Innovations or even recalibrated priorities proposed by hassidic masters were coupled with attempts to locate a source in the Bible.
The Jewish people are guided by the written Torah as mediated by the oral tradition. The Torah provides both the instructions for conduct and the inspiration for grappling with ever-changing realities. As such, any new idea or innovation will seek an anchor in the eternal texts of our heritage. A claim for validity and general acceptance is largely dependent on demonstrating that the idea or practice is rooted in the tradition. At first blush the text appears to be static – hardly an appropriate source of inspiration for change – but by adding the license to interpret and reinterpret the text, the seemingly unchanging becomes rather malleable.
In this vein, innovations or even merely recalibrated priorities proposed by hassidic masters were coupled with ardent attempts to locate a source in the Bible. One example is the analysis of the hassidic penchant for dancing offered by Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacs (1871-1937). The Munkatcher Rebbe suggested that the value of public dancing was patent in a chapter of the life of King David (see II Samuel 6).
When King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, a grand musical parade was organized. The procession moved slowly, pausing each six steps to offer up sacrifices. King David was so excited at the prospect of bringing the Ark to his capital that he was seen dancing and leaping with all his might at the head of the convoy.
As the pageant entered the city, the king’s wife Michal, daughter of the previous monarch Saul, looked out the window. To her dismay and horror, she saw her husband dancing like an excited schoolboy, wearing nothing but a scant linen cloth rather than the clothes of nobility.
The party that day was grand, but when everyone went home, Michal had words to say to her husband: How glorious was the king of Israel today, in that he uncovered himself before the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the empty people uncovers himself! The Munkatcher Rebbe explained that the disagreement between Michal and David went beyond the question of appropriate attire for the monarch. In truth – he explained – the disagreement centered on the issue of the appropriate way to serve the Almighty.
Michal felt that serving God should be a private matter, removed from the public eye. It was fine to be excited when serving God, as long as that excitement was expressed in an intimate setting. Indeed, public shows are often tainted by the need to satisfy the expectations of the audience. Thus the queen criticized her husband for “uncovering himself” before all and sundry.
King David, however, disagreed: Any public manifestation of one’s feeling toward God was also a sanctification of the Almighty’s name. We can only imagine the indelible mark left on loyal subjects as they saw their king dancing with abandon before the Ark of the Covenant.
Moreover, public expressions of fidelity to God and excitement in the service of the Almighty are paramount to passing on the tradition, for children naturally mimic what they see their elders do. In this vein, the divine retribution for Michal was that she was destined to die childless.
(The Munkatcher Rebbe himself was childless for many years; after 10 years of marriage he got divorced. His only daughter was born from his second marriage.)
This reading suggested that the hassidic dancers who jumped and bounced with no concern for propriety and decorum were continuing the legacy of the passionate King David. Those who opposed dancing – or for that matter, any outward expression of religious emotion – were the spiritual descendants of Michal.