On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Dancing With Our Tradition - Parashat Lech L'cha

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs recounts his experience studying dance while in Rabbinical School, how partaking in an interpretive dance about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar challenged him theologically and artistically. He challenges us to think how we, too, can appreciate the art of dance to tell the Jewish story.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about where we are in the Jewish calendar in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Lech L'cha asking us how we can capture the story of Judaism through the choreography of our own bodies.

[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Lech L'cha, the third Torah portion of the book of Genesis, one of the dramatic portions talking about the call of Rama and Sarai, our call to Jewish leadership to make a Jewish journey of blessing, and of hope, and of discovery, and they do.

And then into the parashat in chapter 16, a whole new segment unfolds. And it has to do with not only Avram at this point, becoming soon to be Avraham and Sarah. But it also has to do with Hagar, her Egyptian handmaiden who comes to have a very large role in the Torah.

So here's just a little bit about me. Again, it's about the Torah, but I have to say it. When I was a rabbinic student, I was also a modern dancer and a choreographer. And I actually auditioned at the Hebrew Union College in New York.

There was a note up in the elevator that said there was an audition for a Jewish modern dance company. And all my fellow students all said, hey, Rick, are you going to go audition? I said, well, I'd have to miss class. And I thought, maybe it's OK to miss class. So I auditioned. They asked me to join the company.

And one of the earliest dance pieces that we did was based on chapter 16 of Genesis, this moment of Sarai, and Avram, and Hagar. And I want to just share that there's a lot of attention to the written commentaries on the Bible. And I look to them. I love them. There are also some paintings and other kinds of artistic representations of the Torah.

But it turns out there's a huge body of dance around biblical themes. And if you'd had the chance ever to see, for example, some of the great works of Martha Graham, one of the pioneers of modern dance, she loves Greek narratives. But she also got very engaged by the Bible.

And frankly, so do all of the luminaries of modern dance, going back to not only Martha Graham, but thinking about Jose Limon, and John Butler, and Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey, and [INAUDIBLE], all saw the Bible as a way to bring alive some of the most powerful narratives that we have in culture.

So I want to just talk about what it was like to dance this story from Genesis. So let me read and just get inside that particular dance. The piece was by the Avodah Dance Ensemble choreographed by Dr. Joanne Tucker. And the piece was called Sarah. And it focused in on her life and the dilemma.

So we have in 16, it starts with "Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar." By the way, just the name "Hagar," it could be also remember Gar. Garin. It could mean the other, right? Hagar, another way to talk about the otherness of this Egyptian maidservant.

"So Sarai says to Avram, 'Look, the eternal has kept me from bearing children. Take my handmaid, and through her, perhaps we shall have a son, and I will be blessed through her.' And Avraham heeded Sarai's request."

Now, I just have to say, that's sort of the biblical text. And what I experienced was about 10 minutes of dance. So this moment when Sarai basically is doing a dance where she is clearly in pain. The idea that she and many of the other matriarchs are not able to bear children is a source of enormous pain.

And I as a dancer watched from offstage as Sarai would just pour out her heart. And then this moment where she came off, she came to the wings, took me and brought me into this moment where Hagar is waiting very much with her head down, very meekly. And Sarah takes my hand, and puts it on top of Hagar's.

And I just remember being in this experience feeling like Abraham, feeling like this moment of disloyalty. looking at Sara going, really? Do you think this is a good idea? And then watching Sara painfully leave me and Hagar onstage. And feeling like this is the right thing to do, but oh my goodness.

And the next thing I do in the dance is to lift Hagar up onto my shoulder and to, in a sense, take her off. And the truth is that moment is so poignant and painful. And I've read the text many times before this dance, but I never got inside of what was actually going on.

And I have to say that each time I danced that piece, it kind of tore into me. And I think in some ways, I only began to feel the emotional valence of the story by being inside of it. Now, maybe a theatrical experience could do that. Maybe like, in a painting or a piece of music. But I have to say that dance is such an embodiment of a character, and a personality, and a story.

And for me, it opened up years of choreography around Jewish tradition, biblical stories, liturgical texts, and getting inside of the pieces. So it turned out that we created a piece called [INAUDIBLE] or Seekers of Light, where every single week, we had an improvisation based on the weekly Torah portion.

And we didn't go through every single one of the parashas, but we came pretty close. And I have to say that dancing the Torah portions opened their meaning in very, very real ways.

I wanted to share something that I think I've shared before, but it just to me is so powerful, Jacob's Pillow. Jacob's Pillow is a dance venue in the Berkshires. And what people don't know is it was created because of relationship between Ted Shawn and his beloved Ruth St. Denis.

And it goes back to the biblical story. It goes back to remember the pillow that Jacob puts under his head, and the dream of the ladder goes forth. Well, in 1926 after first studying to be a Methodist minister, Ted Shawn wrote the following passage for the American Ballet Magazine describing how he found dance, and how his wife, the very famous Ruth St. Denis, a dancer, found religion.

Here's what he wrote. He said, "I had to think deeply. And I thought to myself out of the ministry, I thought I'm really not cut out for the Methodist Church and a life of being a clergy person. And when I finally crystallized within my consciousness and came out with a form, it was the form of dance as religious expression. Of course, all my friends thought I was headed straight for the south gate of hell. It was not really a change of all of base at all for them. It was a change, really, of only form."

And he describes, "When I met Ruth St. Denis, we found that our fundamental concept of dance was the same. Here's the key for me. She pursuing the dance upstream to its source found their religion, and I pursuing religion upstream found that dance was the first and finest means of religious expression. And so we have been wedded artistically and humanly ever since."

That was the foundation of Jacob's Pillow, the place that to this day has every summer, some of the best dance in the world. And the idea that it also is a place of the merging of spirituality and dance. And before we were the people of the book, we actually were the people of the body.

And dance is clearly the oldest form of ritual, even, I think before music. Although I'm sure someone on the podcast listening circle is going to say, no, no, Rabbi Jacobs. I think music's got to go further back than dance. But there was a very essential biblical tradition of movement as a form of ritual.

But over the years, I think really the encounter with Christianity, which really demoted the place of bodily expression from religiosity, and the Jewish tradition followed suit. But if we look at all of these great works of dance that explore biblical themes, what's remarkable is that there's not necessarily one type of movement that's, quote, "a Jewish type," right? We all know to do the horah at a bar bat mitzvah or a wedding.

The horah, as it turns out, is not necessarily a Jewish dance in its origin, but it's become that. But what are the movements? What are the ways that we can capture a story through choreography? And what I think is very often, that the movements associated with ritual life sometimes capture everything.

You think of a wedding ceremony. There's a tradition going back many, many centuries of a bride circling the groom in the wedding ceremony itself. Today when I officiate at weddings very often, I asked the groom and the bride if they want to mutually circle, and many choose to.

Well, the moving in a circle around your beloved is a way of expressing an interconnection. In some ways, it's more powerful than the words that we say or even the melodies that we chant. So expressing the elemental experiences of human experience through movement is something that is a part of the Jewish tradition.

Now, this is a real aside. I actually began a PhD in ritual dance at NYU. Part of my doctoral work, I was doing a movement analysis of a great Reform congregation and a Hasidic creation in Brooklyn. And I remember telling the professor I was going to do this.

And she said, well, that's really exciting, because I'm sure there'll be a lot of movement in both. I said, well, I think so. But a lot of people are saying, why are you doing a movement analysis of Reform congregation? There's almost no movement.

And the truth is there's elaborate movement in every ritual setting. Even a formal movement is a movement. So what I learned is in the Hasidic ritual, there was a more of a different, I would say, glossary of movement. And many people moved in very similar ways when they were praying.

And at this very beautiful majestic Reform congregation, what I saw was a very elegant and a very, very elaborate way that the clergy moved on the bimah, the way they carried themselves, the way they stood, the way they turned, the way they approached the arc. And each of the clergy members did it exactly the same way, as if they had been coached by a choreographer. Here's the choreography.

What that led me to conclude is that every ritual has its spoken words, its musical dimension. And the movement can at times be the most powerful and the most compelling of all. So in thinking about this great text from Genesis 16, and that moment I got inside the text through dance, I would just invite us to really find those creative modalities for us to be able to enter the text, to experience the text, and to be able to gain deeper and deeper appreciation and understanding of that text.

I will never read of Avram, Sarai, and Hagar in the same way again. And I hope that as you read the text this year, and maybe many other texts, that we'll notice the movement, we'll notice the flow. And we'll be drawn in to not just think about the text, but in any way possible, to embody it.



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