How important is tradition in Judaism? I don’t just mean for Tevye, “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?
Despite 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. And the universal observance of Passover, even today, is the clearest example of how important our traditions are to us, no matter where we stand on the religious spectrum.
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.
So what if my grandfather did it? My grandfather rode around in a horse and buggy, too! Must I give up my car for a horse just because my zayde rode a horse? And if my bubbe never got a university degree, does that mean that I shouldn’t get one either? 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 many Jews who think this way and who will not be convinced to behave Jewishly just because their grandparents did. And guess what? They are absolutely right. Empty traditionalism just doesn’t wash.
We need to tell these people 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 those very same reasons and rationales still hold good today.
Too many young people have been put off tradition because some 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 tzuris, 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, the historical, philosophical and even mystical.
On Friday, it will be Yom Tov again and on the Seventh Day of Passover, we always read the “Song of the Sea,” sung by Moses and the Jewish people following the splitting of the sea and their incredible deliverance from the Egyptian armies. This year will mark the 3,334th anniversary of this event, arguably the greatest miracle in history. There, in the opening lines, we find the verse (Exodus 15:2): “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 … Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Again, our G‑d comes first. So it is clear that while the G‑d of our fathers—i.e., “tradition”—most definitely plays an 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 faith, 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 millennia becomes a powerful force that can inspire us and our children for all time. But first, we must make it ours.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.