Sometimes God just wants to dance

By Jay Michaelson, October 17, 2008
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Simchat Torah is all about dancing. On the literal level, Jews (especially Chasidic Jews non-Chasidic Jews, young Jews, and Jews who just like to move) dance with the Torah, parading it around in circles and chains until finally someone shouts out "Ad Kan" - enough for this circuit of ecstasy. And symbolically, the whole holiday is a dance, circling around from end to beginning, concluding the autumn holiday season, refusing to admit of linearity.

Dancing says a lot about our spiritual values. I have a small statue of a Buddha which my mother brought me as a gift from Thailand. I don't venerate it as an icon, but I do like the Buddha's image, sitting serenely, slightly smiling, hand pointing toward the earth, the witness of his meritorious acts.

A friend of mine who felt a little uncomfortable with this "idol" of mine bought me a tiny statue of a Chasid dancing. Now they sit next to each other, the meditating Buddha and the dancing Chasid, and they say much about how spiritual and contemplative practice feed one another.

The Buddha sits quietly, witnessing the arising and passing of emotions, not identifying with their ebb and flow. The Chasid dances. He celebrates when he is happy, he mourns when he is sad. His path is, by design, rockier than the Buddha's; he is less equanimous, more prone to desire. But he dances better.

Jewish spiritual practice is poised between the stillness of the Buddha and the wild dancing of the Chasidim, our biblical ancestors, and their pre-biblical roots. Perhaps "poised" is too quiet a word; the practice itself is a dance - between reflection and celebration, decorum and abandon.

On the one hand, Jewish tradition is critical of too much religious enthusiasm, like that of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons who brought "strange fire" at the altar, and were consumed by it. On the other hand, it celebrates some enthusiasm, as in Saul, who dances with prophets, and David, who dances naked before the Ark of the Covenant and whose critics are silenced by God.

The fault lines are still present today. The Chasidim dance, stomp, sing, and bang on walls; and the "neo-Chasidim" gather in drum circles - but their opponents are suspicious. Too much energy, too much excitement - one wonders where it leads. Maybe even... to mixed dancing.

But dancing has the capacity to teach at least as much as books, if we are able to undo the tangles, let down the guards, and give up trying to do it right. Sure, sometimes you will look like a fool, but, as Blake said, if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.

For me, wisdom comes when I really let go, and the rhythm dances itself, the music moves the gestures, and the "I" that is watching it all unfold is no longer the neurotic "I" that wants to impress people by dancing right. That is embodied spiritual practice, in its essence: letting go of the mind, letting the body lead, and as a result transcending the illusions of the small mind to access a deeper consciousness.

There is a very long tradition of ecstatic, sacred dance in the Jewish tradition. There are 11 different verbs for "dance" in the Hebrew Bible, with meanings ranging from swaying to ecstasy to spinning in circles. Just as the Eskimos know a lot about snow, it would seem our ancestors knew a lot about dancing.

Let's look at some of the evidence:

l Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.

l And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul with drums and joy and music.

l Then shall the young maiden rejoice in the dance, with young and old together, for I will turn their mourning to joy.

l You will come to the hill of God, where the garrison of the Philistines is, and it will come to pass when you are near the city, that you will meet a troupe of prophets coming down from the high place with a psalm-harp, and a drum, a flute, and a harp, and they will be prophesying. And the spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them, and be turned into another man.

And, of course, Jews did not stop dancing in ancient times. Dancing also became a staple of Eastern European Jewry, whose repertoire included such steps as the koilich tanz (in which women hold bread and salt to wish prosperity to a marrying couple), the klapper (clapping) tanz; a dozen circle dances like the redl, freilachs, karahod, and hopke - and many, many more.

"Through dancing and body motions, joy is aroused," teaches Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, while his leading disciple said, "Whoever did not witness Rabbi Nachman's dancing never beheld goodness in his life." And the great mystical ethicist Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto held that physical movement, whether in dance or in the performance of a commandment, can stimulate the stirrings of the soul:

"‘My soul thirsts for You, my flesh pines for you.' The person in whom this desire is not sufficiently kindled ought to physically arouse himself. As a result, the desire will become a part of his nature, for external, physical movements will stimulate internal ones... If he will do what is within his ability to do, eventually he will also acquire what lies beyond it, and he will discover inner joy, yearning, and desire, as a result of the deliberate intensity in his movement."

Dancing makes available to us a kind of accessible ecstasy, a transcendence of the self and the possibility of contact with energies that lie beyond the ken of rational thought. Of course, that is precisely the source of the anxiety: that we might come to venerate these energies as separate from God, or that we might really think the energy of the dance is a different god from the energy of sitting, davening, learning, or making love. But it isn't: our God is a chameleon-God, ever shifting in form and tenor. Sometimes God resides in the cool reflection of the study hall; sometimes God burns in the light of the candles. And sometimes, God just wants to dance. With you.

Jay Michaelson is the author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice, Jewish Lights (£13.99), from which this article is adapted

    Last updated: 11:49am, October 24 2008