My parents came from different backgrounds and had experienced quite different traditions. My mother was raised by her Jewish grandmother and belonged to a Jewish sorority. My father’s parents were Southern Baptists. When my parents married my mother agreed to join the Baptist Church. So my earliest experience in religious traditions were those of the Southern Baptists. By the time my parents divorced when I was in high school I had become disenchanted with those beliefs and traditions and was searching for something with which I felt more comfortable. What I found were the traditions of my mother. Group membership lies at the base of the authority of tradition, for a person might be shunned or ostracized from a group for violating traditions. Yet each person is still free to make their own choice, as I did. I was 18 when I made that choice and I have now lived as a Jew for almost 60 years.
We have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. I suspect many of you will recognize I plagiarized that.
When you look at Fiddler what you see are traditions changing, but the fiddler remains, firmly balanced on the roof. Intermarriage is the most difficult change for Tevye. Yet if you look at Jewish communities around the world we tend to look like the community in which we live. In a study group I once attended the rabbi responded to those opposed to Jews marrying non Jews by asking, “Do I look like I am of Middle Eastern descent?”
Some of the power of tradition lies in comfort and recognition. When we are in a setting where we feel comfortable with the traditions it feels different from being in a setting where the traditions are different from our own. Let me give a personal example. When I was last in Chicago on the Sabbath, which for me is sundown on Friday night to sundown on Saturday, I was looking for a synagogue to attend. At sundown on Friday the closest synagogue was Orthodox. I was happy to be there celebrating shabbat, but the traditions of that synagogue were, in some ways, different from those which I had experienced in a reform synagogue. I felt somewhat out of place. Saturday morning I attended a reform synagogue, which was much further away. There the traditions were those with which I was familiar. I felt totally at home.
We are now in the midst of the High Holy Days. This Tuesday evening will be the start of Yom Kippur. As with all such holidays, traditions abound. For many Jews this day is a day like Christmas or Easter for Christians. Even if you never attend during the rest of the year, this is the day you show up. It is seen as acknowledging your membership in the congregation. I rather dislike traditions where you are “supposed” to show up. However, I love hearing the shofar sounded and hearing Kol Nidre sung. I enjoy apples and honey, the round challah and the hope that a new year brings..
I have rejected the tradition that during the High Holy Days God determines a persons future for the coming year or that prayers can result in forgiveness, for an individual or for a congregation. However, tradition also teaches that to atone for deeds committed against another person you must approach that person directly and apologize. This I fully accept and wish that I were better at practicing it. The High Holy Days are a time for reflection, a time for honest self examination. This is probably something we should always be doing, but setting aside a time to remember a practice that we so often forget is probably a worthy tradition.