How important is tradition in Judaism? I don't just mean for the Fiddler on the Roof -- I mean for me, you, and all the rest of us. How strong is the need for tradition in the spiritual consciousness of Jews today?
the effects of secularism, I would venture to suggest that there is still a need
inside us to feel connected to our roots, our heritage, and our sense of
belonging to the Jewish people.
But for vast numbers of our people, tradition alone has not been enough. And that applies not only to the rebellious among us who may have cast aside their traditions with impunity, but also for many ordinary, thinking people who feel that to do something just because "that's the way it has always been done" is simply not good enough.
what if my grandfather did it? My grandfather rode around in a horse and buggy!
Must I give up my car for a horse just because Zayde rode a horse? And if my
Bobba never got a university degree, that means that I shouldn't? So, just
because my grandparents practiced certain Jewish traditions, why must I? Perhaps
those traditions are as obsolete as the horse and buggy?
There are indeed many Jews who think this way, who will not be convinced to behave Jewishly just because their grandparents did.
We need to tell them why their grandparents did it. They need to understand that their grandparents' traditions were not done just for tradition's sake, but there were very good reasons why their forebears practiced those traditions. And that those very same reasons and rationales still hold good today.
Too many young people were put off tradition because some cheder or Talmud Torah teacher didn't take their questions seriously. They were silenced with a wave of the hand, a pinch of the ear, the classic “When you get older, you'll understand”, or the infamously classic ”Just do as you're told”.
There are answers. There have always been answers. We may not have logical explanations for tsunamis and other tzorres, but all our traditions are founded on substance and have intelligible, credible underpinnings. If we seek answers we will find them in abundance, including layers and layers of meaning, from the simple to the symbolic to the philosophical and even mystical.
This week's Parshah, B’shalach, features the Song of the Sea, sung by Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jewish people following the splitting of the sea and their miraculous deliverance from the Egyptian armies. In its opening lines we find the verse, “ This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; the G-d of my fathers, and I will exalt Him”.
The sequence is significant. First comes “ my” G-d, and only thereafter “the” G-d of my fathers. In the Amidah, the silent devotion which is the apex of our daily prayers, we begin addressing the Almighty as “Our G-d and the G-d of our fathers... Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov”. Again, “our” G-d comes first. So it is clear that while “the G-d of our fathers” -- i.e. "tradition" -- most definitely plays a very important role in Judaism, still, an indispensable prerequisite is that we must make G-d ours, personally. Every Jew must develop a personal relationship with G-d. We need to understand the reasons and the significance of our traditions, lest they be seen as empty ritual to be discarded by the next generation.
Authentic Judaism has never shied away from questions. Questions have always been encouraged and formed a part of our academic heritage. Every page of the Talmud is filled with questions -- and answers. You don't have to wait for the Passover Seder to ask a question.
When we think, ask, and find answers to our Emuna, then the traditions of our grandparents become alive, and we understand fully why we should make them ours. Once a tradition has become ours, then the fact that this very same practice has been observed uninterruptedly by our ancestors throughout the generations becomes a powerful force that can inspire us and our children for all time.