Let go and join the Simchat Torah dance

Western Jews may feel uncomfortable about ecstatic dancing but this weekend’s festival is a time to shed inhibitions


By Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer, October 8, 2009
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The scene that plays itself out on Simchat Torah each year in synagogues across the country is invariably the same. A small hard core of dedicated men with Torah scrolls in their arms do their best to circumvent the bimah against a riotous backdrop of noise and out-of-control kids fuelled by too much candy and fizzy drinks. Off to the side stand the rest of the adults, mostly parents and the occasional indulgent grandparent. Some are mildly amused. Most are bored stiff and cannot wait for the whole thing to be over.

Occasionally, an over-eager dancer will try to pull these bystanders in to dance. Most will politely but firmly refuse; a few will go along with it for a few minutes out of sheer sympathy rather than any real conviction. Long before the last hakafah dance, the crowd starts to thin as people lose interest. By the time the Torah is read, the synagogue, now near empty and littered with candy wrappers and crumpled paper flags, bears an uncanny resemblance to a deserted birthday party after the guests have all gone.

For many, Simchat Torah is seen as little more than a cute children’s festival celebrated almost as a postscript to the more serious adult-like festivals of the High Holy Days and Succot. Yet there is nothing childish about Simchat Torah. It is a time of profound connection to the Torah and serves as a crucial bridge between this first month of the Jewish year and the following eleven.

So why is it that we fail to give Simchat Torah its due? What is it about this festival that makes it so difficult to take seriously? I think there are two explanations; one physical, the other psychological.

We do not celebrate by studying but by dancing

The physical explanation is that by the time Simchat Torah rolls around we are exhausted and “shuled out”. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succot present a marathon of synagogue attendance and (Yom Kippur excluded) lavish festive meals. Simchat Torah suffers by happening to be at the very end of this marathon when the excitement has worn off, when energy levels are low and irritability is high.

Yet this alone cannot account for the marginalisation of Simchat Torah. This is why I believe there is another, psychological factor. It is that we are instinctively uncomfortable with ritual dancing and this festival is celebrated through ritual dance.

Freestyle, undisciplined dance is a form of surrender. It is a way of letting go. When one is carried away by ecstatic dance, one enters into a new reality. It allows people to step outside their ordinary orderly lives and to assume a new, free and uninhibited identity, if only for a while. This is what makes dancing so exciting. It explains the frenzied club scene. And yet it is precisely this sense of abandonment and surrender that makes ritual dancing so intimidating.

To surrender for several hours to pulsating techno music at a club is easy as it demands nothing more than having a good time. There is nothing serious about it and after sleeping it off, life returns to normal. Surrendering to a religious experience, however, is another matter as it means opening oneself up to new perceptions and religious demands.

Westernised Jews generally are not given to ecstatic expressions of religious devotion. We like to be in control and to maintain emotional equilibrium. With some notable exceptions, most synagogues are not exactly bursting with rapturous song and dance. When on occasion an enthusiastic worshipper takes leave of his inhibitions by gesticulating or swaying wildly, most observers find it uncomfortable.

Yet we have a rich history of enthusiastic religious devotion, sometimes involving ecstatic dance. Miriam led the women in song and dance at the parting of the Red Sea, King David danced with all his might when bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The daily Temple service involved song and music. Most relevant was the all-night, ecstatic dancing in the Temple during the festival of Succot. So potent was this religious experience that the Talmud believed that it had the power to confer the power of prophecy on the participants.

Simchat Torah presents us with this aspect of our heritage. It is a wonderful opportunity to express our Judaism on a purely emotional level. It challenges us to let go of our inhibitions and to embrace the Torah, not on an intellectual level but on a visceral one.

On Simchat Torah, we read the verse from Deuteronomy 33: 4 “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” It illustrates the connection we have with our Torah. It is not the exclusive purview of select scholars, it is the heritage of every Jew. It is the source of our spiritual life and identity. Dancing with the Torah gives full expression to this remarkable idea. Our connection to the Torah transcends all intellectual distinctions, which is why on Simchat Torah we do not celebrate by studying Torah but by dancing with it instead.

So this year abandon your inhibitions and dance. Dance because you have the good fortune to belong to a people whom God blessed with the Torah. And may we all come to a deeper realisation of just how great a blessing that really is.

Dr Brawer is rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue

Last updated: 11:58am, May 7 2010