Read an Excerpt
(from Chapter 2)
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF SACRED DANCE
Sacred dance is widely acknowledged as an important historical dimension of ancient biblical worship. But today, dance does not have any role in the worship services of the traditional synagogue and church. Since dance has become non-essential to our worship, both in the synagogue and church, we need to go back in history to see how it got this way. Did sacred dance continue in the synagogues beyond 70 C.E. (see note below) when the Temple was destroyed? How did the church react to this Jewish expression of worship? Did the church always resist finding a place for dance in worship and liturgy?
Communal dance in worship began with the earliest celebrations of Israel's existence as a nation, at the deliverance from Egypt. During the entire history of Jewish worship until the early Mishnaic period (2nd-3rd centuries C.E.) the people of God celebrated before him in dance. "A vision of heaven throughout the Talmud and Midrash includes the communal dance."
Sadly, the use of dance as a religious practice declined with the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Sanhedrin authority in 70 C.E. Following the disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans, around 132 C.E., sacred dance in Judaism virtually ceased. The significant reason for the decline was the Jewish trauma at being powerless and finally exiled from Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple and defeat at the hands of the Romans, Judaism saw itself again as the object of disapproval and judgment by God.
Again, as in the earlier exile to Babylon, the sounds of joy, mirth, song, and dance were abandoned. Sacred religious dance within the Jewish community did not return until the 1700's. The celebrations during Simchat Torah (Joy of Torah), at the end of the feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), were an exception. The traditional dancing with the Torah scrolls has continued to this day.
Yet, as a secular folk or cultural expression of communal joy and Jewish life-cycle celebrations, dance has continued throughout history within the Jewish community. Weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are examples of these types of life-cycle observances where dancing is an integral part of Jewish life today.
The first signs of the popular renewal of sacred dance, beginning in the 18th century, lead us back to the scattered remnant of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. In Judaism, sacred dance had virtually been suppressed after the Bar Kochba rebellion. But during the early 1700's a revivalist movement in Judaism sprang up in Poland called Hasidism. A defining characteristic of this movement was the expression of joy and intimacy with God through ecstatic dance. This movement quickly spread throughout the region, revolutionizing the Jewish community.
The founder of this movement was called the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name). Hasidism reintroduced joy, simcha, into the religious service. The Baal Shem Tov recaptured the use of dance to experience an intimate relationship with God. He taught that the dynamic of dance would fill a person with the joy of the Lord. Renowned for his stories, he recounted how he learned to dance in order to aid a jailed Jewish friend to gain his freedom. He claimed that if one could dance well, he or she would be freed from bondage.
Dancing is still a central part of worship in Hasidic circles. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as Friday evening draws near, you can see the exhilarating sight of orthodox Jewish students streaming out of their schools to welcome Shabbat, the Sabbath, with dance. Hasidism was the impetus for dance to slowly move back into other orthodox Jewish sects.
Philosophically, the Jewish people always connected sacred dance to their identity as God's chosen people. Dance continued in Jewish imagination as a primary expression of the Messianic age-when Israel would be restored as the head of the nations and peace would rule on earth.
We will now see how Christianity dealt with sacred dance. Most people assume that dance has not been a tradition of mainstream Christianity. They surmise that it must have ceased after the church's final separation from its Jewish roots, around the 3rd or 4th century. However, this is not the case. Dance was an essential part of Christian worship and liturgy up until the 1700's.
Dance was a part of the worship of the first followers of Yeshua and withstood the radical changes that transformed the early Messianic communities. These early believers, Jews who believed in Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah, had retained their Jewish lifestyle as the cultural framework for their faith. It was not until the late second and early third centuries with a preponderance of gentiles in leadership roles within the church that more radical changes occurred. Originally the question facing the believers had to do with whether the gentiles could be included in the community of believers, and if so, how (Acts 15). As early as 160 C.E., the issue was reversed, and the question became whether Jews were now excluded from the community of faith.
The primary ancient source of Christian liturgy and worship was the Temple service and later the synagogue service, in particular, the services of the Messianic synagogues. We often fail to appreciate how the early Messianic believers maintained their attachment to the Temple. The book of Acts repeatedly reminds us that the Temple was central for the community life and worship of Yeshua's first followers (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 21:27).
Two significant factors affected the use of dance in the development of the early Messianic synagogue service. The first was the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., which permanently altered the worship practices of the community. The problem was practical-lack of space.
The Messianic believers met in small synagogues and private homes. The loss of the Temple and its spacious courtyards meant that there were no ample places available for sacred dance. In their small synagogues and house meetings, space was at a premium. Dance, therefore, became a persistent, practical problem as the number of believers grew.
The second factor affecting the use of dance among early believers was the tendency to spiritualize elements of Jewish tradition. The early Messianic community in Jerusalem was Torah observant. Acts 21:20 reads, "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law." But over the next two centuries, the Messianic Jewish world went through some radical changes in cultural expression. Although all the early believers until around 45 C.E. were Jewish or converts to Judaism, the large numbers of gentiles coming into the faith brought with them crucial differences in cultural expression and identity.