Joy is a major component of Judaism. Psalm 100:1 says, “Serve the Lord with joy”. Deut. 28:48 (the Tochechah) threatens punishment if we do not “serve with joy”. There is a well-known concept of simchah shel mitzvah, “the joy of a mitzvah”; Pinhas Peli thinks we can also say that there is also mitzvah shel simchah, “a mitzvah of joy”.
The ways to simchah range from ecstasy in worship to song, wine, and charity (Deut. 16:14; Maimonides, Hilchot Lulav).
There is a focus on body language – clapping, leaping and dancing. Yet Mishnah Betzah 5:1 says: “It is forbidden to clap hands, clap thighs or dance on Shabbat and festivals”. There was a fear that one would make or mend a musical instrument on these days.
In the Talmud Rava wonders why nobody protests at religious aerobics (Betzah 30a). A possible answer is that it is highly unlikely that it will lead to making or mending instruments (Isserles on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 339:3).
Dancing was popular in the Biblical/Talmudic period: Miriam and the women danced at the Red Sea (Ex. 15); David danced before the Ark (II Sam. 6:16), though Michal objected; the prophets whirled and danced; the people danced on festivals; there was dancing and juggling at weddings (e.g. Ket. 16b).
It seems that there is no way that dancing could be repressed – “there is a time to dance” (Koh. 3:4) – especially amongst women: “at 60 as at 6 the sound of a timbrel makes them nimble” (MK 9b).
The medieval rabbis disapproved. They asked, is it appropriate with the Temple in ruins? Might it cause licentiousness? Is it not a gentile custom, chukkat ha-goy?
Their protests were generally disregarded but not when mixed male-female dancing was on the agenda, which was forbidden because of the ban on physical contact between the sexes (Lev. 18:19); there were precedents for separate dancing – e.g. Jer. 31:12.
What was the situation with the Simchat Torah hakafot, which were an extension of the seven Hoshana Rabbah circuits?
These hakafot were known since long before the Shulchan Aruch. Amongst the Safed kabbalists in the late 17th century they were accompanied by singing and dancing. Some communities limited the number of Torah scrolls, e.g. in Munkatch they used only three scrolls and in Aden 22. Some places reserved the first hakafah for Torah scholars; some limited the circuits to three.
Dancing was not universal; Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal, said people should put the scroll on the bimah and march around.
In recent years dancing has become widespread.
Despite some objections, there is no reason why women may not touch or carry the Torah scroll (Ber. 22b; Maimonides, Hil’chot Sefer Torah 10:8). There is probably no analogy to women wearing t’fillin, where there is a guf naki (“clean body”) problem; the Torah is not “worn”.
Though dancing on Simchat Torah is accepted as a male custom, some synagogues allow women’s circuits and dancing, though Rav Moshe Feinstein warns against women adopting “male” practices if their motivation is to “make a statement” out of militancy (Igg’rot Moshe, Orach Chayyim 4:49).