During a service at an old synagogue, when the Shema prayer was said, half the congregation stood up and half remained sitting down. The half that was seated started yelling at those standing up to sit down, and the ones standing up yelled at the ones who were sitting down to stand up. The new rabbi, learnèd as he was, didn’t know what on earth to do. His congregation suggested that he consult a bedbound 100-year-old man who was one of the founders of their temple. Perhaps the elderly man would be able to tell him what the actual tradition was. So the rabbi went to the nursing home, along with a representative of each faction of the congregation. The one whose followers stood during Shema said to the old man: ‘Is the tradition to stand up during this prayer?’ The old man answered: ‘No, that is not the tradition.’ The one whose followers chose to sit asked: ‘Is the tradition to sit during Shema?’ The old man answered: ‘No, that is not the tradition.’ Then the rabbi said to the old man: ‘The congregation fight all the time, yelling at each other about whether they should sit or stand…’ The old man interrupted, exclaiming: ‘Yes! THAT is the tradition!’
Traditions define who we are; they are an essential part of our identity. Ingrained very deeply in us, they remain unnoticed by ourselves and by those who share them with us until we are confronted by something new or contradictory to them. As a man born and bred in Poland, I went happily along with mine for almost forty years until I arrived in Scotland and was confronted by different traditions. It’s the same situation for my compatriots and for other people coming to this country, as well as for Scots going abroad. I’ve been astonished by Poles travelling long distances to buy loaves of Polish bread, and by Scots smuggling haggis and Irn Bru to the USA. Some local people are bemused by crowds of my compatriots bringing food to church for blessing on Holy Saturday, while my compatriots are amused by locals parking up in lay-bys to have their takeaway suppers in their cars. Traditions!
While they are extremely important part of our personal and cultural fabric, traditions can also create a stifling environment that shackles individuals, communities and whole countries. Sadly, in many parts of the world, prejudice, discrimination and violence are held to be valid traditions, honed and preserved in the name of political, national or religious identity. The 20th century’s horrors of the Holocaust, the mass-murders and labour camps of the Soviet Union, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars and Rwanda, are the most horrific, large-scale murderous projections of keeping the so-called traditional values unscathed at the expense of those perceived as a threat to them. Although it’s on a much smaller scale, this sort of attitude is still alive and kicking and widespread, badly affecting many individual human beings today.
Jesus’ reaction to the accusations made by the traditionalists in today’s gospel is somehow astonishing. They were scandalised by the lack of traditional table manners exhibited by Jesus’ disciples. His outburst in calling them ‘hypocrites’ seems to be out of all proportion, unless and until we realise that those traditions were considered to be of infinitely greater importance than simple good manners. Ritual, with its emphasis on religious purity, was part and parcel of Jewishness; quite a large chunk of the Torah, the Jewish Law, was given over to detailed rules regarding purity. Those who broke the rules were temporarily excluded from social interaction with the Jewish community. Over the years, those detailed rules grew arms and legs in terms of interpretation and application, making purity a sort of cult for its own sake, somehow pushing the true meaning of religious observance aside. Jesus rejects such an attitude, and highlights the real danger to spiritual purity: the rotten heart.
In the introductory scene of the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ the main character Tevye the Milkman speaks about traditions: ‘Here, in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes.’ Then he continues: ‘You may ask: how did this tradition get started?’ and he himself gives the answer: ‘I’ll tell you. I don’t know.’ Perhaps that may be true about our own traditions. Revising them from time to time surely wouldn’t do any harm; and maybe revision would result in freeing us up a bit.