This past week, I had the opportunity to re-watch the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof in a Jewish film class I'm taking at The Ohio State University. As the film makers likely intended, I watched the Jewish community of Anatevka with the feeling that the village had some resemblance to my own Jewish community.
In one scene after another, the protagonist, Tevye, finds himself struggling to reconcile his traditions with modernity. Three of his daughters embark on marriages that challenge his religious norms. The first daughter, Tzeitel, marries a man while foregoing the community's long venerated system of matchmaking. Tevye, a loving father, relents to the marriage, but only after a long argument and much haggling. The second eldest daughter, Hodel, marries a man who would probably be classified as a heretic in today's community. Yet again, Tevye relents. Then, in the most brazen act of rebellion, the third daughter Chava marries a man who is not Jewish. This, however, is the final straw. Tevye cannot accept his daughter's decision to marry outside of the faith. He sees assimilation as one step too far, as a total rejection of his faith, as a rejection of all that he stands for as a human being.
What struck me most about Tevye's decisions to endorse or reject his daughters' marriages was the method he used to arrive at his decisions. The film makers invite us into an internal monologue, where Tevye weighs the merits of his daughters' cases. On the one had this...On the other hand that... Instead of simply dismissing his daughters' choices, Tevye first engages each side of the argument, because so much is at stake to him. These are his daughters, and his love for them forces him to at least weigh the merits of each side of the issue.
At the end of the day, Tevye determines that he cannot endorse Chava's decision to marry a non-Jewish man. But the decision comes only after an intense internal deliberation. Tevye at least gives his daughter the time of day, though he ultimately rejects her choice.
Though Tevye is the film's protagonist, each audience can be left to judge the merits of his choices. While is likely that some Orthodox Jewish viewers will see his rejection of his daughter's decision as unfortunate yet necessary, many others will feel disgust at the way he seems to be treating a person whom he loves.
My Orthodox community of today is far more advanced than the Shtetl depicted in Fiddler on the Roof. We have shed much of our ancestral superstitions and have largely embraced science and the culture around us. Nevertheless, the Orthodox community today still struggles to confront the outside world, to keep up with the demands of modernity. For instance, the Orthodox Jewish community has a long way to go on the topic of gay rights and the place of women in communal life. There are different sides to these issues, with many passionate voices espousing one view or another. But as Tevye does in his internal monologue, we must at least carefully listen to the merits of each side and weigh the merits of each case. Immediate rejection of divergent views can only lead to hostility and misunderstanding.
As a community, we must adopt Tevye's approach and face the most intense issues with a degree of empathy. And regardless of the conclusions we eventually draw, we have to remember the great importance of listening to the voices of those we love.