I have long had a problem with the central rite of Simchat Torah: dancing. I have nothing against the kind of dancing that requires learning certain steps — I then enjoy the challenge of mastering the particular dance. The dancing on Simchat Torah, however, requires almost no skill and consists largely of trotting around (while singing spirited Hebrew songs), circling people who are carrying Torahs. In traditional synagogues (on the night of Simchat Torah and then again during the day; this year, on Oct. 1-2), a minimum of one hour is devoted to this dancing, and in some synagogues, especially Hasidic ones, the dancing can extend to three hours and more. (I should mention that during the day, the other portions of the synagogue service can also extend to three hours and more.) In practice, I try to attend synagogues on Simchat Torah that feature energetic dancing but that don’t let this go on for hours and hours (criteria that are often mutually exclusive). Surprisingly, my friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman points out that serious students of Torah also have a problem with the dancing on Simchat Torah. For some, the dancing seems like an improper use of their time because it takes them away from their studies; for others, the dancing makes them appear as less than serious people. Engleman writes:
“If the Torah was a collection of intellectual facts, it would be proper, as one year of learning ends and another begins, to conduct a test of knowledge. But our Torah is a Torah of Life. Dancing on Simchat Torah is not just a celebration, it’s also a powerful mirror that every Torah student places in front of their year of learning, a mirror that uncovers the content of the Torah that the person learned.
“It’s true: It’s possible to experience Torah solely in its intellectual dimensions. It’s possible to acquire a cold and calculated Torah, precise and exact, but also frozen and ossified. A Torah that blocks feeling, that dismisses abilities that are not intellectual. A Torah that knows how to explain and elucidate, to question and answer — but does not know how to live and burn, that does not touch the deepest depths of life.
“We are liable to become Torah scholars who know how to teach wonderful classes about happiness, and who are able to skillfully explain the role of the heart in the worship of God, but whose Torah does not know how to dance. We are not able to dance because our natural and simple abilities have dissipated in the air of our learned discussions. Vibrant, happy dancing expresses a living relationship with the Torah that passes through all the forces of the soul.
“In Proverbs it is written that ‘the wise shall obtain honor’ (3:35) and a Torah scholar needs to accept the fact that they are given honor because the Torah is honored, but sometimes the difference between the Torah’s honor and the scholar’s honor is blurred. Sometimes the trappings of honor turn into a way of life and do not remain in the realm of a necessity that the Torah scholar must accept. The truth is revealed when the honor of the Torah ‘collides’ with the personal honor of the Torah scholar. In dancing on Simchat Torah, one’s relationship with Torah becomes clear. If all a person’s learning was before God and in honor of God, it will be easy for them to go out and dance in honor of the name of God.
“The simple dancing of Simchat Torah, because of which a person sometimes appears not with their usual status, conveys true honor. The dancing shows that the person has not confused the honor that comes from their wisdom in Torah with the honor of heaven.”
Bottom line: On Simchat Torah, everyone get out there and dance! Happy Holiday.
Teddy Weinberger, who made aliyah in 1997, writes for several American Jewish newspapers.