The Choreography of Davvenology
Friday May 26th 2006, 5:40 pm
Filed under: Slices of Life

Rabbi Bill BlankTraditional Jewish prayer — davennen — is done with a few dance steps. This bit of choreography involves certain place in the daily prayer where you bow, where you take a few baby steps forward or backward, where you rise on to your tiptoes. And a rhythmic swaying — shukkling — where the body joins in to the prayer. These dance moves punctuate the prayer and transform the prayer from a wooden recital of words from the book into an act of the whole body.

I subscribe to a Reform rabbis’ listserv. Occasionally my fellow subscribers delve into a discussion worth diving in to. Last week, the topic turned to the choreography of davvenology. The discussion brought me back to an experience I experienced a while back.

At a point in the rabbinic lifecycle when the energy available towards the spiritual quest was waxing most poetic and the will to experience extraordinary experiences burned ever more brightly, I had the luxury of being without professional bimah responsibilities through an extended time-frame.

Draped in my rainbow-colored tallit with matching rasta-cap converted to kippah and armed with my quartz-crystal-tipped yad, I would attend a traditional/Conservative service most Shabbatot and assume the role of Jew in the pew, needing oh-so-intensely to communicate with the Source of All Being. I would seek out the most inconspicuous spot where I would daven with all of the kavvanah I was capable of mustering.

Having done my formative years in the 50’s when the body and its expressive modes were particularly suspect and repressed, having come of age in the 60’s when the body electric was sung illuminated with day-glo gigawatts, and having sat out too much of the 70’s tabulating credits toward smicha at HUC-Cincinnati, there in the 80’s I was determined to experience the spiritual dance in the palette’s brightest colors.

So each daily prayer, I allowed myself to sway energetically, as I had observed the pale-skinned Telshe Yeshiva bahurim while on a Cleveland Hebrew School field trip with Mar Reisman many years before.

At first my swaying motion was stiff and forced. In time it loosened, as I integrated body-insights garnered from Hatha Yoga and Tai Chi. It led me on an inner archaeologic dig.

Eventually, I rocked as I imagined my mother must have rocked me, peacefully, joyfully, until inwardly reaching bedrock with no boundaries between goof, nefesh and neshama (or id, ego and superego, take your pick).

And then the rocking transmogrified into a different dance. It occured to me that all this davening/shukkling rocking fore and aft was nothing more or less than the dance of procreation, human’s-yesod-to-shekhina’s-malchut in sublimated format, blasphemistically intercoursing in the most secret, the most pleasurable of all intimacies, where the borderline separating I from You becomes most permeable.

And just as I was overcome with this insight and paused to decide whether to grok what I was experiencing or to let go and allow the experience to experience me, the Kedusha prayer crashed the second wave over me. At that apogee of the service, where the angels all chirp cacophonously around the divine throne, we on Earth imitatio dei with three short tiptoe rises, as we ejaculate our spiritual energy and collapse into a heap. Fortunately, the paradim incorporates the female enough that the collapse is only momentary before the dance energy recharges and proceeds, a notch or two more mellowed and subdued but proceeding vigorously until a gentle three-step withdrawal in peace.

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