlance and the opening scene (“Tradition!”) has become particularly popular.
One of the most important themes of the film, however, is the slow unravelling of the tradition that had held the Jews of the shtetls together. First, Tevye’s eldest wants to choose her own husband! Then his second daughter not only chooses her own husband, but they tell him that they will get married with or without his blessing! When his third daughter leaves home to marry a non-Jew, this is a step too far for poor Tevye.
In terms of our Jewish traditions, nothing is more iconic than the Shema. Used for centuries as a statement of faith, it is integral to the understanding of what it means to be Jewish. “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. It is a declaration of who we believe God to be. And it is found in this week’s parsha. Parsha Vaetchanan deals which some classic Jewish texts and themes. Aside from the Shema and the V’ahavta, Moses retells the Ten Commandments. There is no doubt that these chapters are some of the most important in the Torah and have defined who we Jews are for centuries.
But times change and as a necessity, so do traditions. I recently took part in a Kabbalat Shabbat meeting in Berlin. Approximately 40 young people sat in a circle and sang beautiful, traditional songs based on the Tehilim to a musical accompanyment. At one point in the ceremony the Amidah was recited and also, of course, the Shema. Despite the lack of Torah scroll, the people still covered their eyes and recited the prayers. This was an attempt by young Jewish people to adapt the traditions to their style. During the course of the evening, it was stated that people all over the world were taking hold of Judaism and molding it into their image. This raises a good question: How relevant are the traditions of the past for us today? Are the Shema and the Ten Commandments still something that young Jewish people living in the 21st century should hold to? How much can we mold and change what God has instituted?
At the start of this week’s parsha Moshe explicitly warns us: “You shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you…” (D’varim/Deutoronomy 4:40). God is the only one who can bring change to a relationship that He has instituted – not us. And He has to a certain extent, when He told Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah), “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (31:31-34). No longer an external Law that we have to try and keep, but a new life with a new heart, and written on that heart God’s Torah to lead and guide us. How so? Because the Messiah Yeshua’s sinless life was payment for all of the evil that we do and have done and as such it ushered in the New Covenant – one where all inside the Covenant know Him intimately and have His Torah written on their hearts. One where the Shema isn’t just a statement of faith, but a true knowledge of the one true God.
Tradition is important and good, but we must never let it get in the way of God. Tradition isn’t God, God is God.
After the service was finished, I asked one person whether they believed in the God that they were singing to. His response, that God is all around us, revealed to me that he didn’t really believe in the God of the Shema, the God of the Bible. The traditions were important to him, but it stopped there.
Sometimes we need to stop for a moment and take stock. Have we, as a Jewish people, allowed our traditions about God to replace Him? Are we more concerned about following man-made traditions than actually asking what God wants? And what if God has really ushered in the New Covenant that He said He would do to Yirmeyahu? Are we also willing to adapt our thinking to include what God says He will promise to do for us as part of the New Covenant?
“Tradition!” – yes, but please don’t forget God!