“Tradition! Tradition!”

Get More Articles Like This One

I’ve always enjoyed the movie Fiddler on the Roof, the tale of a Jewish family living in Russia in the days prior to the revolution of 1917. I’ve been thinking about some of its themes again. Central to the story is the role that Yiddish tradition and community play in the peasants’ lives. Tevye, the patriarchal father, says that they are able to “keep their balance” through their traditions. They offer stability, protection, and consistency. Tradition is their moral guide, and their adherence to it their piety.

This is all challenged, of course, when his three daughters fall in love with the “wrong” men. 

The firstborn has been secretly in love with the town tailor since she was child. But in their community, marriages are arranged through a “matchmaker.” So when she finds that she has been “matched” with an old man, she runs to her father, begging him to let her marry the tailor. Tevye wrestles between tradition on the one hand, and the desire to see his daughter happy on the other, and finally says yes to her. In an overturning of tradition, she and the young tailor happily wed.

The second daughter falls for an outspoken young communist, who comes to their village breathing the fire of Marxist revolution. His ideas fall far outside the pale of the traditions of their community, and he’s viewed as an odd duck. Tevye says with good humor, “He’s a little crazy, but I like him.” Again, against tradition, his second daughter announces that she will marry him—but with or without her father’s permission. He grants it, giving them his blessing.

Even Tevye steps outside the “norm” when he dances with the Russian farmers.

But when his youngest daughter sets her eyes on a handsome young Russian, this is a step too far for Tevye, who absolutely refuses to let a child of his marry outside the Jewish community. When she runs away, marries the man, and then comes back to her father to ask him to acknowledge and accept her decision, he turns away and will not speak to her, essentially disowning her. This was one tradition that could not be broken, and yet she had done it.

All the people of the community cherish and abide by their long-held traditions which uphold family, faith, and community—even though most of them (by Tevye’s own admission) have no idea why they do many of the things they do, or how their traditions started. They run on the steam of “this is how things have always been done,” and “this is what God and my community expect of me.” 

In a sense, tradition and community play a dual role in the story. On the positive side, it keeps the people knit together. It encourages a unity in the ranks with shared values. And, at least to a degree, it helps resist radical change, through peer pressure (most of the people have no interest in Perchik’s communist notions).

On the other hand (as Tevye would say), their acceptance of tradition breeds a laziness and complacency of the mind in how one ought to be and live. They outsource their thinking to the rabbis. 

The community is their standard of truth and morality. Many of the traditions are unexamined, and when new ideas are brought forth, the people do not know how to respond except with the protest, “But we don’t do it that way!” When Tevye hears, “Times are changing,” he has little to say to this, little to argue against the new ideas but to cry, “Unheard of! Absurd!”

And so speaking of this theme (especially where it concerns raising children), I have a few thoughts. (Note that when I speak of tradition here, I am not talking of a community’s amoral preferences—like foods or innocent customs, but of social mores and habits.) Tradition and community are both valuable and have their place. Traditions steeped in truth, goodness, and beauty are beneficial. To live in a community that reflects the true, the good, and the beautiful is desirable. We should seek to cultivate such communities that share biblical values and care about one another.

But we should never allow community and tradition to become our standard of truth and morality—not even when they are good. Truth must be derived from objective observations of reality, and from God’s Word, not from the collective thinking and traditions of a community. The fact that something has been done one way for a long time does not mean that it is being done the best or the wisest way. Inquiring minds often react against the staidness of tradition, and are not satisfied with the answer, “This is how we’ve always done it,” or “This is how the great thinkers did it,” or even, “This is how Christians have always done it.” We need better answers for our children. 


I imagine that a lot of evil ideas and behavior have come about through a pendulum swing in reaction to traditions (both good and bad). Marx himself hated traditions and wanted to see all the old ones abolished through revolution. And in response, many today feel that by digging up the old traditions and steeping ourselves in them, we can defend the truth and insulate ourselves from radical, secular change.

But what is old is not always true/good, and what is “new” is not always wrong. There have been thousands of communities throughout world history, each with their own traditions and ideas, and many contradicting the others. Blind allegiance is not helpful. Just as good ideas endure, bad ideas, too, often “stand the test of time” in the sense of hanging around like a nasty cough you can’t shake. The age of an idea or tradition is no indication of its veracity. “Yea, hath God said?” goes back as far as the Garden.

In every age, every idea and philosophy—even the old ones—need to be held up to the light of reality/Scripture, and carefully examined. No exceptions apply to Christian communities and traditions. It is not disrespectful to our forefathers (biological or intellectual) to do this. When done out of a love for God and his truth, goodness, and beauty, it is righteous. The biblical injunction to return to “the old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16) is not an invitation to follow whatever set of traditions we choose (even if we grew up with them). It is a call to return to Truth itself. 

And after we have cast “down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God,” and brought “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ,” our children will need to do it again as individuals before God who will each give an account for what they have done, what they have believed, and how they have lived. Hopefully, our example set before them—as well as that of the community around them—has encouraged them in the right direction, and they will hold fast to that which is worth holding on to… and let go of what isn’t.

I would sum it up this way: truth and morality should not be derived from tradition and community, but they should certainly be reflected in them. Tradition and community should mirror back to us (and our children) the beauty of that which we have carefully and objectively assessed to be true and good, and provide us with a nurturing environment to live out the truth to the glory of God.

Tabitha Alloway

Tabitha Alloway is a wife and homeschooling mother of three who enjoys reading, writing, and exchanging ideas with fellow believers.

Become a Christian Defender of Reason, Individualism, and Capitalism:

Get our latest book for free when you subscribe

Get exclusive content when you join our Patreon

Listen to the podcast

Connect on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube