Monday, October 23rd | 3 Heshvan 5778

Close

Be in the know!

Get our exclusive daily news briefing.

Subscribe
October 5, 2012 1:49 am

The Shtomp, Or The Case Against Religious Dancing

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "The Shtomp, Or The Case Against Religious Dancing" to a friend

"Jewish Dance" Alexandr Onishenko, 1999.

Simchat Torah, the festival of Rejoicing Over The Law, is upon us and once again I find myself completely out of sync with most of my coreligionists. It is not that I don’t love Simchat Torah. Who wouldn’t? It is the way we are expected to celebrate I have a problem with.

The Torah demands that we enjoy life in general and our festivals in particular. And enjoyment is understood on two levels. One is taking pleasure from and appreciating the material gifts we are fortunate to have, whether many or few. I do. I regard myself as a very blessed person. I thank God every day for my good fortune. And I find spiritual pleasure far less transient and ephemeral than ordinary physical delights. But nowhere can I find any support for defining pleasure as stomping around in a tight circle of sweaty males, having my feet stamped on, my shins kicked, my suit pulled out of shape, hot unsavory breath blown in my face, and my tallit and kipah sent flying to be trampled underfoot. But that is what happens at most synagogues on Simchat Torah. Why does it have to be that way?

We suffer from the tyranny of conventional expectations that have increased in their intrusiveness over the years. If this is how “everyone” does it, then put up and shut up and damn well enjoy it! You’ll tell me I am too English, too uptight, a boring old man. I like a good dance, where steps are synchronized, where there is coordinated movement, a stirring tune, and space to move and enjoy the whirl and the sense of the carefree losing oneself in the rhythm and the physical exertion. It reminds me of the good old days of Israeli folk dancing, now sadly lost to post-Zionist pop culture.

But what happens on Simchat Torah? A mass of bodies forced reluctantly to participate in a boring convention, press in on each other in a restricted space and try to force jolliness by stomping around in a sad circle, constantly interrupted by others barging or being pulled reluctantly in, forced into the ever-tighter, claustrophobic knot of compressed bodies squeezed against bodies, and it is barely possible to move half a foot at a time. It’s a religious shuffle, painfully weaving its way around the bimah, a “shtomp”. What kind of pleasure is that?

Related coverage

September 7, 2016 6:28 am
8

Petty Orthodoxy

Thetorah.com is a website that analyzes the weekly reading of the Torah for people who do not take every word in the Torah...

Or a small circle of enthusiastic youngsters who do really know how to dance, whirl around in the middle kicking their legs with no regard to anyone else, whacking their oblivious way round and round like a mad whirligig until they have either prevented anyone else from dancing or have been swamped by so many others who cannot dance but want to force their way into the only exciting spot on the floor. Then the whirling circle inevitably becomes so congested that the good dancers give up and go off to find another space and the process starts over again. It’s often the same at weddings, except there if you look across at the women, they are dancing in elegant, expert styles, and proper steps, with enough space to do it so well that I prefer watching them across the mechitzah (surreptitiously) to joining in the boring crocodile of suited men squeezing up against each other looking like reluctant draftees doing their duty because that is what is expected.

To make matters worse, nowadays our celebrations are increasingly invaded by young neophytes and religious acolytes brandishing bottles of vodka as if alcohol is the only way to God. They have been conditioned to thinking that forcing drink down people’s throats is a Divine command that earns them brownie points in the Next World, or at least cements their reputation as members of the faithful. I cannot think of anything more insulting to the Divine than the implication that only in drunken stupor can one get any closer to Heaven. I like a drink, though single malt is my preferred spirit. Even so, one or two is enough. It is not a bar. I hate being pressed to drink more, particularly under the pretense of a religious obligation, when neither my body nor my mind wants to. Anyway, I would rather have a good, dry red wine. I find vodka totally unappealing, even when doused in orange or tomato juice. It is fine for drunken Russian peasants, city girls in bars, or Lubavitcher Chasidim. But if I politely refuse, I am made to feel that I cannot be genuinely Jewish and must be a monk in disguise.

Yes, I know the arguments about lowering one’s inhibitions to get closer to God. But I can get a religious high without alcohol or being shoved around a dance floor pretending I’m having a good time. Is this really our religion? I agree the Western European Ashkenazi world needed shaking out of its inhibited formality, but I wonder if we have gone too far.

I love Chasidism, but not when gangs of black-suited youths imitate soccer hoodlums and run around like demented yobs, as if uncontrolled noise, hooliganism, and drunkenness are part of a religious calling. I suppose that if you have no other outlet, if sports are frowned upon in your circles, gyms are treif, and physical exercise is supposed to be suitable only for those who haven’t the brains or the sitzfleisch to sit in front of Gemara all day, this is the only outlet for hormonally supercharged young men (apart from going on demonstrations and throwing stones). But really, what is the difference between this and pop concerts except for the presence of screaming, nubile, semi-naked girls?

Is this what the Torah wants? I can’t believe it. But I’ll do it. Because I have to set an example and because I don’t want appear to be a killjoy (except here, where I can safely ventilate). But that’s social pressure, not pleasure!

Chag Sameach and if where you are is better than where I am, you are very fortunate and I envy you.

Share this Story: Share On Facebook Share On Twitter Email This Article

Let your voice be heard!

Join the Algemeiner
  • PIM MEIBOSCH

    One has to see the debate over life within the context of the times that Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai lived.

    ABOUT THE ABOVE I CAN ONLY HAVE A EDUCATED GUESS.
    TAKING THE SMALL AMOUNT OF PEOPLE ON EARTH INTO CONSIDERATION AND THE RATIO OF LIVING IN CITIES OR OUTSIDE THEM,I CAN ONLY CONCLUDE WE DON’T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT THEM TO MAKE A FAIR CONCLUSION.

    LOOKING AT IT TODAY TAKING INTO CONSIDERATION THIS PLANET IS GETTING OVERCROWDED AND HOW MANY OF US DIE
    OF STARVATION EVERY DAY AND HOW MANY OF US ARE ON THE
    BORDERLINE OF HUNGER ALSO IN THE WEST.
    NOT TO TALK ABOUT ALL THE OTHER HORRORS WE CREATE.
    I WOULD SAY THE STATEMENT OF BET HILLEL AND BET SHAMMAI
    IS COMPLETELY UP TO DATE.
    A HUMAN LIFE TODAY IS NOT WORTH A POUND OF FISH,
    DESPITE ALL THE GLIB TALK ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS

    THIS IS THE TEMPTATION I WAS TALKING ABOUT.

  • PIM MEIBOSCH

    TO JEREMY ROSEN.
    I THANK YOU AGAIN FOR A TO THE POINT ANSWER
    FULL OF INFORMATION.

    Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai agreed that it would have been better not to have been born altogether.

    BEING BORN AND RAISED IN THE WEST AND TAKING THE TIME
    OF THIS CONCLUSION INTO CONSIDERATION, I MUST SAY I
    DISAGREE WITH THEM.
    LIFE CAN BE AN INTERESTING ALTHOUGH PAINFUL EXPERIENCE,
    WHEN SITUATIONS DON’T BECOME UNBEARABLE IT IS WORTH THE TRIP.
    BUT TO BE HONEST THERE IS A TEMPTATION TO AGREE WITH THEM.
    YOURS SINCERELY.
    PIM.

    • Pim
      I certainly agree with you that most of us in the West are very blessed to live in relatively civilized communities but I’m not sure a slave in India or a woman under the Taliban or a child forced into cruel armies in parts of Africa would feel the same way or the millions without drinkable water or sanitation. One has to see the debate over life within the context of the times that Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai lived.

      Jeremy

  • PIM MEIBOSCH

    TO JEREMY ROSEN.
    I WANT TO THANK YOU FOR AN ARTICLE WELL WRITTEN AND FOR YOUR PATIENCE WITH THE COMMENTS.

    I HAVE A QUESTION AND OF COURSE YOU ARE TOTALLY FREE IN GIVING ME AN ANSWER OR NOT.
    I DON’T EVEN KNOW IF THEY WILL PUT IT ONLINE, I NOTICED THE NEWSPAPER DOESN’T LIKE MY COMMENTS VERY MUCH BUT IT IS UP TO THEM OF COURSE.

    MY QUESTION IS THIS:WHEN A PERSON DIES SHOULD THIS BE ,BESIDES THE FUNERAL, AN EVENT OF PURE MOURNING OR AN EVENT OF CELEBRATING THE LIFE OF THE DECEASED.
    I REALIZE THIS IS VERY PERSONAL BUT I WONDER WHAT IS WRONG ,AFTER THE FUNERAL, TO MAKE THIS AN EVENT OF
    PURE CELEBRATION.
    YOUR SINCERLY.
    PIM.

    • Pim

      Thank you for that fascinating question.
      The fact is that logically death should be welcomed. First of all leaving the physical world with its disappointments, struggles,deterioration and suffering must be a good thing. And indeed the Talmud in Eiruvin says that after arguing for years Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai agreed that it would have been better not to have been born altogether.

      Secondly if one believes that ones soul returns to its Divine eternal source nothing could be more wonderful than that.

      And therefore it seems to me that people mourn not for the dead person biut for themselves because they have been deprived of the wisdom or love of the deceased.

      These different attitudes are reflected in tradition. in some communities the anniversary of desath is marked by fasting. In others mainly Hassidic by celebrating the ” Aliyah of the Neshama” that the soul rises to God with a Lechayim!

      I favor the Hassidic approach ( which will no doubt surprise those who think my last piece was an attack on Hassidism ).

      Jeremy

  • Nicky

    Well instead of looking mournfully through the mechitzah over at the women’s side, you should try celebrating Simchat Torah at an egalitarian service. There’s the bold energy of the men tempered by the more orderly & elegant style of the women, with the fun of the kids mixed in, resulting in lovely, pure, family-style rejoicing. I recommend it. (And despite expectations, mixed dancing in such a setting does *not* spiral into a gawking, sexualized nightclub scene.)

    • Nicky

      Thank you for your suggestion but I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me. I am difficult to please I know. Nevertheless I am very much in favor of freedom of choice and alternatives.

      Jeremy

  • PIM MEIBOSCH

    WELL JEREMY THE STORM DOESN’T LOOK SO BAD,I HAVE SEEN AND READ A LOT WORSE HERE IN ISRAEL.

  • Mrs. W

    Why do I feel that the name of your article should be something like: Bah, Humbug!?

    While your general point about overuse of alcohol is important, you undermine yourself when you start overgeneralizing.

    So soon after Rosh Hashanah you are painting Lubavitcher Chasidim with an awfully broad brush, and in a negative light in more than one way: not only overgeneralizing about alcohol (as Leah points out), but also lumping this group of chasidim with “drunken Russian peasants, [and] city girls in bars”.

    I guess it’s better that you be honest about your lack of ahavas Yisrael, rather than pretending that you have it.

    As for the sweaty crowd at your shul: I suggest you either
    1) Discuss your personal issues with your Rabbi (or the president of your shul),
    2) or find a different minyan just for simchas torah.
    3) But better yet, I think you’d be happier participating with a group that goes to bring the simchah to a nursing home, a prison, or another place where people cannot participate in the usual festivities you take for granted (and reject).

    Oh, and who’s the best one to call, in order to find out how to get involved with #3 above: your local Chabad house!

    And I assure you that these guys on tahaluchah or mivtzoim will not be in a “drunken stupor” nor will the vast majority of other Chabadnikim be in that state, either. P.S — most do try to use mouthwash on Yom Tov, too, so as not to blow their “hot unsavory breath” at you. (Do you?)

  • Steven

    You write: ” Simchat Torah, the festival of Rejoicing Over The Law, is upon us and once again I find myself completely out of sync with most of my coreligionists.”

    No one could have said it better Yes You are totally out of synch,as usual first you make a sweeping general statement then you make a few valid points and then you go in for the kill and besmirch it all.
    You must be a very frustrated puppy – chag sameach

    • PIM MEIBOSCH

      YOU FORGOT TO TAKE YOUR VALIUM AGAIN,DIDN’T YOU ?

  • PIM MEIBOSCH

    DOES ANY OF US REALLY KNOW WHAT GOD IS ?
    IF SUCH AN ENTITY EXISTS IT WILL BE TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO US.
    THE WAY I LIKE TO SEE IT IS THAT ALL US RELIGIOUS OR NOT ARE A SPARK OF THIS ENTITY, THIS ENTITY DOES NOT HAVE ONE OF OUR RELIGIONS, IT IS WHATEVER IT IS.

    • jeremy rosen

      Pim
      Most of us who experience God know full well what the experience is and feel the connection to the Divine. But I agree since our experiences are our own they are filtered through our very specific senses ( and/or souls).
      I also agree that as our sources say God is the creator of all humanity regardless of religious affiliation ( infeed the mishna talking about Rosh Hashanah says that All creatures on this Earth pass before God). And clearly it was ‘His Will’ that there be other religions, some obviously more efficacioius in leading humans to a higher level of behavior, ethics and spirituality than others.
      Our task is to make the crucial choices, constantly examine our own standards and strive to intensify our spiritual lives.
      Jeremy

  • G A

    Dancing according to Chassidus is MUCH deeper than just stomping around. We raise up with our feet what it took all Tishrey to achieve. Feet are kabalas ol-nicks, they do as they are bidden and have no choice. This is the final message of Tishrey – whatever holy heights we reached, the bottom line message is to DO G-d’s will simply because it is His will. Not only from intellect or great striving, but as feet dance when commanded, we are to serve HaShem in simple fashion. That’s why people dance all night – they give it all they’ve got – so they are showing HaShem that they will serve Him in the coming year with all they’ve got. All the tears, the teshuva, the davenning, the eating, the preparations, the building, the waving of the lulav, the guests… all offerred up in a dance of love for the Torah to express devotion in every aspect of our souls.

    When looking at what the dance represents in this holy light, objecting to the dancing is a Jewish tragedy… it misses the point. Every kosher Jewish activity is a way to serve HaShem.

    Gut Yom Tov and a gut yahr. Dance the night away (mashke also should only be used in the service of the simcha for HaShem – in other words, very little is enough to do the trick) and may Klal Yisroel be blessed with revealed goodness this year in all ways!

    • jeremy rosen

      Thank you , thats a lovely rationalization as well as mystical. My only rejoinder is that there are many variations in Yiddishkeit. There is no single derech. After all Litvaks, Yekkes and Spanish and Portuguese are all very different in character as well as way of expressing their Judaism. But they are all Jews.
      Chag Sameah
      Jeremy

  • Leah

    “It is fine for drunken Russian peasants, city girls in bars, or Lubavitcher Chasidim.”

    Well, if that isn’t an uncalled for put down, I don;t know what is. Contrary to your belief, Chabad Chassidim are not a bunch of drunkards. And I continue to be astonished at what the Algemeiner prints nowadays in its efforts to be accepted in the non-Chabad world!

    • jeremy rosen

      Gosh, have you NO sense of humour? I was kidding!
      Chag Sameach
      Jeremy

  • Honey Bee

    Is it the naked girls you miss?

    • jeremy rosen

      Miss? You imply I once had them?
      J

  • Mildred Bilt

    I think you may be overdue in reading about the very early beginnings of the Chabad movement. The founder was the Baal Shem Tov as you know. It was an attempt to bring into the fold those impoverished Jewish males who were isolated in villages with no chance to study or learn Torah or Talmud. The Baal Shem Tov developed a Judaism of joy. inclusion, dancing and noise which could appeal to these people. He would have communal suppers where he endeavored to teach them basic rudiments of some Jewish lore. When the Vilna Gaon heard about this outrage he excomminicated the lot. Of course they had no idea they had been thrust out because they were never in. I suppose you already know that Martin Buber was the first to write about the Baal Shem Tov because he was the grandson. Anyway. once the group became literate it seems the excommunication was revoked Or not. I have never been able to discover the source for the statement. So maybe what you object to is the endurance of the primitive early efforts to embrace the ‘outsiders’.

    • jeremy rosen

      Heaven forbid. I love the essence of Chassidism and have tremendous admiration for the kiruv and devotion to others that characterize Chabad.I do I admit have reservations about certain excesses. But this was a light hearted pre Simchas Torah bit of fun. Even God laughs according to the Tanach so why can’t we?
      Chag Sameach
      Jeremy

  • Emotionalism, even drunken emotionalism, does not equate to spirituality.

    • jeremy rosen

      Completely agree Nelson. An emotional element might well be a good thing in itself but not when it totally overrides every other consideration.
      Jeremy

  • jeremy rosen

    Thanks Pim
    No doubt yours is the sun before the storm!
    Chag Sameach
    Jeremy

  • PIM MEIBOSCH

    A MATURE OPINION ABOUT RELIGION IN GENERAL.

Algemeiner.com