Shades of Grey

One of the things that characterizes the views of a Centrist is that very few things in life are black and white. Except for those Torah laws universally understood and accepted in Orthodoxy,  things are pretty much grey.

It is because of this that one will see an occasional controversial view posted here. A view that either the right or the left (religiously or politically) will have trouble with. But when it comes to truth, being controversial is not an impediment.

The play Fiddler on the Roof is often cited as anathema to a Torah Hashkafa. The story line follows the path of ‘Tevye the milkman’ as he evolves in his thinking about accepting non traditional sons in law. Especially their having met his daughters in non traditional ways without a Shadchan (matchmaker).

The 1st is an observant but unlearned man – Motel, the tailor – who has not studied Torah in depth and remains somewhat ignorant about Halacha. Tevye analyzes the relative merit versus debit of such a man marrying one of daughters in one of his famous ‘On the other hand’ soliloquies. He ends up with an acceptance of Motel for his daughter.

The 2nd daughter marries a free thinking socialist who is not religious at all. Tevya does the same thing here and accepts him too.

The 3rd daughter falls in love with a non Jew. Tevye goes through it one more time and this time to his credit he incompletely rejects the intermarriage of his daughter.

Unfortunately the play is sympathetic to the errant daughter and gives the impression that the right thing for Tevya to have done would have been to accept her choice of a husband the same way he accepted his other sons in law.

The bottom line of this play is that the Judaism of the unenlightened European Jew should be seen as archaic. Although sweetly portrayed the message is clear. Tolerance trumps tradition. So that to the extent that Tevye sticks to traditional Jewish values is to the extent that he errs. To the extent that he accepts the non traditional is to the extent that he is seen as doing the right thing. Rabbis that promote traditional Jewish values are symbolically ridiculed by portraying the community rabbi as a doddering old fool.

The reality of life in ‘the old country’ is that in the vast majority of cases the rabbi was anything but an old fool. To me that was an outrageous and disgusting thing to do.

And yet, I still loved that play. When I first saw it in back in the early 60s no one saw it negatively. In fact if I recall correctly it was used as a fundraiser for one of the religious schools here in Chicago. How does one reconcile that with the more or less accurate description of the message of that play being anathema to Torah?

I think the answer is the following. Although it was somewhat anti religious, it nevertheless portrayed life in the ‘Shtetel’ of Europe warmly – with a sense of nostalgia.  We loved all those characters and saw them as our own relatives – our  ancestors of just a few generations ago.

Many religious leaders nevertheless condemned it never seeing it as anything but anti Torah. But was that all it projected? Did all who saw that play have negative thoughts about traditional Judaism planted into their unconscious minds?  Did its treatment of that end up creating or reinforcing negative thoughts about following Halacha – seeing it as primitive and not in concert with modern thought?  I suppose it might have done so in some cases. But in other cases it inspired! Some Jews were actually moved to explore their roots. And in some of those cases it actually led some non observant Jews to become observant.

In case there is any doubt about whether that ever actually happened, an unlikely source shows us that it definitely did happen.

I once described Eytan Kobre  as the resident pit-bull of Mishpacha Magazine.  I was strongly criticized for referring to him that way by some people. But I stood my ground because of the way he attacked those with whom he disagreed.   While I had no issue with strong disagreement, I did have an issue with the way he tackled it.  For him it was always black and white. This was the case with his views about the play Fiddler on the Roof. He trashed it for all the reasons I stated above.

But he has re-thought his approach because of Refoel Franklin. Mr. Franklin is a Baal Teshuva that Eytan Kobre wrote about in a previous issue of Mishpacha Magazine. In the course of interviewing him, he was surprised to hear how Mr. Franklin became observant. It was the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof. After seeing that movie, he was inspired to check out his heritage and that  ultimately led him to become observant.

I applaud Mr.Kobre’s intellectual honesty here. He now affirms what we Centrists know intuitively. That many issues that may seem black and white – are not. There is a lot of grey in them. In his latest column in Mishpacha he tells us that he will from now on be mindful of any possible redeeming factors that mitigate outwardly negative things.  I am very happy that this very erudite and talented writer has had a change of heart and now recognizes that there is indeed a lot of grey in the world.

So it is with this – that I withdraw my pit-bull reference. And look forward to his new approach that acknowledges that not all things are black and white.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.