King David’s wife Michal was a woman of cold dignity. Her royal pride was affronted to see her husband leading a dancing procession to bring the Ark to Jerusalem: “Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart” (II Sam. 6:16 – this week’s Haftarah).
It was not only that kings did not act in this way. Religious ecstasy offended her sense of propriety. She would have liked Pepys’ comment when he said that a Simchat Torah service was “religion absurdly performed”.
She would also have applauded a member of a decorous London synagogue the first Simchat Torah that dancing was allowed there. He marched up to the bimah, announced, “My grandfather would turn in his grave!”, and walked out.
But despite Michal, Pepys and the decorous grandson, “leaping and dancing before the Lord” seems to be here to stay. Not only on Simchat Torah, but in some places on other days – especially Friday night.
In some synagogues in Israel the dance around the reading desk after L’chah Dodi takes 25 minutes, with rabbi and disciples singing Shabbos Koidesh, Shabbos Koidesh! over and over again.
This is not for every congregation, but hardly a community these days does not prefer services to be warm in atmosphere, lively in pace and user-friendly. Few now favour the sort of service that, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, suffers from a severe cold.
But it would be a pity if less structured services abandoned all semblance of dignity and decorum. A service, however lively, that ends up as a mess lacks awe and sanctity.