Fiddler on the Roof and the Church Emerging

Well here’s an unusual way to segue into preparation for Pentecost. We went to see the musical Fiddler on the Roof a few nights ago. I have seen the movie multiple times and the stage musical once before. It’s obviously a favorite. In this production raspy-voiced Harvey Fierstein played Tevye the Milkman, the everyman hero, and did a marvelous job. But it was the crinkly-eyed humor of Topol as Tevye in the film version that set this story deeply within my heart. Tevye longs to be a rich man and deedle deedle dum, that is, to have the leisure time to read the Holy Book several hours everyday. (If I had that kind of time I’m sure that’s what I would do too. Just sayin’.) Tevye also tutors me in prayer through his ongoing warm, pleading, complaining and congenial conversations with God. “Sometimes I think when things get slow for you up there you think what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevye?” Then when he’s interrupted in prayer, “I’ll talk to you later.” He represents a man of deep faith grounded not so much in theological accuracies as in tradition and Story.

If you don’t know the story, Teyve and his family are Jews, living in the little shtetl of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century. They are extremely poor and work very hard sun-up to sun down in order to scratch out a living. They hold fast to their faith and traditions (“Tradition!!!”) to keep themselves from toppling like a fiddler perched precariously on the roof. But times are changing, as the younger ones often say to Reb Tevye. His oldest daughter dares to pledge herself in marriage to her beloved Motel without the help of a matchmaker. “They gave each other a pledge! Unheard of! Absurd! They gave each other a pledge! Unthinkable! Where do you think you are? In Moscow? In Paris? Where do they think they are? America?”

His second daughter becomes engaged to Perchik, a “stranger” from far away who has studied at the University and has strange ideas. “Girls should learn too. Girls are people.” “What? A Radical!” Hodel and Perchik not only break tradition by foregoing the usual path of the matchmaker but they do not ask for permission from the Papa, only his blessing. Furthermore, Hodel’s love for Perchik draws her to move away from the family to follow him on his political path of resistance. “One little time, I pulled out a thread, and where has it led? Where has it led? Where has it led? To this!” Even so, he gives them his blessing AND his permission.

The third daughter, Chava, commits the unforgiveable sin or so it seems. She elopes and marries a non-Jew. Fyedka is presumably a Russian Orthodox Christian. He is not only a stranger, he is other. This pushes Tevye to the breaking point. “Chava is dead to us now,” he cries, leading to one of the sweetest dance scenes as the young women move from the safe womb of home and family to leave one by one with the men that have won their hearts.

We see Tevye’s mind and heart stretch further than he thought possible as he struggles with what he has always known (“Tradition!!!”) and the new ideas and possibilities that are flooding his village through the younger generation. He is compelled to go back to his story for grounding. He says of his second daughter and son-in-law to be, “They will be married without a matchmaker! But did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? Yes they did! (points to God) And it seems these two have the same one!”

Tevye reaches deeper into his story and heart for something that will help him negotiate this new landscape. Even as he does, the walls of bigotry and injustice begin to close in around him as the Tsar’s government sets into motion the gradual purging of the Jews from their homes and villages. The people of Anatevke are forced to sell their belongings and leave in a mere three days. The scattering of generations of family and friends cause Tevye to open his heart again to Chava and her husband, even giving them a blessing: “God be with you”. This humble, unlearned man is opening his heart to the other even as the other in the form of the Tsar’s government is moving to eliminate him.

The strange juxtaposition hit me deeply this time – what a picture of the Church in this age. We are being facing shifts and changes not seen since the Reformation, being forced to go back to our story beneath all our certainties of interpretation and re-examine what the love of Christ looks like both within our circle and without, and to re-discover how that might be played out in this new age. And, is there evil closing in? Some might say so, feeling that Christian voice and values are dismissed and disrespected in this postmodern culture. I do see that as true but I would argue that we have brought this on ourselves, by offering law and judgment instead of the radical love of Christ. But that is a post for another time. As it is, the church is struggling under the burdens of its own creation – the institutions and traditions as well as “truths” that have come to define us but might be confining us in a container that is far too small to sustain the true Life of a dynamic, living entity.

Here is both the gift and the curse of the postmodern age – as our culture broadens due to pluralism and globalism and old constructs of culture which supported our understanding of faith are questioned and meaning is diluted, “innumerable myths rooted in either history or tradition or folklore or collective lunacy” (James Davison Hunter) can be finally debunked. This era poses a new threat to our collective Christian identity but also an opportunity to clear away some things that have been added upon the foundation of faith, altering it in ways that have distorted us.

Anyhoo, we are well into a time in which pluralism has immersed us in the thoughts and beliefs of many others, flattening out distinctions and changing how we believe. We can respond by becoming like the Tsar who drew ever shrinking circles of reality around people and ideas that fit his perceptions of truth. Or, we can go deeper into our truest source of identity so that we can we allow our hearts to expand to embrace the stranger and the other even as we sense the walls of exclusion and ridicule close around us.

This is the weekend we celebrate Pentecost. Our identities are set firmly within us. The “law” of God is now written on our hearts and the Spirit of God lives within us. We are secure enough to move away from our energy of pure self-preservation (trusting that we are secure) even as old traditions and constructs topple around us, so that we can be persecuted for what truly represents Christ: radical love for the other and an identity that finds its roots planted deep within the embrace of the Trinity.

St. Paul in Acts 13:36, refers to King David having “served God’s purpose in his own generation.” This suggests of course, that faithfulness works itself out in the context of complex social, political, economic and cultural forces that prevail at a particular time and place… To face up to the challenge of integrity and faithfulness in our generation, then, requires that Christians understand the unique and evolving character of our times. “ ~James Davison Hunter

You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world. ~Perchik

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless. ~Tevye

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  • Steve Hayes

    And, is there evil closing in? Some might say so, feeling that Christian voice and values are dismissed and disrespected in this postmodern culture. I do see that as true but I would argue that we have brought this on ourselves, by offering law and judgment instead of the radical love of Christ.

    Yes indeed, and that is the heart of it. I read newsgroups and almost invariably the non-Christians who write about Christianity simply assume that it is ALL about law and jusdgement and condemnation — what have we done to give them this impression?

    • ellenharoutunian

      That’s an important self-reflection that we need there. Hey Steve, your picture kind of looks like Tevye!

  • Daisha

    I love this play and your perspective.
    I used to teach pre-k at Jewish community centers. One of my favorite trainings was when a (very Jewish) rabbi gave us a teaching on Pentecost. He told us this midrash about the giving of the law that I’ve pondered for years. In this story, the Hebrew people at Mt. Sinai were more diverse than I’d imagined them. They spoke different languages and dialects, yet when Moses finally came down and read the law they all heard it in their own tongue. I was immediately struck by the obvious parallel to the NT story. It’s interesting to me that in both his oral tradition and our written story, God gave his gifts (law and Spirit) in such a way that recognized every “other”. For God to customize both events, personally to each ear says a lot to me. If God himself is willing to bend in such dramatic ways, how can I justify my own rigidity? I also love how sometimes the deepest and most ancient traditions and stories can hold truth for navigating a new landscape. Truth never changes, but what a gift that we can!

  • Tammy

    I’m so glad you’re “back”! Missed your insight…although, Kathy Escobar keeps me thinking! 🙂 LOVE the “roots planted deep within the embrace of the Trinity”! I’m looking forward to your blog on radical love! If you’re bored you can check out a poem God gave me on my blog regarding the trinity:
    God bless you, Ellen!

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