“Tradition? Tradition?”

The funniest Purim schpiel I ever witnessed came when one of my students at Hebrew Union College lampooned Reform Judaism by dressing up like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, and singing, “NoTradition, no tradition!” Indeed “traditional” Jews often represent my Reform forebears as unfairly dismissing tradition. And to some extent they are right.

By contrast, Reform Jews frequently represent “traditional” Jews as blindly advocating tradition just because it is tradition, and to some extent, they are right also.

Radical Reform Rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) dismissed much of rabbinic tradition because he thought he lived at a higher moment in evolved human consciousness — as if he had changed but tradition hadn’t. The Chatam Sofer, an equally ardent opponent of Reform, ruled, “Novelty is itself forbidden by Torah” — as if tradition never changes so we shouldn’t either. They were both wrong, because tradition is never stagnant; it is an ever-changing thing. Take our prayers, for example.

Most of them date to the second century, but exact wording varied from place to place and service to service, as prayer leaders constantly improvised, the way jazz musicians riff on themes. In the 9th and 10thcenturies, authorities fixed their favorite wording in prayer books, but we have more than one such book; they are not entirely the same; and much was yet to change.

The Passover Seder’s Dayyenu was new in the 10th century. No one said a Mourner’s Kaddish until the 11th or 12thcentury. Alenu did not close the service until the 14thcentury. Sixteenth-century kabbalists composed L’kha Dodi and most of the Kabbalat Shabbat from scratch. Kol Nidre was a popular innovation that the Rabbis despised, but it stuck somehow, and now we love it. Polish-Ashkenazi and German-Ashkenazi Jews differ on Avinu Malkenu. Sefardi tradition has its own alternatives, differing from place to place and time to time. Even our oldest synagogue music is relatively modern; the usual melody for Birkat Hamazon is largely based on Polish mazurkas.

So which version of “tradition” is “traditional”? Everything was an innovation once, and even old things get said or sung differently and become something new. So-called “tradition” is a negotiation between past and present.

Denominations differ on their criteria for that negotiation, but we all go about it in good faith. People wrongly cite “tradition” as a club for cudgeling others, as if one side has “the right amount” while others have too little or too much.

This meditation on tradition is prompted by Sukkot and its mandatory reading, Ecclesiastes, the biblical book that juxtaposes jaded cynicism (“Utter futility; all is futile”) and complete faith (“Revere God and keep God’s commandments”). Some early reader probably added the latter to balance the former. Even Ecclesiastes is not unchanged through time.

Struck by Ecclesiastes’ advice (Chap 5:1) to “make your words few,” Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spain) condemned the prolix prayerbook poetry of Eleazar Kalir, an undisputed poetic genius of an earlier century. Ibn Ezra dispensed with him for being a poor theologian and worse Hebraist. Is tradition the version that likes Kalirian poetry or the version that doesn’t?

Think of tradition as our basement storeroom. We live on higher floors, but descend, on occasion, to examine all those antiques that we have inherited. Lots of them are gorgeous, brilliant flashes of genius that somehow got lost and are well worth dusting off and bringing back upstairs. But some are products of superstition or reflections of unethical biases and embarrassing tastes. Basements also harbor creepy crawly things that we are better off without.

Besides, we will just be coming in from the sukkah, and the thing about the sukkah is that its necessary bareness teaches us to think twice about what we really need in order to live, a lesson applicable not just to conspicuous consumption but to our traditionalisms as well. Tradition is wonderful, in proper doses. Too little of tradition’s best stuff will starve you; but too much of the wrong stuff will kill you, just as easily.

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