“I have a political question to ask you. It’s about marriage.”
“Marriage is political now?”
It’s today’s most controversial topic, yet the above dialogue comes from a 1964 Broadway musical, about a Jewish family in 1905 Tsarist Russia, based on the writings of 19th century author Sholem Aleichem. Seeing the touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, on the eve of the San Diego Pride festival, I was struck by the relevance of this story and the lessons it teaches us about honoring our faiths while embracing the world we live in.
The story of Tevye the Milkman is a story of tradition – about the importance of tradition, the bonds of tradition, and the evolving nature of tradition.
It is also a story about marriage – who decides who can be married, who is allowed to bless marriage, who has the right to chose their partner.
Anatevkah is a community where marriage is, and has long been, determined by Yente, the Matchmaker. Yet despite the power of tradition, radical modern ideas begin to creep in – such that a woman might be allowed to choose her husband or that men and women might actually dance together at a wedding.
Tevye’s first daughter refuses to marry the man selected for her and instead weds the man she loves, with her father’s consent. His second daughter marries a man that is not from the village and leaves home, despite her father’s protest. Yet as her husband-to-be tells Tevye, “We’re not asking for permission. We’re asking for your blessing.”
Slowly, Tevye finds that he is no longer in control of this institution that has historically been his duty as a father. Rather, he discovers that those around him are following their own hearts.
Tevye, torn by devotion to his faith and love of his family, struggles to reconcile the traditional customs he holds so dear with the unfamiliar customs that are infiltrating his world. As we all know, it is comforting to hold onto the past, and it can be frightening to confront the future and the changes it inevitably brings.
As a man of faith does, Tevye engages in an ongoing dialogue with God, forever conflicted with what he is supposed to do. On the one hand, he worries, this is not the way things are supposed to be. On the other hand, he reasons, who is he to stand in the way of his daughter’s happiness?
When weighing the question of whether men and women may dance together, Tevye looks to the Good Book to determine whether or not it is allowed. What he finds is that it is not forbidden. And we are reminded that the Good Book can be read in many ways.
As same-sex marriage takes one step forward and two steps back (at least in California), what can Tevye the Milkman teach us about celebrating our traditions while finding a way to welcome more people into those traditions?
Of course, Tevye’s third daughter marries outside of the religion. To this Tevye puts his foot down. And for some, the path to accepting same-sex marriage is too treacherous a personal journey to take and the bonds of tradition become chains.
Yet even Tevye, in the end, gives her his blessing. And we as a society must choose whether to give our blessing or return to the days of Yente the Matchmaker.
Because permission is no longer the issue. We are not asking for permission anymore.