Sunday, December 16, 2007

Tradition, tradition

Tradition, tradition
Tradition
Tradition, tradition
Tradition....
I've been thinking a lot about tradition lately. On every radio show, every podcast, every blog, everyone is talking about their Christmas traditions, and how it wouldn't feel like Christmas without x, y, or z.

So I've been wondering: how does a tradition become a tradition? How often, or for how long, do you need to do something before it takes on the label "tradition"?

A long time ago, I was visiting a friend who has a daughter around the same age as my son. She was marveling at how quickly something became a "tradition" with her 3-year-old. Sometimes, she marveled, all you had to do was do something once, and it was a tradition!

I see this happening now with my 8-year-old son, as well. Sometimes we will do something once or twice, and suddenly -- he wants to do that thing exactly that same way over and over again. For example, he started asking me to tickle him while he was lying on the couch in the TV room, and he would say a certain phrase. Pretty soon, he only wanted me to tickle him while he lay on the couch saying that exact phrase. Now it's practically become a tradition.

Or when he comes home from school -- starving -- he always asks for the same foods, in the same order. Ice cream. Then hot dogs. Then something to drink. I guess you could say it's become a habit. Or a tradition.

What I'm trying to say is: traditions are just things we are used to doing in a certain way. They are really habits that have taken on a life of their own, so to speak.

So when people talk about their traditions - I know, this sounds really cynical! - I think they are simply talking about the way they are used to doing something. It may not be something that has to be a certain way: they just are used to it that way, and it feels good and familiar to do it that way over and over again.

On the other hand, there are religious traditions that are supposed to come from someplace (i.e. G-d?) or at least from people of your faith from a long time ago. Now, again, my thought is that the same rule applies: someone starting doing something a certain way, others picked up on it, and pretty soon it was a full-fledged "tradition"! But does that mean it's the best way? The right way? The way we should do it today?

One thing I like about Conservative Judaism (in this case Conservative means "conserve" as in conserving the past, not conservative politically...) is that it is willing to change as the world changes. For example, just this past year, Conservative Judaism's ruling body decided to allow gays and lesbians to be married and included in their religious communities. This is actually a really big deal for Conservative Judaism, and a pretty brave stance for them to take.

As I sat in shul (synagogue) yesterday, singing the prayers that sometimes mean something, sometimes don't, but which are mostly familiar to me, I was thinking about this tradition thing. Someone a long time ago, some rabbis, decided to put this prayer and that prayer together, and make them part of the Shabbat service, and now we do it that way because... that's how it's been done for a long time!

I guess my point is: many traditions are nice, and they make you feel good, and secure, and they can be comforting. But they don't have to continue if they no longer make sense to you. Unfortunately, in Judaism, we are asked to keep some traditions that I don't feel comfortable with, and this causes a lot of angst for me. I have decided not to keep Kosher, for example, and I still feel pangs of guilt about this pretty frequently.

I think a big issue in our post-modern age (!) is how to create traditions that are meaningful to us, that make us feel connected with the past, but also make sense in the present. This is the challenge.

1 comment:

BipolarLawyerCook said...

I couldn't agree more. Mindless observation isn't observation at all, it's just habit.