Culture, Religion

Torah of the Body — The Prayer of Dance

by Ruben Rais
Ruben is an experiential Jewish educator living and creating in Brooklyn. He likes to dance. For more on this theme, see Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. (aryehbernstein)
Jewish tradition distinguishes between the written Torah and the oral Torah, but is their room to talk about Torah of the body as well? Specifically, does Judaism have something to teach us about dance and movement?
I began to seriously think about this question last fall, when taking a course on dance education at NYU. The class focused primarily on tribal dances from Uganda. It was fascinating to learn that most of these tribes have no written tradition. Their values were passed down from generation to generation, not through the written word, but through dance, song, and story telling. My first instinct was to contrast this to Jewish culture, which is so reliant on text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? What are we able to transmit through text, that we are not able to do through dance, and what might be lost in the text that can only be captured through movement?
Then I thought about it a bit more. I grew up in a very Jewish home, but I didn’t look at a page of Talmud until I was 24 years old. Learning text was not a formative part of my Jewish education whatsoever. On the contrary, some of my most powerful Jewish memories are of my mother teaching Israeli folk dances in our community, and of a crazy horah experience when I first visited Tzfat at the age of 12. Even today, though I spend a lot of my time learning Jewish texts, my most uplifting and spiritual moments have involved dancing alone to niggunim in the park by my house, and once again, those Hassidic horahs, this time not in Tzfat, but in Crown Heights.
Sure enough, Hassidic and Israeli folk dances are not the only examples of Jewish traditions regarding dance. The Bible contains numereous passages of Israelites (both men and women) dancing in prayer and celebration, as individuals and as communities.[1] The Talmud has a couple of references to dancing during agricultural festivals (Sukkah 51a -53a, Taanit 26b). Eastern communities such as the Kurds, and the Yemenites have rich cultural traditions involving dance. It is interesting to consider the environments in which Jewish dance has flourished. What was it about these eastern traditions that allowed for such cultural expressions. What was it about the rebellious nature of the Hassidic and Zionist movements that led to the revival of dance as a communal practice?
For now though, I’d like to focus on the educational value of dance. I offer here a personal reflection that will hopefully encourage a broader conversation on the topic. What is it that I’ve learned through my experiences with Jewish dance? What values have I absorbed?
First and foremost, I have learned the value of community, embodied in the image of the circle. Both Israeli folk dances and hassidic dances, feature the circle, the horah, (rather than lines or couples) as their most basic formation. As the Baal Shem Tov taught: “Since a circle has no front or back, no beginning and end, every dancer is a link in the chain and all are equal”.[2] There may be all sorts of differences within a community, but in that moment of dance, that moment of celebration, we all come together as equals. Indeed, though I can claim this only in hindsight, I believe the experience of seeing my mother teach Israeli folk dances, where men and women often came together in the same circle, taught me a powerful lesson about the equal role women should have in our communities. On the flip side, the fact that many of my more powerful Jewish dance experiences have occurred in gendered separated environments, is undoubtedly a cause for further reflection.
The second thing that stands out for me, is the idea of dance as a form of prayer, a form of rejuvenating and healing spiritual activity. I will never forget that night in Tzfat when I was twelve years old. I’d never seen people dance like that, with such ecstasy and vitality. I couldn’t believe this is what a Shabbat service could look like. The practice of dancing as a form of spiritual connection is not an invention of the Hassidim though, it is embedded in our most ancient texts. Just think of David twirling and leaping before God as he brings the Ark of the Lord into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:16). Dance, Judaism teaches us, has the ability to connect us to something larger than ourselves, whether its a community or the divine presence.
More importantly, the spiritual power of dance is a way for us to connect to ourselves. A way for us to cure our pain and affliction through movement and joy. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav teaches us that “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous always and to overcome and distance despair and depression with all one’s might… And in the future, through joy, all the sicknesses will be cured, and then God will be the head of the group of dancers, that is head of the dance. For joy is the aspect of healing of the sickness. That is why joy and dance are called ‘hola’, for they are the repairing of sickness (hola’at).[3] The linguistic connection is a powerful one. Joy, sickness, and dance are intimately related.
Another hassidic tradition, teaches that Rabbi Mendl of Kotsk would tell his students, “Close your eyes…Now imagine you are standing perfectly balanced at the very edge of the Abyss. Now dance!”[4] In other words, true dance, the kind of dance that can heal us, that can connect us to ourselves and to God, only comes when we lose our inhibitions. When we embrace the moment of fear upon standing at the edge of the abyss, when we find ourselves at our most vulnerable, and instead of breaking down, we dance! If you’ve ever felt lonely, and taken a walk with your music, only to burst into spontaneous dance, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So far so good. Delve into Hassidic literature and you’ll find even more amazing images, like the Baal Shem Tov’s students dancing so fervently that fire comes out of their feet.[5] But I suspect there is more. Our textual tradition might not be abundant in its description of dance, but it is full of physical imagery. Our liturgical and ritual cycle are full of little bits of movement and choreography. What would happen if we take those a little more seriously and dig a little deeper?
I’ve been enriched in this exploration by a movement technique called Gaga. Yes, I know there is a game with a ball by the same name. But the Gaga I’m talking about, was developed in Israel, by Ohad Naharin of the Bat Sheva Dance Company. It is a way to explore the flow of energy in our bodies, through guided improvisation. In other words, there are no fixed steps, but rather a series of commands that each person will naturally interpret in her own way. Let your bones yawn. Or, explore the distance between your shoulders. Gaga explores emotions through movement, through textures and distances, through language and imagery.
My worlds collided in the most amazing of ways, when I found that the language, images, and ideas of Gaga were overlapping with the language and ideas I was learning in Torah. Themes of gratitude, chaos, joy, and vulnerability popped up in both practices. Both my Torah and my Gaga teachers were teaching me how to embrace seemingly contradicting ideas and emotions, how to listen for something rather than just seeing it.
For instance, I recently learned that whether alone or in a minyan, we always add three words to the Shema’ Israel, in order to bring the total to 248 words — the number of bones in our body. This fit in perfectly with Gaga’s insistence on activating every little bone in our body as we move. These days, when I say the Shema’, I love God not just with my whole heart, soul, and might, but with all of my bones. These days, when I dance, I move not only with my whole body, but with the energy of saying Shema’ Israel. Another example, lies in the image of weightlessness. Most Gaga classes are anchored in exploring a sensation of floating. Moving as if we were suspended in water, in order to find the softness and gentleness that will allow us to listen to the flow of movement in our body. Check out Psalm 91. There is a beautiful image of God’s angels carrying us in their hands to protect us from trouble. If that doesn’t conjure up a floating weightlessness, I don’t know what will!
This is just the tip of a very funky iceberg. Peruse most Jewish texts and you will probably find physical descriptions that you can then translate into movement. I would like to suggest that this isn’t merely my new-age hippy idea, but rather part of what Torah intended us to explore. I believe there is some Torah that can only be found in our bodies, some teachings in our textual tradition that we may not fully understand unless we translate them into movement.
Torah is the Jewish people’s national treasure. It has guided our pursuit of a more perfect society generation after generation. It is the instrument we use to connect with that which is beyond us, and to interact with each other in a just and compassionate way. Yet there is even more to it. Torah can help us find our own groove. It can help us explore all the different ways of being intimate with ourselves. It can teach us how to dance.
For you New Yorkers out there, the best place I know to learn Torah is Mechon Hadar, on the UWS. Gaga is taught in Brooklyn, at the Mark Morris Dance Center every Wednesday night. If you’re interested in blending the two, hit me up! Might look something like this

[2] M.S. Geshurei, “the Besht as Renewer of Dance”, Ha-Tzofeh 14, Tishre 5712, p.5
[3] R. Nahman of Bratslav, Likutei Moharan II:24
[4] Reprinted in Maron, M “The Healing Power of Sacred Dance”. Tikkun, 25(2). 2010
[5] Ben-Amos, D. In Praise of Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei Ha-Besht: the Earliest Collection of Legends About the Founder of Hasidism). 1976. p.80

One thought on “Torah of the Body — The Prayer of Dance

  1. You blew away every expectation I had for what this article was going to be about. Your weaving of Torah, dance and chassidism makes even me wanna get jiggy with it. Any suggestions for an awkward dancer?

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