When I think of the word tradition I frequently picture a scene in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. It’s actually an entire song sequence in the movie but I picture Tevye (the main character) walking in front of his mule cart dancing and singing “tradition.” He erupts into his melodic lesson on tradition because his children are approaching life differently than “tradition” suggests is correct. I mean, his kids want to marry out of love rather then letting the matchmaker choose a mate? That goes against “tradition!”

Tevye says something interesting about the importance of his beloved tradition. He says it is tradition that helped his people stay balanced. It’s actually this scene that gives the movie it’s name. Late in the sequence Tevye says, “without tradition we would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

The pride he shows in “tradition” is the subject that Romans 3-5 deals with. Paul was called to bring the gospel (good news) to the gentiles. Gentiles were simply non-Jewish people and were viewed by most Jewish people as being unclean, unholy, and outside of God’s plans. The animosity that the Jews felt toward Gentiles was birthed out of a zeal for holiness. Holiness = good; animosity towards others = not so good. So, how did a pursuit of holiness create that negative effect? You have to trace Jewish history through the old testament up to when Jesus shows up on the scene to understand.

A bit of history

When God established the nation of Israel he told them that they were to be a holy (set apart) nation (Ex 19:6). They were supposed to be a nation that stood out among the rest of the nations of the world as different. That differentness was meant to be a beacon of God’s glory to the rest of the world. In essence, Israel was God’s national lighthouse to guide the world to safe (life filled) waters.
Israel embraced this calling with proclamations that they would stay true to God’s plan. But their good intentions fell flat. If you read the story of Israel you find seasons of faithfulness followed by generations of failure. The pattern went like this: commitment, failure, exile, repentance, and then they would start the process over again. This pattern continues through the old Testament. During the 400 or so years between the last book of the Old Testament and Jesus’ arrival on the scene, there was another revival and commitment to God. If you are looking for an amazing story you can read the story of the Maccabean Revolt. During this season, God-fearing rule following became extremely important to the Israelites. They didn’t want to fall into religious error again. They set up rules to prevent you from breaking rules that prevented you from breaking the rules. It was that world that Jesus arrived on the scene.

Don’t get me wrong, the purpose of all the rules (traditions) was to ensure holiness. They desperately wanted to stay true to their commitments to God. They didn’t want to keep falling into the traps their forefathers had fallen into. Jesus began his ministry in the thick of this religious culture. What eventually got Jesus killed was the fact that he wouldn’t follow tradition all the time. If you read through the gospels, you see how Jesus seems to mess with the religious leaders by intentionally braking with tradition. Not only did he brake the rules he claimed to be above them. Imagine what the zealous leaders were thinking as Jesus did these things. Their aim to keep religious clarity and purity was being threatened by this crazy Jesus character. The irony is their rules prevented them from seeing the God (Jesus) they were trying to stay true to.

Breaking down the problems

Here’s the thing: traditions exist because a group of people or family have an important value that they want to enforce and pass down. Usually those values are good and the traditions chosen to enforce them are deeply meaningful and helpful to align lives and thoughts with the value. But there are a few huge risk when it comes to tradition.

First, traditions are often chosen because they are meaningful for one generation and serve to enforce the value to them. The problem is the next generation may miss the meaning of the tradition and fail to associate it with the value, or end up making the tradition the value it was supposed to represent. There is an illustrative line in the middle of the Fiddler on the Roof sequence I mentioned earlier. Tevye turns to the camera and says, “you may ask, how this tradition got started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know.” He didn’t even remember what the tradition was designed to point him to. When this disconnect happens tradition becomes the value rather then the value itself.

Second, if a tradition is misunderstood, confused, or outdated the following generations will associate negative thoughts with the value those traditions are connected to. Rather then cementing a value, a tradition can actually cause following generations to abandon values. This sort of thing happens all the time with religious behavior. A repetitive prewritten prayer may cause a child to abandon prayer (the value) rather then abandon the the prewritten prayer (the tradition).

Finally, traditions can lull us to sleep. The brain is obsessed with efficiency. The brain is constantly looking for patterns of living or behavior that it can learn and automate for us. Have you ever driven to work and suddenly realized that you don’t remember the last few turns you made (please say yes, I don’t want to be the only crazy one)? When was the last time you had to focus deeply on tying your shoes? The brain begins to record those behaviors in order to free itself up for more complicated tasks. As a musician I am grateful for this mental capacity. As my mind begins to automate one guitar playing skill it then becomes free to focus on a new layer of skill. I no longer have to consciously think about playing a C chord, now my mind is free to think about fingerpicking specific strings in a specific order of the C chord.

One of the reasons you often feel like you need to take a vacation right when you get back from vacation is related to this. Simple tasks like where your toothbrush is location become consciously more difficult when you are away from your own home. Whenever you are on a vacation away, your brain must concisely perform tasks that it usually has automated. That mental activity burns calories and dwindles energy. The other reason you may need a vacation after vacation is if you have little kids with you.

This is the risk of the innately repetitive nature of tradition. A behavior which once instilled mindfulness about values, over time begins to eliminate mindfulness. Well intentioned patterns begin to shut our brains down from truly thinking about their significance. It’s why our minds can go on autopilot during a familiar song or prayer.

This issue is exactly what Jesus is dealing with when he said things like, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Matthew 15:8).”

So tradition is bad? Well, that is not what I said. I think tradition can actually be very good and in my next post I’ll explain why.