Recently a friend saw Fiddler on the Roof and remarked on how much darker the plot was than he had remembered. It’s a musical, after all, and most musicals (barring West Side Story-style romantic tragedy or Sweeney Todd-style bizarreness) are upbeat. It has a lot of comic scenes and feel-good songs like “Tradition” and “If I Was a Rich Man.” There is even a bucolic Jewish wedding.
But of course, one of the early shadows over the story occurs at that very wedding, which is shockingly broken up by a pogrom. By movie’s end the village’s Jewish population has been evicted from their town, and they leave to emigrate to other countries.
But pogroms are only part of the reason that Fiddler on the Roof is not merely a rainbows-and-smiles movie about Tradition. What strikes me even more is the progressively greater strain that protagonist Tevye feels in his effort to reconcile his daughters’ marital choices with his cherished cultural and religious traditions.
You may recall that the eldest daughter, Tzeitel, resists the matchmaker’s choice of a prosperous middle-aged Jewish butcher in favor of the poor tailor she has already fallen in love with. Since the tailor is Jewish and a good man, Tevye eventually allows love to rule this choice. The second daughter, Hodel, pushes the envelope further by falling for Perchik, a young Marxist Jew with advanced ideas on scriptural interpretation. Because he too is Jewish (despite his unconventional views on the Hebrew Bible), and, again, because Hodel loves him, Tevye reluctantly agrees to this match too.
Chava, the third daughter, predictably moves entirely off the reservation by falling in love with a Russian Orthodox Christian. But this time Tevye refuses to budge. Denied her father’s blessing, Chava elopes and is married by a Russian Orthodox priest. Her father repudiates her, though there is a slight suggestion of thawing at the movie’s end, when Chava and her husband also prepare to leave Russia in solidarity with the unjustly exiled Jewish community.
What struck me as I reflected on Tevye’s reluctant march towards modernity (naturally applauded by the audience, which is set up to sentimentally take sides with the romantic couples while simultaneously soaking in the nostalgia of tradition), was the way it mirrors the even greater journey that traditional religious people of our own era have been pressured to travel in changing the actual definition of marriage, and not just the conditions for its acceptance. Same-sex marriage capped Western changes in marriage, divorce, contraception, and child custody that had in some cases been marinating for a couple of centuries. By the time Obergefell v. Hodges emerged from a very divided Supreme Court, the standard model was already badly broken.
In fact, the transformation of marriage and sexual relations in our time—I cannot term them “evolutions,” given how decisively they variously break from nigh-universal custom—sheds new light on the implications of Tevye’s (and our own) fateful acceptance of the merely romantic, couples-based understanding of the basis for marriage.
Why from time immemorial have both Church and State felt the need to involve themselves in this thing called marriage? Not because tribal chiefs, elders, kings, and priests sympathized with teen angst or were intimidated by the fear of Romeo and Juliet-style double tragedies, but because, in just about every human society ever heard of, marriage was recognized as the most stable and successful setting in which to conceive and give birth to children and initiate them into the culture of their community. An ancillary effect of marriage (with significant consequences for clans and larger kinship groupings) was the permanent linking of families and communities through the wedded couple’s offspring. Land holdings could be enlarged, coalitions could be established, bloodlines could be strengthened, and the talent pool diversified as a result. Feuds could be resolved and wars averted. But these were all specific, individualized goods that might be achieved on top of the general state or community goal of securing the group’s future by successfully reproducing, fostering, and educating their young.
And that’s all. That’s the basis for official state involvement in issuing marriage licenses and certificates and decrees of divorce—and in determining child custody, child support, and alimony. Oh, the State (through the human beings that act as its agents) may, other things being equal, want people in love to “just be happy”; they may realize that potentially impulsive or anarchic young men can often be tamed not merely by marital responsibility but especially by the love of a good woman; they may favor structures that help provide a lifetime of emotional and other kinds of support to vulnerable or aging or lonely people.
But motivations such as these, though they were and are today primary for the couples involved, were largely just that—motivations—rather than the biologically based rationale for institutional involvement and social, legal, and religious marriage protections over thousands of years of human society. As we have increasingly jettisoned societal justifications for marriage such as the wellbeing of children and instead elevated the claims of the individuals seeking their own particularized happy endings, the rationale for continuing to involve government in all this becomes flimsier and flimsier. After all, nowadays a great many people have children and more or less see them to adulthood without the marriage license; others who instead choose to marry often part company well before the children are grown. And then there are the increasing numbers of the intentionally childless, whether married or unmarried, and a smaller number of intentionally solo parents.
I am writing this on the eve of Valentine’s Day, which is perhaps not the most propitious time to throw shade on the role of romantic love in human history. And in fact, despite the view of the ancient Greeks and Romans (among others) that erotic love is a madness of the gods, “falling in love” is not only a catalyst for perpetuating the species but often an entry point for enduring and deepening love and cooperation over a lifetime. People do not fall in love to please Uncle Sam, any more than they reproduce to provide future cannon fodder. And it is neither necessary nor desirable for them to be so motivated. But unless the “but we love each other” argument for marriage predicts a lasting attachment and a healthy and secure family life more successfully than any other means of matching people up for a lifetime of sex and shared living, the State and other institutions presiding over society in an official or semi-official capacity have no legitimate reason to get involved in indiscriminately making all varieties or stages of lovers happy, any more than they provide licenses for going steady or alimony for a dumped dating partner.
Even in our own egoistic and hyper-sexualized era, official wedding vows never ask the couple, “Are you in love?” or even, “Does your betrothed sexually attract you?” Instead, we make promises that depend upon acts of the will, though some sort of emotional motivation is assumed. Love can assist us in keeping such promises, but both “falling in love” and the ebb and flow of feelings of marital happiness and satisfaction are not identical to the kind of long-lasting love that persists through periods of subjective boredom, disagreement, or unhappiness.