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Exercise and Dance to Eastern Music

Kislev 5782 | November 2021
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The following discussion addresses the question of participating in dance events that are affected by Eastern culture.

Various dance genres that originate in the Far East were devised as part of a culture of idolatry; these often include ‘spiritual energies,’ and are frequently assisted by physical esthetic aides, such as Buddha statues and other effigies. This poses a very real dilemma for a religious woman who seeks spiritual connection or emotional self-expression through this genre of dance. Is engaging in dance that includes idolatrous elements or influences in fact idolatry? Does this type of dance fit into the category of avizrayhu de-avoda zara (prohibitions associated indirectly with idolatry), or perhaps hukot ha-goyim (common non-Jewish practices)? Or conversely, perhaps the essence is worthy and the form can be ignored or rejected, as the Talmud formulates in another instance (BT Hagiga 15b): “Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate; he ate the fruit and threw away the peel.”

Let us try to examine the various facets of this question.

The laws of idolatry pertain to physical objects (Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 2-3, 7-8), and physical actions concerning those objects (such as bowing down to an idol, offering incense, or other physical actions that are uniquely linked to specific idols, in their presence). Additionally, the injunction of avizrayhu de-avoda zara prohibits use of physical objects that were sanctified for the purpose of idolatry – even if they are no longer used for such.

From a narrow formalistic perspective, the laws of idolatry would strictly prohibit dance in the context of idol worship, such as dancing before a Buddha statue, or imploring the sun and moon; these should be regarded as actual idolatry, and rigorously avoided. However, if these elements are neutralized, and the dance setting includes no statues or specific chants and prayers (intended for a divine entity that is not physically present) – it would seem that the dance itself is neither avizrayhu (since it is neither a physical object), nor a prohibited action (since it is not performed in the presence of idolatry, or for the purpose of idolatry).

The Torah prohibits another class of actions, which are not categorized as idolatry, but rather as hukot ha-goyim. This category includes non-idolatrous practices that are common among non-Jews:

  1. Some actions used in the context of idolatry were permitted for the purpose of worshipping God. For example, building an altar, offering sacrifices, prostration, etc. – these are actions commonly used in idol worship, but also placed into careful parameters for the worship of God. Other practices, such as creating idols, sanctifying trees, bamot (high sacrificial areas outside of the Temple) – were prohibited altogether, even with the intent of worshiping God.
  2. Various practices pertaining to witchcraft were strictly prohibited by the Torah.
  3. Idolatrous customs are a very broad category, which includes a myriad of practices. According to the Rambam the prohibition to engage in idolatrous practices refers specifically to actions that are inappropriate in their own right, or ones that reflect the desire to adopt an appearance that is non-Jewish. The Rambam defines the prohibition based on the parameters mentioned explicitly in the Torah, such as the prohibition to cut sideburns or use a razor to cut one’s beard.

Does dance fit into any of the categories of hukot ha-goyim? Is this a form of worship that was prohibited even if done for the worship of God?

It would seem that dance itself was not prohibited; in fact dance features prominently in the context of worshipping God in the story of David, who dances before the Holy Ark when it is brought to Jerusalem, and in Rabbinic sources, in the Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah celebration on Sukkot in the Temple. From a halakhic perspective, dance is permitted in the context of God’s worship, and as a neutral recreational activity.

However, there is a debate among poskim about the permissibility of listening to Christian music, or to music with sexual innuendo, in the context of worshipping God. Some prohibited this practice due to the foreign influence and the thoughts they might provoke by association, or in light of the inappropriate source (e.g. Tzitz Eliezer 13:12 based on Rif 281; Rema Orah Haim 53:25). Conversely, some allowed the use of foreign tunes in the context of God’s worship, based on the perception that we should use the tools and powers around us to elevate the world and worship God (e.g. Yehave Daat II:5).

Therefore, the question of drawing from existing foreign culture, such as dance and music – whether for recreational or religious purpose – is debated among poskim. Some believe these can be ‘converted’ to forms of avodat Hashem, while others reject foreign influences altogether. Is an inappropriate source a reason to reject a cultural influence altogether, or do we adopt intercultural influence, rejecting the peel but enjoying the beauty and power of the fruit?

Perhaps the answer lies in the individual use, and a sincere examination of the extent of impact the original source. When one engages in the form of dance described above, is there a sense of connection to the idolatrous source – which would be a reason to avoid it – or a sense of spiritual elevation and closeness to God – which would be a reason to allow.

The optimal choice, of course, is to engage in dance that has no explicit foreign influence, whenever possible.

Dr. Adina Sternberg

has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.