Fiddler on the Roof and Same-Sex Marriage


Fiddler on the Roof not only contains wonderful lyrics and music, but brilliantly captures an essential political dynamic of the West—the conflict between claims of tradition and the Enlightenment. It is also appropriate that the conflict takes place in the Jewish community, because Judaism prefigured that conflict. Sometimes it is said that the West is forged by the tension between Jerusalem and Athens—between religious tradition and philosophical principle, but I believe the conflict is present in the Bible, particularly in books like Job where the people of God argue with God on the basis of implicit principles.   Moreover, it was Baruch Spinoza, an excommunicated Jew, who laid the groundwork of the radical enlightenment that intensified conflict with tradition and gave us modernity.

The theme of the musical is introduced in the first song, appropriately entitled “Tradition.” Tevye, the everyman protagonist, states that traditions are what keep his people in “balance.” (The song subtly implies other traditions perform the same function for other people, like  Orthodox Russians). Without tradition, he says, a person is like a Fiddler on the Roof, always in danger of falling into the abyss. The entire play can be seen as a commentary on that statement, giving it shape and nuance. It becomes clear that traditions themselves are fiddlers on the roof, always in danger of falling themselves. And what prompts discarding are claims of enlightenment principles.

All these conflicts in Fiddler surround what constitutes an appropriate or even legitimate marriage within the community, thus making it particularly relevant to the debate over same-sex marriage today. In the first conflict, Teyve’s eldest daughter refuses the traditional matchmaker’s choice of a rich, old merchant in favor of a poor young man.   It follows from the enlightenment program for individuals that they are free to choose when their choices will not harm others. A second daughter chooses to marry a political activist, although that choice will separate her from family, defeating the strong tradition of an extended family living together in mutual aid. His youngest daughter chooses to marry outside the faith. The radical enlightenment can brook no ethnic restrictions in choice of mate.

But just as opponents deserve respect so do the proponents. The idea of individual choice when that choice does not do substantial harm to others is as the heart of the enlightenment. Perhaps it has even attained the status of a tradition itself, because it has made our world more prosperous and open to more possibilities for more people than ever before.

The other lesson from the play is how to resolve the conflict between claims of tradition and claims from the enlightenment. Teyve is a common man who recognizes that he is not a scholar expert in the Jewish law. His internal dialogues are not legal monologues, but debates of the heart. The Supreme Court cannot generate that kind of conversation. Only public debate in a democracy can.

Reader Discussion

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on June 02, 2015 at 00:24:34 am

This is really quite a simple issue. within the legal context, marriage is a contract, complete with both benefits and liabilities. Given the holding of Lawrence V. Texas et al., we need not go further than that. The opponents of same sex marriage rest the majority of their claims based on their religious views. (i.e. Christianity, etc.) However,. these views lack merit whatsoever, given that our constitution makes clear, both explicitly and implicitly, that the government is not to meddle in issues of religion- in fact, the congress even restricts non-profit organizations (via 501(c)(3), etc.) from engaging in certain lobbying activities, etc., because the majority of non-profits are religious in nature, and congress, by enacting such regulations, was attempting to avoid being tainted with the issue of religion in the legislature. I seriously doubt, given the majority opinion in Lawrence, that the conservatives will fair very well with their arguments.

That said, within the context of the last few hundred years of law in the united states, how, without invoking so-called religious freedom, (which in reality seeks to regulate others to conform to ones own religion) do we arrive at a decision to regulate something that the state shouldn't be in the business of regulating, if we are to call marriage a "religious" action as opposed to a civil one- and further, if we consider marriage to be an act of the State, how can it possibly be congruent with the principle of equal protection of the law- when the subject matter fairly explicitly involves government-sanctioned discrimination based upon sex? (noting that congress outlawed discrimination based upon sex, [i.e. male vs. female] in 1964?

In summary, i would submit that the opposition of same-sex marriage deserves NO respect whatsoever, given that the constitution is intended to protect AGAINST the so-called "norms" of society, and the tyranny of the majority- which is the only functional argument that can be given them, as I fail to see how a marriage to which I am not a party, would affect the substance of any constitutional or statutory right I may have. Therefore, the big question of the day, why are the courts even entertaining the opposition? for electorates to the bench? for money? or for some other profoundly corrupt reason?

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John Doe
on June 02, 2015 at 09:45:18 am

There are three reasons why the repudiation of male-and-female as the standard have proven unfriendly to the Enlightenment values you cherish.

First, the Enlightenment requires that bodily self-ownership have at least two severe restrictions: (1) one cannot have a right to alienate one's own bodily goods, especially bodily liberty to another, AND in a related way, (2) one cannot have a right alienate one's offspring--the direct fruit of one's body. The implications would quickly give rise to slavery--and perpetual hereditary slavery, for one who owes the cow owns the calf.

SSM, by implicating the parent-child relationship (the presumption of paternity/parentage in the mother's spouses), giving rise to automatic claims of "parentage" in others' offspring, vindicates a right to transfer gametes and even offspring in a manner inconsistent with the foundational anthropology of modern liberalsism.

Second, SSM has arisen in large part from a cause that celebrates the right to satisfy appetite--the anthropol9ogy of the sexual revolution that asserts that human good is authenticity, and that authenticit6y requires compliance with appetite for its own sake.

The trouble with this is that appetite, unlike the reason that is the foundation for such rights as speech and conscience, is unreasonable. Appetite makes demands--relentless ones. And when that appetite is attached to a human being, with some modicum of conscience, peopled tend to get very angry when hearing anything ressembling disapprobation. It is simply intolerable to hear.

Third, and this is more abstract, perhaps the only way the liberal creed--universal equality and liberty--is even plausible is by the universal male-female heritage, tradition--this is what makes the human race, and to the extent to which male and female have done that dance in a manner that has been free and equal--we are truly made by--conceived in liberty and equality. Too long for a comment--but the naked fact of marriage is a lesson and/or reminder that man is by nature free and equal because that is how he was made--every human being.

Free and equal, because male-and-female. An idea for an essay.

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David Upham
on June 02, 2015 at 21:10:50 pm

Indeed, the issue really is simple. As a matter of principle and by straightforward definition, marriage is a relationship between the sexes, to the exclusion of all others, and until death. This is how the common law, and canon law, has understood marriage since time immemorial.

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on June 02, 2015 at 23:58:23 pm

This would be a novel legal theory, however, it clearly fails under our constitution. First, the free exercise of a right cannot give rise to slavery, because slavery was banned by constitutional amendment, and therefore, as a subject matter, it now finds its purview within criminal, not civil, law- as congress has passed a criminal law which defines what slavery is or is not, together with the proscription of criminal punishment for those who step over the bounds of that law. The only civil remedy that now exists for issues involving slavery, is the civil tort- since every crime, by inclusive definition, is a civil tort against both the state and a private individual. (However we must be cognizant of the fact that not every civil tort need, necessarily, be a crime.)

Secondly, what you construe as the "parent/child" relationship, we must remember, is already highly regulated by the government, and the courts routinely have exercised the authority to divest one person of that right in a given case, and then transfer and confer that right on second individual. (i.e. child abuse cases, etc.) And, in the case of step-parentage, the legal right is already conferred upon two members of the same sex at the same time. (i.e. the lawful authority of a father is equal in most, if not all, regards to that lawful authority of a step-father.) frankly, while females tend to keep child custody in most cases, we must also remember that the majority of heterosexual men would rather not deal with the issues involved in raising children, hence their happy to pass the buck for the trade off of paying child support.

Thirdly, if the justices of the supreme court were to follow tradition, etc. then Brown Vs. Board would have never become law, and we would still have segregation amidst the several states. I would even go as far as to venture here, that if that were the case, every major case to be heard by the U.S. courts in the last 200 years would probably be wiped out, because of the fact that, in the majority of those cases, the plaintiff was challenging the "status quo", which is is practically synonomous with the concept of traditionalism, etc.

In conclusion, we must also remember that the courts, when deciding to allow 'females' to vote, which was historically a 'male' right, the courts did not look to traditionalist views in reaching their decision. Neither did the court look to such views when it came to the workplace. ( The term "Sexual Harassment", which the courts [contrary to popular belief] defined as harassment because of "male/female" status, didn't even exist until around the 1960s, and still to this day isn't even clearly defined by statute or case law, as to what specific acts do or do not constitute it.) Basically, regardless of one's political philosophy or party affiliation, I would find it difficult to argue that same-sex marriage isn't explicitly protected by the substantive due-process and the equal-protection clauses of the fourteenth amendment, unless one wishes to agree with the idea that feminist rights wouldn't be forced down the same tube, given a practical no-nonsense strict-constructionist reading of the constitution.

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John Doe

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