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.