Tradition is a powerful word in Judaism; it is sung with both joy and disappointment in The Fiddler on the Roof; it is used as argument for policies and procedures in synagogues; it is shouted in board meetings, it is whispered in corners. It is everything in Judaism and nothing all at once.
Michael Foucault, in his work The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, has another view of Tradition all together. Within the unities of discourse, Foucault states that we should “rid ourselves” of notions in order to thoroughly examine discourse, language, ideas, and thought; tradition is one of those notions he believes we must remove:
“It [tradition] is intended to give a special temporal status to a group of phenomena that are both successive and identical (or at least similar); it makes it possible to rethink the dispersion of history in the form of the same; it allows a reduction of the difference proper to every beginning, in order to pursue without discontinuity the endless search for the origin; tradition enables us to isolate the new against a background of permanence, and to transfer its merit to originality, to genius, to the decisions proper to individuals.”
While Foucault is a bit dense at times, let’s see if what he is saying makes sense to us. Do our traditions give special temporal status to our rituals that have evolved, throughout the world and through time? Do we now use Jewish tradition as the tool to rethink our history? Are we, through out traditions, texts, and rituals, endlessly searching for our origin, or the origins of those traditions? I, for one, certainly understand and agree with that point, that we continually uncover texts upon texts, rituals and history, archaeology and theological writings, in order to get to the origin of what we do and why. Some of us may not agree on the origins of our traditions; some of us may understand traditions differently; but that is what gives traditions such power and such meaninglessness at the same time. One Jew says to another, “it’s tradition!” while another says, “not mine!”
My favorite story in regards to tradition is the following: for decades, the rabbis of a certain synagogue would approach the Ark for Aleinu, and before going up the steps to the Ark, the rabbis would bow down, walk bent over, and then stand up again as they got to the doors of the Ark. When a new rabbi joined the synagogue he witnessed this tradition and asked the congregation its origin. No one in the congregation could provide it. It had simply always been that way. So, the rabbi called the previous rabbis, who all said “it’s tradition in that synagogue,” but provided no other explanation. Finally, the rabbi called a rabbi from many many years ago and asked him about this tradition. The rabbi, who had served decades before, told the new rabbi, “Ah yes. Above the Ark in the old synagogue building, the Or Tamid (everlasting light) hung from the ceiling. I am a tall person, and because the Or Tamid hung so low, in order to get to the Ark, I had to duck down and walk under it in order to get to the Ark.”
Our traditions carry meaning and power, but in our endless search for their origins, we may uncover that it was not always so. I look forward to your thoughts.