There is an old joke about a Jewish congregation that was arguing over whether to stand or sit during the Shema prayer. Half the congregation stood; the other half sat; and they argued among themselves, disrupting the service. Some cried, “Sit down!” Others shouted back, “Stand up!” The new rabbi decided to settle the matter by consulting one of synagogue’s aged founding members, who was living in a nursing home. The rabbi brought along a delegation with representatives from both sides. “Now, tell us,” said the rabbi, “what is our tradition? Should we stand during the Shema?” “No,” said the old man. “That is not our tradition.” The rabbi said, “We should sit then.” The old man replied, “No, that is not our tradition.” “But we need to know what to do,” said the rabbi, “We are fighting among ourselves.” “That,” said the old man, “is our tradition.”
I suspect the adherents of almost any religious tradition will be able to relate to the joke’s punch line. I am an Episcopalian, and the traditional formula for worship was to sit for readings of Scripture, to stand when hymns were sung and to kneel for prayers. Newcomers who were unfamiliar with Episcopal liturgy could follow the service just by doing whatever they saw everyone else doing. Nowadays, however, you may find some people standing while others kneel and some kneeling while others sit. Episcopalians took years to adjust to a major revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the 1970s, which replaced the Elizabethan language of the original with a contemporary version. Even greater upheavals ensued when the Episcopal Church began ordaining women and then gays.
Tensions exist within every cultural institution between traditionalists and advocates of change. Perhaps no one made the case for tradition so unmistakably as conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. In the inaugural issue of the National Review in 1955, he wrote that his opinion journal “stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” It is one thing, of course, to stake a position in the political realm and quite another to weigh in on issues where both sides claim divine sanction. The Thirty Years’ War, waged between Protestants and Catholics, engulfed much of Europe during the 17th century, causing millions of deaths due to famine, disease and direct military action. All this death and destruction resulted from religious differences between two sides that clamed to be worshipping the same God.
I recently came across an old New Yorker cartoon showing Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments in hand, while all around him people are worshipping the Golden Calf and otherwise raising hell. “Well, actually, they are written in stone,” he tells them. What religious body has not assumed that its traditions were handed down from on high and are therefore inviolate? As it turns out, God was just clearing his throat when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Altogether, there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), covering almost every aspect of life, including civil and criminal codes, dietary laws, religious practices, sexual relations and even personal hygiene.
The trouble with handing down detailed proscriptions on every aspect of life is that they are soon overtaken by changing circumstances. To cite just one example, the Torah includes numerous requirements for sacrificial rites that have not been practiced since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the first century CE. From the beginning, rabbis were kept busy trying to adapt Torah strictures to evolving customs. Centuries of rabbinic pronouncements were codified in a 6,200-page document called the Talmud, which has itself become the subject of numerous interpretations in the centuries since. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, Torah law cannot be repealed or amended. As Jesus himself said, not “one jot or one tittle” can be changed until heaven and earth have passed away.
It may come as a surprise that Jesus would be such a stickler for the law, since he was known to bend the rules himself on occasion. He engaged in a running skirmish with Pharisees who objected to him eating with sinners or healing sick people on the Sabbath. “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men," he scolded them. More than bending the rules, however, some of his pronouncements in the Sermon on the Mount might seem at first to be a frontal assault on Jewish law: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Or this: "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” But as Jesus himself told people, he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, meaning not just to obey the letter of the law but the spirit as well. Thus, the commandment not to commit adultery is extended to forbid looking lustfully upon another man’s wife, and the commandment to love one’s neighbor now includes one’s enemy.
Those, like Jesus, who challenge the status quo are usually regarded as dangerous radicals, but they may, in fact, turn out to be the true traditionalists. The Desert Fathers fled into the wilderness to escape the worldliness of the newly established church in Rome. The founders of the monastic movement were similarly motivated. Martin Luther, who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation, started out as a monk who had been appalled by the corruption he saw first-hand in Rome. In each case, what appears to be a break with tradition is actually an attempt to recapture the spirit of an earlier time.