Finding Religious Joy

This guest post comes from Nathan Steiger, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University and a friend of BCC.

Over two years ago I stepped into a synagogue on the Jewish sabbath in New York City and witnessed one of the most foreign religious rituals I’d ever encountered: dancing. Twenty-year old men, eighty-year old women, whole families with preschool-age children, dozens of people all holding hands, dancing and singing with liberated gusto. That experience, along with many others, radically changed my life.

Had I grown up Mormon in Nauvoo in the 1840s rather than Utah in the 1990s, perhaps I would have known joyous religious dancing. Early Mormons played music, drank wine, and danced together in the Nauvoo temple, often until well past midnight [1]. The ethos of such gatherings feels far removed from contemporary Mormonism.

Yet a religious life is kept alive through moments of unbridled joy.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, revived the spiritual life of Jews throughout Eastern Europe. He was a man of the people. He gave them hope, taught them stories and songs, and insisted that religious life be about both inward and outward joy. But in order for this transformation to happen, many of the old ways of living Judaism had to be broken and reimagined.

When Yaakov-Josef of Polnoye first met the Baal Shem Tov, he was a punctilious and stringent Jew. He was the rabbi of a small town, and one morning he arrived at the town’s synagogue at the time of morning prayers only to find it empty. The Baal Shem Tov had just come to visit the town that morning. The people had been drawn to the Baal Shem Tov and were gathered around him, captivated by his stories. Yaakov-Josef was infuriated and he scolded this visitor. But once Yaakov-Josef had been calmed down, the Baal Shem Tov began to tell him a story:

I was riding in a coach drawn by three horses, each of a different color, and not one of them was neighing. I could not understand why. Until the day we crossed a peasant on the road who shouted at me to loosen the reins. And all at once, the three horses began to neigh.

Yaakov-Josef was immediately struck by the meaning of the story: for the soul to vibrate and cry out with joy, it must be freed. He must loosen the reigns. And in that moment of realization, he began to cry as he had never cried before [2].

When fixed beliefs are prescribed, when homogeneity is imposed, when the bureaucracy becomes too unwieldy to respond to the needs of the people, joy can be stifled. And community can be lost.

May we have the courage and wisdom to know when and how to loosen the reigns.

 

[1] People of Paradox, Givens, p. 130; Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example, Quinn, p. 85.

[2] Souls on Fire, Elie Wiesel, p. 40–41.

Comments

  1. Beautiful stuff, Nathan. I hope everyone who reads and likes this will click on the link and read your whole story, and ponder what your life’s experience so far may have to teach others.

  2. Enjoyed the post and your linked story, Nathan. Did you Know Aaron Brown while you were in grad school?

  3. The utterly hilarious light-years we ago we are from wine & dancing in the temple imbues this little post w/ wistful lovely zen. Thank you, brother, for lightening my heart. Please move to my ward.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Russell, I’m glad you mentioned the linked story. I missed the link at first but just now read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not going to convert, but I too have been touched by the significant philosemitism of the Mormon tradition (and, as one consequence of that, learned biblical Hebrew in college).

    In a very small way perhaps I have experienced joyous dancing in the Mormon tradition. I grew up in a small branch in northern Illinois in the 60s and 70s. We did a lot of dancing in that little branch. We had enough musicians to form a band, and we celebrated anything important (like, say, New Year’s Eve) together as opposed to separately in our families. I remember in particular one dance marathon where I with my sister and my friend with an adult woman danced literally for hours until we couldn’t even move anymore. That dynamic begins to erode as a unit grows in size and becomes a ward, but in the beginning we were all just a family.

  5. Rexicorn says:

    Last week I went to a non-denominational Easter service, and after the benediction we all sang a hymn, then joined hands and danced out of the chapel in a line. It was mildly awkward since many there (myself included) had never been to this church before, but it was also really fun and a great, celebratory way to end an Easter service. And it was a very efficient way to get everyone out of the chapel in time for the next service to start, too!

    One thing I really miss from directing the Primary Music is the opportunity to sing, dance, and move during church. I don’t know why Mormons give that up as we grow up. Our services can get so joyless and staid when all you do is sit (for three hours!!).

  6. WVS
    I knew Aaron only fleetingly. We met and chatted once or twice at Molly Bennion’s guest lectures/discussions.

    Kevin
    That’s really cool! That kind of dynamic definitely does erode in a bigger group, though the general religious culture matters quite a bit too. There are plenty of synagogues where there’s really no significant dancing; these tend to be those communities that historically have tried to mimic the formality of high-church Christianity or that see dancing as incompatible with a staid, scholastic religious life.

  7. Brian Cowley says:

    Those who have the pleasure of riding horses know that you have to give them their head in order for them to run freely. Yes, there is less feeling of control, but it is also the most exhilarating time to be on the back of a horse.

  8. your food allergy is fake says:

    I keep my dog on a short leash to keep her from experiencing the joy of eating poop.

  9. I love your story. I am sitting at a beach house by an open window, listening to the waves crash along the shore and letting your story settle on me. Mazel tov.

  10. Eternal grad student says:

    “when homogeneity is imposed, when the bureaucracy becomes too unwieldy to respond to the needs of the people, joy can be stifled. And community can be lost.”

    Amen!

    Fortunately, I live in a ward and stake that permits some unimposed, “anxiously engaged” local variation. Custom Sunday school classes, a variety of musical instruments allowed in musical numbers, etc.

  11. Anthony Train says:

    I really enjoyed your account and history of your life within the lds community and church
    Also your intriguing and coversion slowly to Judism. I have jewish blood in my veins my granfather on my mothers side was born illigitimate but we know his father was a jewish doctor already married.
    I joined the church lds 41 years ago and within 6 months i confessed to a sexual encounter with a male friend as i was ltransgenda. They never allowed me sacrement for 5 yrs. 20 yrs later l got married but they abused me emoitionally never home teaching me and my family because of my transgenda past not once over 9 years nor allowing me the return of the priesthood privilidges for another 7 years. I went out home teaching faithfully for 9 yrs until i hsd had enough of the discriminstion even thoughbi had not lived a in any trans issues
    Eventually the camels back broke mine and i went into depression, lost my wife and 3 kids too. However i have learnt to always find the positive in a negative situation. Kind regards Anthony.

  12. dlorenzen says:

    Thanks for this, and the linked article, Nathan. I am typically nonplussed by Judaism, but your writings have caused a serious reappraisal.

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