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, says Rabbi Dr Naf­tali Brawer

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

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.

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 iden- tity, 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.


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