Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
April 7, 2017 by Rishe Groner
Miriam the prophetess has been an acclaimed character in Jewish feminist lore for years, but I wasn’t raised among feminists, and so when we talked about Passover, Moses was our hero and Miriam a loyal sidekick.
Moses found the burning bush, transformed his staff into a snake, and split the Red Sea. We heard of little Miriam early on. She chastised her parents for separating to prevent their future children suffering the same fate, indignantly calling them out on their preventing even girl babies from being born, when Pharoah had outlawed only baby boys. When her brother Moses was born, she peeked between the reeds at the Nile riverbank, watching as he floated down the river in a basket to be adopted by the Egyptian princess; Miriam then recommended her own (and Moses’s) mother as a Hebrew wet-nurse, according to commentators.
But it’s there that Miriam’s story stops.
She’s not visible when Moses and the third sibling, Aaron, spend their time negotiating with Pharoah for the Israelites’ freedom, and when the plagues take over Egypt, she’s not present. Miriam rises only later, as the Hebrews cross the Red Sea, as the woman who takes her timbrel in hand and leads the women in a dance with songs of praise, celebrating freedom and taking her place as heroic leader throughout the ensuring 40 years’ desert wandering. In fact, Miriam’s magical well sustains the people with water in the wilderness, and the entire nation mourns her death.
Growing up in an extreme religious environment, where women were asked to sing with voices hushed, I found it hard to identify with Miriam. Like many victims of patriarchy, I preferred male leaders and ridiculed the feminine. I appreciated some things, though. I liked that she’d taken initiative as a little girl. But it was her presence–or the lack of it–through the rest of the story that made me wonder. Her dances sounded like a consolation prize, second-best to the party the men were having one sand dune over. In a world where I frequently faced segregation, I found it irritating when women’s events were tribute to Miriam. I bet those Israelite ladies sang and danced loudly, I thought, rather than leaving the party to a side room and, even then, keeping their voices hushed lest a man might hear.
Miriam’s part was small, I thought. She was the baby-whisperer but not the snake-charmer. Her song is two lines long, while Moses’s fills half a chapter. I’d studied the Kabbalistic underpinnings of the sacred feminine, but I thought it sounded too apologetic to me.
How could it be that woman’s ability to create life was powerful, if it meant she was excluded from the other status of men––which the rest of the world still perceived more valuable. Teachers and nurses as important was a story told me to make us complacent with limited career options, while I craved a CEO’s path.
Miriam’s dance reminded me of the ladies who danced behind partitions at Simchat Torah, cut off from the “main party” of the guys for some hand-clapping and hora dancing. It seemed lame in comparison to the big show of male-dominated ritual. Miriam was supposed to be the poster woman, but I didn’t get her. I appreciated her outspokenness and benevolence, but as someone doing battle with my own feminine identity, it was a challenge to identify with and respect hers.
In the Messianic-driven Hassidic community in which I was raised, Miriam’s dance is invoked to support the Talmud’s teaching that “in the merit of righteous women, we were redeemed and in their merit we will be redeemed in future.” Legend has it that the Israelite women in Egypt fashioned hand-drums in hopes of using them on exodus, and so in 1990s Brooklyn and Jerusalem and even Australia, there were hand-painted tambourines hanging on living room walls to prove redemption could strike at any minute.
I wasn’t buying it.
But then life intervened, or perhaps it was the Goddess herself, that embodiment of the Divine Feminine who comes to all who seek Her. She tapped me on the shoulder, whispered in my ear and woke me up in the ways of understanding the Divine through a feminine lens. Of exploring modalities that I’d never considered spiritual, and began understanding how profoundly sacred they could be.
Chief among them? Drum and dance.
I’d always danced, but it was the half-inebriated self-conscious dance of most women, the woman who wanted to move but thought that the world was laughing at her. I’d always wanted to drum, but a childhood comment that I “had no rhythm” stuck with me, so I never dared.
But then they came to me, and I couldn’t stop.
I began a conscious dance practice, which soon became an obsession as I attended classes and workshops, and soon I brought my practice everywhere I went, from Shabbat services to nightclub dance floors. I learned to dance without thought or fear, and simply follow the movements of the spirit that moved through me. I discovered that my body was a trove of ancient wisdom and forgotten traumas, suppressed dreams and latent powers that I could release through movement and finally feel free.
The thump of the drumbeat I had previously chased in front of DJ booths I found in the vibration that ran through my arms and down my chest, palms slapping the djembe to the rhythm of my soul, even when my hands couldn’t keep up.
And as I slowly healed, I felt my mind, body and spirit expand. I felt the anxiety of my Jewish womanhood release from the persistent knot that lived in my solar plexus, and the shame of my moving hips dissipate into a swirling wind of creativity and self-expression. I was lighter on my feet and firmer in my speech, and more empathetic, more connected with the world around me. And as I recalled the tambourines hanging on the wall, I wondered if maybe Miriam knew the secret after all. Perhaps she truly did hold the keys to redemption in her ladydance.
In search of the answers, I hit the mystical Hassidic texts I’d been taught as a child. As I dove in, I found that the truths were prevalent even if they hadn’t been fully actualized all this time. For the dance, as I’d discovered on my own, was indeed a path to personal freedom, and had been articulated centuries earlier, starting with Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Epstein, a 18th-century Poland Hassidic Master known as the “Maor Vashemesh” “Luminary and Sun.”
Maor Vashemesh explores the Torah’s language surrounding Miriam’s dance, particularly her song, which uses present tense in her call to, “Sing to the Lord!” Over on the other dune, you see, Moses and his crew were singing, “We will sing to the Lord!” In the future, that is.
What future? Like any Hassidic teacher, the apparent answer here is a time of redemption. A time of true utopia, not the straightforward exodus which brought us out of our boundaries into personal freedom, but a wider, more expansive liberation resulting in a fully actualized state, where Divinity exists constantly in a perceived, apparent manner.
Because maybe Moses and his men weren’t quite feeling Miriam and her ladies. They were happy with their freedom, but they felt there was more to come. But perhaps the expression of Divinity as perceived by the feminine, articulated in detail in Hassidism, was more present, real, and futuristic, felt in every bone and every breath of the women who danced, far beyond that Divine perception of the masculine over in Moses’ court.
And it happened through the dance.
Kabbalah teaches that the cosmos currently exists with a linear consciousness, one that insists the universe fit into the hierarchical model of giver and receiver. Gender is one such simple construct, yet there are plenty of others that model hierarchy: teachers and students, bosses and employees, plugs and sockets. It’s not unusual to find someone humiliated while another celebrates.
But can there be another way to succeed, a different paradigm?
The Kabbalah does, indeed, have another way of viewing things. It’s the view of circularity. For the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but a non-hierarchical view of coexistence, where a circle – much like the circle of the dancers formed by Miriam – celebrates the achievements of all, who are equidistant from the center. That circular way of being, we’ve learned, is manifesting more in today’s workplaces, households, relationships and even governments, as the divine feminine begins her ascension into balance alongside the sacred masculine.
While the cosmology sounds complex, the application is simple. It all happens with the dance. Miriam and the women, we learn, could hold a higher level of consciousness simply because they allowed the Divine to be present in their bodies. Because they used their physical presence from head to toe to bring in Spirit and feel that effect, holding it together in a circle of whirling sacred humanity.
It’s Miriam who teaches us just how to do that, by going deep into our bodies and letting go of shame. By dancing with wild abandon, letting the drumbeat take over, and getting unstuck from patterns that have programmed us.
I recently led a workshop at Limmud NYC, a Jewish educational conference in Princeton, NJ. Amid a weekend of lectures and text-based classes, we stepped into a large, sun-filled room and began to slowly move our bodies to music set to words of gratitude from Hebrew prayers like Modeh Ani and the Shema. I encouraged everyone to synchronize with the sounds as we moved into tribal bass rhythms, imagining water flowing through their limbs, from hip to toe, shoulder to thigh, and feel their body flow in response.
I noticed a woman begin stiffly. I asked participants to find a spot on the other side of the room and travel to it; she followed instructions, but still I sensed her discomfort. I wasn’t surprised. I was once a cynic of such practices, so I aim to be patient. But the music does the work for me, because every human wants to move. The prayerful music starts to work its magic, drawing us out of our heads and into our bodies.
I watched the liberation as it happened, as she slowly started moving more smoothly, almost gliding. By the end, she was whirling around the room, completely free.
Three weeks later, I met her again. She told me she’d been using the playlist I’d shared with her after the workshop, and now dances each morning in her small New York apartment. Sometimes her kids join her, and her husband told me it’s become quite the hit in their house.
I was in raptures. I’d known it worked, because it worked for me. And I was part of a dance community, devotees of the practice. But here was the medicine, presenting itself to the average stressed-out Jewish woman. Showing me that we do have the power, the potential to transform, just by moving. That Miriam’s wisdom is present still today, when we grab one another’s hands and join in circles and dance.
Reminding us to move past despair, to imagine hope. To allow the sound and the vibration to wake us up to a better morning, a better day of interacting with our kids, succeeding in our careers, and serving our communities. A morning of gratitude not frustration, a day of joy not irritation, an evening of love not indignation.
We drum, we dance, we sing.
Rishe Groner is a writer and strategist living in Brooklyn. She is the founder of TheGene-Sis.com, a post-Hasidic embodied approach to self-transformation.