This is the second edition for this essay. Rewritten for the anthology, Earth Etudes for Elul: Spiritual Reflections for the Season. Edited by Katy Z. Allen. Published by Strong Voices Press in 2018.
“For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer….Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Yes, our legs pray. Not just when marching either. Our legs, our entire body and all of our words are continuously interwoven in deep connection with the entire cosmos. Rabbi Heschel the Kabbalist may have been shy sharing this full power of Judaism’s mythological grandeur. For me, Judaism’s mythological grandeur, beauty and deep integration with Jewish practices have kept me Jewish. How can this ancient mythological power be activated in a single protest, a single dance? Listen in.
In the ancient days, when midrash was the cutting-edge commentary of the day, our Rabbis taught about the secret holiness of our bodies. They said that every commandment has a corresponding place in our body and a corresponding day of the year. Because of this, we can carry the holy commandments (which come from the Holy Torah and Gd the Source of All) in our bodies and days. This is a powerfully bold take on being created in the image of Gd.
This teaching was carried forward into Medieval Kabbalah where the Kabbalists actually taught that the entire cosmos needed our actions, our prayers for Gd’s own healing. Our actions close the loop, and we participate in an abundant and interconnected flow of blessing continuously falling from the ‘heavenly realms’ and raised back up again, being replenished by our actions and prayers. A sacred spiritual ecology, if you will. We are not only saying, ‘As above, so below’, but also, ‘As below, so above.’
Our wonderfully creative teachers from the 1700’s transformed this teaching by adding everyday dance (song, story and plain words too!) to the list of powerful spiritual recycling tools that help ‘unify the unities.’ Did you know the Shpoler Zeide continued to dance with the lightness of youth well into his old age? Once, a Jewish life was in danger. A giant Cossack soldier was cruelly treating him like a cat treats a mouse. The giant declared that if anyone could out-dance him, then he would spare the life of this simple Jew. However, if not, then both dancer and hostage would die! Everyone was so scared. It was the grandfatherly Shpoler Zeide who stepped forward. He danced the Bear Dance with such focused power and vigor that the Cossack was unable to keep up. He fell down laughing saying, ‘You win old man, you win.’ For the Shpoler Zeide, dance was a superpower! Able to affect t’shuvah with a single bound.
Other times, when disputes would reign, the Shpoler Zeide would dance the Heron Dance, slow and graceful, and conflict would melt away. So much so, people would say that the Shpoler Zeide was a master of dance and able to achieve Holy Unifications with each step of his foot!
Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, another holy teacher from that generation, actually prescribed dance as a remedy for the hopeless despair that prevents joy. He knew the act of dance was enough to raise joy high in the saddest of souls. Dance as medicine. How’s that for creative health care!
This is Rabbi Heschel’s legacy. He’s not just protesting, he’s praying with his legs—adding healing unifications for the world and for all of us. And his powerful feet are still inspiring us today! Inspiring us today to take a stand in the streets with our neighbors. Reminding us of the power we hold in our legs, in our actions. Reminding us to appreciate the miracle that we have legs to stand, ankles that rotate, 26 humble bones of the foot that allow us to stand steady even on uneven ground.
This Elul, let’s bring all of the enchantment we can muster to our prayer, to our t’shuvah. Let’s remember the spontaneous freedom of prayerful dance that we carry and its ability to mark a new path. We truly can alter the shape of tomorrow. As Emma Goldman is known as saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!” Rally Ho!
- Shploler Zayde stories adapted from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber.
Feet were praying story shared by his daughter Susannah here: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~vox/0405/0404/heschel.html Emma Goldman quote http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/Features/danceswithfeminists.html For additional background on the powers of dance see, “The Mystery of Dance According to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav” in The Exegetical Imagination by Michael Fishbane.