In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye claims that the lives of those in his town of Anatevka are precarious, like the life of a fiddler on a roof. What helps them keep their balance? Tradition!
Tevye explains some of his people's traditions, those of Jews in Russia.
For instance, he says, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. And where did this tradition come from? He doesn't know. But because of tradition, in Anatevka everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
The philosopher and novelist Walker Percy described our time as the age of not knowing what to do. Philosopher Peter Lawler argues that never has a people had so many choices, but have been given so little guidance as how to answer the question, Who am I? and What am I supposed to do?
Tradition helps answer those questions. Of course, the knock against tradition is just what Tevye says: He engages in traditional activities without really knowing where those traditions come from.
But this is part of the definition of tradition. In our time we do have many choices. Tradition, though, is something you can't choose. Thus, it is a kind of oxymoron to say that one chooses to live a traditional life. You don't choose a tradition; a tradition chooses you.
We act in traditional ways because these are the ways of our people. As Tevye says, You may ask, why do we stay up there (on the roof) if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home.
These are the ways of our people, tradition says, and these are the rules that help us define who we are and allow us to guide our interactions with others.
Even if we don't ourselves understand the reasons behind all of our traditions, seldom do traditions arise without some meaning. In Tevye's Jewish tradition, one of the reasons for the rules guiding even the mundane things of life is to show precisely that God cares about our whole lives and to constantly remind us of our duties toward him.
So we should forsake our traditions with great caution. British writer G.K. Chesterton once described two men. They come across a gate in a field that seems to serve no purpose. The first man says, This gate is useless; let's tear it down.
But the second man says, I agree the gate appears to serve no purpose. But someone put it here for a reason. So before we tear it down, let's try to determine what the purpose was and if it is still worthwhile.
Christmas is a time for many traditions. Obviously there are the presents. Some people are Christmas Eve present givers, while others prefer Christmas morning. Why? Tradition!
Some have Christmas ornaments passed down through generations. Others have their traditional Christmas service time. Many of us have favorite songs. These traditions help give added meaning to the season.
So let's keep our traditions. For as Tevye says, Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as ... as a fiddler on the roof!
Jon D. Schaff is professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. The views are his and do not represent those of NSU.