Some students of the Baal Shem Tov came to him one day with a question. "Every year we travel here to learn from you. Nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?"
The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?"
"Yes!" The hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them."
"Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds." The Baal Shem Tov smiled. "If he has an answer, he is a fake."
One of the wonderful, joyous things about being Jewish is there is no one ‘right’ way. There are mitzvoth, there are traditions that are so weighty and meaningful they might as well be mitzvoth, and there are observances that are purely stylistic or aesthetic in nature, that we do as Jews simply for the joy of it.
So it is with movement, the way we position our bodies during prayer. Jewish prayer is not for standing (or sitting) still! We bow at the knee to show homage to the One God; we cover our eyes at the sh’ma to concentrate on the words; we take three steps forward and back at the beginning of the Amidah to approach God correctly; we rise on our tiptoes at the kedusha to try to fly like angels as we pronounce God’s holiness.
I’ve always been a mover-call it shuckling, call it dancing, call it davening, call it just a failure of standing still-the rhythms and cadence of the service flow through me. Body movement helps me stay focused on the prayers I utter; swaying to the music helps me stay attuned to my kavannah, my intention as I pray and lead the prayers. The movement centers me the way achieving a yoga position helps someone find his chakra or the way the movements of tai chi chu’an slow the person down to achieve real awareness of her chi. Movement in prayer is meditation, it is focus and attentiveness, it is fun.
Of course, like yoga or tai chi, many of the movements are choreographed, specified for a reason. There is a reason that at times we rise, bow, take three steps back and forward, go on our tiptoes, beat our chests, and moonwalk (just kidding about the last one). For some of us, those movements are so rooted in our experience they’re second nature, though we may not know their origins; for others they appear foreign and mysterious. Over the last year I’ve had people ask me about the movements, either privately or right before or after services, and some requests to discuss those movements during the service, but I’ve been loath to do so; I fear that, interrupting the flow of worship, I turn it into a seminar or worse, an exhibition rather than an opportunity for prayer.
However, after further requests and discussions, and with our adoption of our new prayerbook, I’ve seen the wisdom in taking some time during services and, in lieu of a sermon, speaking during the service itself of the prayers and movements, explaining their origins and purpose in a (hopefully) prayerful fashion.
The point is not to force anyone to do what is uncomfortable or meaningless for them; quite the contrary. These movements are opportunities for us as a congregation and as individuals to find our own rhythm, our own sense of prayerfulness, and an acknowledgement that each of us must find our place in our spiritual home. For some, movement conveys holiness and ruach. For others, complete stillness and silence allows for real spirituality. For yet others, that sense of kedusha comes not from prayer but from study, or meaningful social justice work, experiencing some piece of Jewish art or literature or culture, or just knowing that she is surrounded by others who, figuratively speaking, also stood at Sinai. We are at our best when we embrace all of these ways of breathing in God’s Oneness, when we stop trying to separate dancer from dance and appreciate the intention, the connection, and the joy.