Circle Dance With God

The bride and groom

kiss, sweaty and soaked,

at the center of

a rapturous ring of lovers

rousting demons

from the room.

Here is My stance:

Having walked with them

through the valley

of the shadow of death’s delay…

on their wedding day

I’m getting up to dance!  (Dan Ornstein)

It was years ago. The plans for the couple’s wedding were frozen by the looming death demon furiously marking exes over the days of their life calendar. I don’t remember who was sick, the bride, the groom, or perhaps another family member?  Yet how well I recall the couple in the middle of the boisterous dance circle at the reception; how well I remember imagining God standing there with them in the center of that boisterous hora-against-mortality, screaming at the top of Her lungs, “We’ve come this far…let’s dance!”

Recently I, “glimpsed” God at the center of another wedding hora. The circumstances of the couple’s celebration differed, but also did not. Bride and groom had rescheduled the wedding a few times during COVID, as the virus surged, retreated, mutated and surged, reeling and running rings around the world, leaving us breathless, many of us literally, and literally alone, in ICU beds. The couple is thankfully young and healthy, but the groom lost both paternal grandparents to the disease within one week, forcing them to join us as mere names memorialized under the wedding canopy. At the reception, the young lovers kissed, sweaty and soaked, as their friends – all members of my son’s broad and fiercely loyal social circle – stomped and sang around them: dancers in this newest circle that my generation helped them to create, as they now edged us to its margins. How could I not imagine God, one more time, right in there with the crowd, grabbing the hands of bride, groom, family and friends, drunk, as it were, on the music and the merriment? A marriage took place, a new family was formed, our living, breathing endless contradance with death continued. How could God not be there?

How could God not be there?

I’ve been thinking about this rhetorical question a lot since that recent celebration. Notwithstanding this powerful poetic image of God among the dancers, there is little to no proof it is true. Even if we could “prove” somehow that God stands in the center of every dancing celebration, what would that even mean in human terms?

Perhaps an answer begins with a simple acknowledgement: even without this proof, the persistence of the circle when we dance, and the joy it evokes in us, point us toward the poet William Wordsworth’s description of his experience of, if not God, then certainly a deeper spiritual reality:

“A presence that disturbs me with the joy

of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

of something far more deeply interfused.”   (From “Tintern Abbey”)

For centuries, people everywhere, not just Jews, have celebrated with circle dances, locking arms and coordinating (or not) their movements at varying speeds. Medieval sources mention circle dances figuring in religious settings, and the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung decades ago pointed out how the circle is ubiquitous in secular and religious art across cultures. He taught us that circles reflect outwardly the circle as a recurring image in the unconscious mind, symbolizing particularly in our dreams the quest for peace, wholeness and, especially, the continuation of life. God doesn’t literally dance with us in circles at wedding receptions. Yet during the dancing, our experience of life’s persistent breath (breathless as it may leave us) is at least a loud rumor that God has arrived at the party. This rumor grows even louder when we dance in celebration after experiencing deep sorrow and loss, the dances of depression and death.

I wonder if the time-honored circle dance is doing more than pointing us toward Wordsworth’s lovely but intangible “sense sublime.” In the circle, our bodies and voices become like one entity, spinning with outrageous delight in a shape that has no beginning or end point. That moving, energetic shape evokes an even more explicit feeling of hope that our “contradance-with-death” will never end, precisely because life itself will never end. When we experience this hope-during-the-dance, God, Life of the world, is, at it were, there too, showing us the steps to take toward that hope.

A rare and striking passage in the Talmud hints at this hope-during-the-dance. After a description of how the women of Jerusalem would dance with their prospective marriage partners on certain days of celebration, we read this soaring vision of God dancing in the messianic era:

In the future, at the end of days, the Holy One, Blessed be God, will arrange a circle dance (machol) for the righteous;

God will be sitting among them in the Garden of Eden, and each and every one of the righteous will point to God with his finger, as it is stated: “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us. This is the Lord; for whom we waited. We will be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation (Isaiah 25:9).  [Tractate Taanit 31a, Sefaria translation with the author’s modifications.]

I don’t believe for a moment that the Rabbi who recorded this vision was simply looking to deliver a nice sermon based upon Isaiah’s words. I imagine him at a wedding reception thousands of years ago. Maybe the bride and groom have just survived some trauma; maybe the Jewish community has; maybe the known world has just survived a plague. Everyone is there, singing and dancing. Everyone is there, thankful to be alive. The circle dance kicks in, the dancers’ feet kick up. The circle remains unbroken, the world is still here, and the bride and groom are its newest dancers. Maybe our sage is dancing, but more likely, he is hanging back, wondering.  Is he simply watching a dance or does he have a “sense sublime” that this is mere rehearsal for a time when even God, as it were, will do an endless Hora with the righteous in a “Garden of Eden” world redeemed from anguish and evil? That sage jumps into the circle, takes hold of the happy couple, grabs God, as it were, by the arm, and gets up to dance.

Our ancient ancestors may have been more readily receptive to “seeing” God in experiences and spaces that, for us today, have become spiritual vacuums. We point to the usual suspects: scientific skepticism, secularism, the vast technologies that have become weapons of mass distraction turned upon us, their handlers. Maybe these miracles of modernity are also our malaise, maybe they aren’t. No matter, they are here to stay, but you don’t have to be stymied spiritually by them.

When you celebrate and when you grieve, when you love and even when you hate, when you shout hoarsely and when you sit in still silence, let God be there in all moments with you and for you, hinting to you the miracle of this life that is yours.

And the next time you’re at a wedding, when the Hora, or the Debka, or the Adana, or the Dhimsa, or the Sardana begins and the band belts out its set, hang back for a moment and, as it were, watch God move into the middle; the mysterious Occupant and Author of all the living, joyous people like yourself who are here for the briefest time, yet who are part of Life which, like God, is timeless.

God’s pointing to you to come on into the circle.  Get up and dance!

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)
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