Dance in the Jewish Tradition: From the Torah to the Twenty-First Century


The invigorating passion and animation that an ensemble of dancers embodies onstage is an awe-inspiring experience that most residents of the New York area, myself included, have enjoyed. There is nothing quite like the remarkable synchronization and expression of a well choreographed dance. As someone who’s fallen in love with dance, I’ve grown curious about how dance as we know it today aligns with our Jewish tradition and halakhot. For example, is dance an assimilationist art form, or is it compatible with Jewish tradition, lifestyle, and values? 

Throughout Jewish history, dance has symbolized many things, such as a social, economic, or individually pleasurable activity, or a religiously and spiritually enhancing practice. In regards to the former, what are some values that we must adhere to when we dance and perform within our respective diaspora cultures? How can the modern Jew use our history to guide us through the challenges of today’s world of dance?

Turning to Tanakh as the foundational text of Jewish history and instruction, we find many instances of dance. Most commonly investigated are the pesukim (verses) surrounding the story of Kriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the sea. 

It is stated:

 וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כׇֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃

Translated as: Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. 

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽה׳ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃          

And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to ה׳, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.” (Shemot 15: 20-21).

The medium of dance is used as an expression of gratitude for a miracle performed by God, and this concept is continued even centuries later, particularly by the Hassidim. In many stories of divine intervention and heroics in Tanakh, specifically in the wake of adversarial defeat, the people gather around each other and rejoice in song and dance. 

Dance is a communally connecting activity which can fortify people’s relationships with each other and God. Since the concept of dance is vast, the language of movement isn’t always the same in Tanakh. A closer textual examination done by the magnificent Jewish Virtual Library revealed that when the people of King David welcomed the Aron Kodesh (holy ark) into its home, the ceremony “inspired King David and his subjects to dance before God.” David not only danced in the ordinary sense of the word, saḥek (שׂחק), but also rotated with all his might, karker (כרכר); and jumped, pazez (פזז) (II Sam. 6:5, 14, 16). A retelling of this story in I Chronicles 15:29, contains that he also skipped, rakad (רקד). 

This subtle but fascinating differentiation between verbs can shed light on the excited nature of his dancing. His extreme passion caused him to erupt in any way that felt right for the occasion. Dance in a biblical sense is not something to be taken lightly. It incorporated serious and meaningful religious undertones and was a true physical expression of gratitude and divine appreciation. Dance is the medium by which we sanctify our bodies, using them as tools to express our utmost thanks to God. We treat the art form with care and delicacy because it is a tool we possess to communicate with God. 

As the turbulent currents of Jewish history carried the Jews all over the globe, many of our practices changed, including our national relationship with dance. Since dance was a nationally-unifying behavior, many medieval rabbinic authorities forbade public dance celebrations. However, Jews retained dancing for specific occasions such as weddings and Simchat Torah. In the medieval ghettos of France, Germany, and Poland, Jewish communities frequently had a dance hall, or tanzhaus, for joyous occasions. 

While community rabbis encouraged religious dancing, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered performances to be hallmarks of Greco-Roman culture that bordered on idolatry. Dance as anything other than a method of divine worship was curtailed. However, as the influence of the culture of the arts permeated neighboring communities, Italian Jews in particular educated their children in Tanakh, Talmud, music, and dancing. 

During the Renaissance, Jews were lured into the arts and many lived the lifestyle of a teacher of dance or the arts. Indeed, as Jews secularized, priorities shifted, causing them to engage with the secular social and artistic realms. Throughout the millennia, while some groups remained in strictly insular communities, such as the Hassidim, many Jews entered an age of cultural exploration. Although the Hassidim practiced a dance technique which embodied a specifically Jewish philosophy of inclusion and whose goal was to achieve spiritual transcendence, secular Jews began to study emerging styles such as ballet. The enticing pursuit of cultural arts within diaspora communities was a strong magnetism for the Jews.

Over time, they reinvented the Jewish meaning of dance. No longer must Jews only dance to worship God. They could also use this medium as a leisurely and creative pursuit. Its cultural and spiritual significance faded because it was not restricted to those purposes and occasions. Naturally, many conflicts arose in which secular dance settings were in tension with Jewish law and tradition. During the nineteenth century, the Eastern European rabbis faced the challenge of harmonizing people’s desire to participate in social balls with the value of preserving Jewish marriages. They worried that in a casual setting where mixed dancing occured, Jews could be sexually intrigued by their gentile dance partners and ultimately led astray. Dance was yet another appeal of the secular world with which rabbinic authorities had to strike compromise. This conflict has mutated over the ages, but a version of this very issue is still particularly relevant in today’s orthodox dance world. 

In modern orthodox communities, we strive to balance a life that is dedicated to God and one that brings us personal happiness. We construct a framework that allows us to satisfy our curiosities and desires within the bounds of halakhic values. How certain contemporary dance styles fit into this framework is an ongoing question of exploration versus ideological balance, showing how the halakhot of dance continue to develop and grow. 

For example, burlesque is a prevalent style that utilizes jazz and vogue technique to create a sexually expressive piece. While some authorities would permit this being done in a private class with the intention of self-expression, others would advise Orthodox Jews to avoid this style entirely. As the purpose of dancing became more in service of ourselves and our communities rather than God, and the nature of our dancing changed, the struggle to connect this to our religious lives intensified.

Meanwhile, many Israeli dancers have found ways to use dance technique as a medium for religious or national storytelling. Choreographers have developed concept pieces that communicate national togetherness. Early pioneers in the Land of Israel created folk dances that then spread to Jews in the diaspora as a symbol of unity, as well as brought in dances from the diaspora. This is an incredibly fitting usage of dance as the Torah described it: a medium of vital and unifying expression. 

For me, dance has been an extremely formative outlet for self-expression and understanding. I feel privileged to have studied many styles of dance and learned about its history and adaptations, and experienced firsthand its passion and power. It’s not obvious that dance should align with Jewish values; however, navigating styles, choreography, costumes, and the like was a task I was willing to embrace.

A curious thing happened to me the more in touch with dance I became: with each combo or natural rhythm that my body carried out, I felt as if I was connecting to a higher realm. My body was merely a conduit for a mystical wave of expression and ultimate ethereal feeling that I was lucky enough to tap into. The movements were so intuitive that I barely felt like my consciousness was their origin. I experienced incredible gratitude for the way that my body could move and interpret the music almost naturally; it soon became clear to me: I was little in command. I was simply responding to higher instructions. It reminds me of the stories of dance recounted in Tanakh where the rhythm and purpose overcome your mind and infuse your body. Still, there remain challenges to consider in regards to the art form in its totality.

In the early twentieth century, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) wrote extensively on ways to integrate the philosophy, practice, and interests of the people of the New Yishuv (overwhelmingly secular) with those of the Old Yishuv (largely religious). He believed that wherever Jews found beauty and fascination, there must be a divine spark present, so he tried his best to synthesize and combine different aspects of secular culture with traditional Jewish life. 

I believe the framework Rav Kook introduced is applicable to navigating dance within Jewish law and tradition today. Dance is not only a practice that fascinates Jews, but it has been an expression of meaning and joy in our tradition for millennia. Its divine spark is well established. Creating a style and context of dance that merges meaning with joy and expression, as done in Tanakh, should be the ultimate goal. As each generation faces new and unique challenges, we must always reflect on and study the past, which can provide great guidance for thinking about modern conflicts in the Jewish community.

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