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david dancingI was raised in Reform Judaism, and mostly I’ve attended reform services. They are really not very different from the many Protestant Services I’ve also attended: the Rabbi or Minister stands in front emceeing the activities, there are readings from scripture, various rote prayers, responsive readings, perhaps a few moments of silent prayer, lots of songs.

I did once attend an orthodox service in New York with some Ashkenazi Jews (I’m also Ashkenazi), and found it a completely different kind of experience: no one was paying any particular attention to the Rabbi, and everyone was talking out loud in Hebrew by themselves and davening, davening, davening.

Another time, in Boston, I went to an orthodox Sephardic service, and it was absolutely wild. It was a fairly small room, with a balcony. All the women were in the balcony. Downstairs, the men were having a most rowdy party! Bottles of Arak were being passed around (similar to the Greek ‘Ouzo’, a strong licorice flavored liqueur), everyone was quite drunk, and we danced around in a circle with the Rabbi at the head holding the Torah aloft, and everyone was singing and shouting. Upstairs, the women were also dancing and singing and having a marvelous time.

I suspect this is how the B’al Shem Tov encouraged the Hasidim to worship God. And it was how David worshipped God – singing his songs (the Psalms), and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant as it was being brought to Jerusalem.

But oh how that pissed off his straight-laced wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul! I suppose she was the first Puritan.

Here’s an excerpt about the story from From Joshua to Jesus:

After King David made Jerusalem his capital, the first thing he did was to go to war against the Philistines, and he finally succeeded in expelling them from the Promised Land. Next, he purchased Mount Moriah, which sits on the northern boundary of the city. He then assembled a troop of chosen soldiers, and returned to Judah to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant and bring it to Jerusalem.

On their return to Jerusalem, “David and all the House of Israel danced before the Lord to the sound of all kinds of cypress wood instruments, with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals” – a scene corresponding to Samuel and his band of prophets speaking in ecstasy.

David whirled with all his might before the Lord…. Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn. (2 Sam.6.14-15)

They brought the Ark into a tent that David had specially pitched for it on Mount Moriah, and David sacrificed Burnt Offerings and Peace Offerings. He then blessed the people in the name of the Lord, and distributed bread, meat, and wine, to everyone. Then all the people returned to their homes.

But Saul’s daughter Michal, a wife of David, had watched the return of the Ark through her window, and she saw David dancing and whirling in his linen tunic before the Ark. She scorned his behavior as frivolous and unworthy of a king, and when he returned to his household she reprimanded him with sarcasm: “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today – exposing himself today in the sight of the slavegirls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!”

David, however, was not impressed by the mere external appearance of so-called ‘dignified’ behavior, and he told Michal that he would dance before the Lord, and he would humble himself in his own eyes and in the eyes of the people, and as a result of this, “among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored.” God reproved Michal for her haughty strait-laced attitude, and “to her dying day Michal daughter of Saul had no children.” (we do not have to have the same values today to appreciate that this was ‘punishment’ in her terms).

This certainly should be useful food for thought for many people who convince themselves that joy and dance and music and celebration are inappropriate and sinful ways of worshipping God. As the great Hindu sage, Sri Aurobindo, once quipped, “To listen to some devout people, one would imagine that God never laughs.”

Sometimes, when I look around at the world, I imagine that God can’t stop laughing.
The 1200 years from the death of Joshua to the birth of Jesus was a fascinating tome in the Holy Land. If you liked this article, you will enjoy FROM JOSHUA TO JESUS: A Brief Chronicle of the Kings, Empires, Legends and Ideas that Paved the Way to Bethlehem