December 20, 2007
Torah that moves
Jews debate everything.
This is especially true for Jews who study biblical texts. Over the millennia, Jews have never stopped dissecting and debating the multiple layers of meanings of the written and oral Torah to arrive at deeper truths.
The vision of a chevruta -- two Jews, sitting across from each other, arguing over minute details -- is an icon of the Jewish intellectual experience. There is one thing, however, that is rarely challenged or debated: the sitting position.
No, I'm not kidding. I went to an event the other day where it was suggested that to gain a deeper understanding of Jewish texts, it helps to get up and move.
This was not one of those weird holistic movements where Buddhist Jews might teach transcendental meditation while moving to Bob Marley music or the sound of hummingbirds. No, this came from a serious, respectful approach to Jewish study.
In fact, I was surrounded by professors and graduate students. The person to my left was a professor of Jewish studies who is working on a book on the ba'al teshuvah movement, and across from me was the dean of a major Jewish college.
We were there, a group of about 30 men and women, with most of the men wearing kippahs, to experience a relatively new idea called "Moving Torah."
The "performer" was a modestly dressed Jewish woman in her early 40s named Andrea Hodos, an artist-in-residence at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and we met in one of their conference rooms as part of their "Lunch and Learn" series. Hodos came to enlighten us on "the power of the body to think and the mind to move."
The body to think? The mind to move?
If my ancestors in Marrakesh could see me now!
Hodos knew she would transport us to an unfamiliar world, so she started by drawing us into it. She asked us, for example: "How do you think movement and theater might add to the experience of Jewish texts and Jewish identity?" and "How would this be different than visual art?"
At the end of her introduction, Hodos took a deep breath, lowered her voice and asked this question: "What would it take to imagine yourself as a performer?"
Before we had time to squirm, she began telling us her story -- through words and precise, graceful movements.
Trained as a dancer in her youth, in her early 20s she finds herself in Israel, falls in love with Torah study, struggles to reconcile her feminist ideals with her Jewish tradition, learns Torah all day at the Pardes Institute, and then, one night, during the first Gulf War as Scud missiles are falling on Tel Aviv and she is in the middle of an all-night study session, she gets an itch.
An itch to get up and move.
For the next few years, she engages in a delicate dance between her past and her future -- her past as a dancer who loves to move, and her future as a Jew who loves to learn.
As Hodos moves her story along, literally, it becomes harder to separate her movements from her words -- they seem to flow into each other.
But this mini "Who Am I?" is just an appetizer for the piece de resistance, the thing we all came to see: How do you make the Torah move?
For the next 30 minutes, Hodos takes us on a journey of dancing with Jewish texts. She plays a video where she performs, with another woman, one of her favorite passages of Pirkei Avot -- "Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it" -- and shows us how it comes to life through the stark, dramatic movement of two human bodies.
Then, having slowly and gently lured us into her web, she goes for broke and "performs" a dvar Torah on Parshat Terumah.
By now, she is speaking words I might hear from any pulpit rabbi on a Shabbat morning. She recounts the story of God giving instructions to Moses for the building of the mishkan (sanctuary), asks a few questions -- and then makes connections.
The connection I best remember relates to the curtains on either side of the sanctuary -- which are a metaphor for the many layers between us and God. We need these layers, Hodos explained, as she imagined billowing curtains through her flowing movements. These layers keep us at a healthy distance from the Almighty, encouraging awe and humility; remind us that we need the layers of talmudic interpretations and our own intellectual struggle to get closer to God; and, finally, keep us from the arrogance that can lead to another Golden Calf, lest we think we've got it all figured out.
I could have heard this kind of Torah at any synagogue, but at HUC-JIR that day, I didn't just hear it. I saw it, experienced it and felt it -- I saw how the interplay of words and movement can add new layers of meaning.
But more importantly, I remembered it.
That may not seem like a big deal, but think of the last time you heard a sermon or dvar Torah, whether it was a week, a month or a year ago. Honestly: Do you remember what the message was? Do you remember taking any "billowing curtains" home with you to guide you on your life's journey?
If you ask me, I think Hodos is onto something. I hear she's even thinking of giving seminars for rabbis and students of all stripes who are open to using physical movement to deepen their Torah experience.
I can just see it now. Rabbis in the hood and all over the country "performing" their weekly sermons; using gestures designed with a Talmudic precision to add new meaning to a word or phrase; walking around rather than standing still; moving their heads and bodies in unique ways to help their insights resonate and create memorable images.
Sure, it all sounds weird and way out there.
But so what? I just love that there are Jews out there who are always trying to enhance the Jewish experience -- Jews, God bless them, who teach us that if we want the Torah to move us, sometimes we just have to move with it.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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