The Secret of the Circle Dance: The Radical Message of Tu B’Av (Part I)
Come see the radical, revolutionary power of the “minor” Jewish holiday coming up this Thursday – Tu B’Av (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av). Historically, it was a day when unmarried men would choose a bride. It’s been repurposed in modern times as a kind of Jewish Valentine’s Day, and some hope to meet someone special at one of the Tu B’Av gatherings that happen. Of course, meeting one’s basherte – The One – is pretty big. But the long-buried meaning of this holiday goes farther and deeper. It is for everyone. Especially for those who yearn to help bring an end to the long-standing oppressive hierarchies and patriarchy of the world. So, here’s what I know:
Almost two thousand years ago, our sages of the Talmud claimed that there were never greater days of joy in Israel than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur (so already, we know Tu B’ Av is of stunning significance). On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would come out in white and dance in the vineyards, for men to choose their bride (Ta’anit 26b). There are a number of reasons given for this holiday, but I’d like to focus on the one that leads us to the deep mystical Kabbalistic path: the fifteenth of Av was the day on which the deaths of the Jews in the wilderness ceased (Ta’anit 30b). That is, the generation that had been enslaved in Egypt, who were so emotionally and spiritually damaged by their slavery that they could not enter Israel, died during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The next generation, that had been born in the wilderness, was now ready to receive higher spiritual teachings, and to merit entering the Land. The greater significance, therefore, of Tu B’Av, is that it marks and celebrates the paradigm of a great shift in awareness and responsibility of a people. AND, it serves as a model for living higher consciousness lives. Perhaps even a world closer to olam ha-ba, the world to come, which is actually a world that, according to the Zohar, exists presently, and is constantly coming. (Zohar, Pritzker ed. p 189, n 669).
The model of celebration on Tu B’Av that the sages describe is a taste of this more perfected world, a world beyond hierarchical structures, a world of equality, and chesed – loving kindness. According to the Mishna of Ta’anit 26b:
the daughters of Jerusalem came out in white garments which they borrowed in order not to put to shame anyone who had none.
This portrays a world of kindness, of compassion for those who had less. Note that the sephirah of Chesed, denoting, among other things, lovingkindness, is associated with the color white. This aspect of the celebration also promoted choosing a partner with disregard of a hierarchy that valued wealth as status.
The most radical part of the celebration that the sages describe, however, was the circle dance:
2) The daughters of Jerusalem came out to dance in the vineyards, exclaiming to the young men, to lift up their eyes and choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty, but on family.
First, note that the men were to “lift up their eyes” when choosing a bride. Meaning, look at the higher values, a good family, spirituality, not just external beauty. No objectifying.
And the dance! The word used for “dance” was cholot, which denotes that they danced a machol – a circle dance. They were experiencing the mystery of the circle dance, which was first recorded in Exodus 15:20, when Miriam and all of the women at the Sea of Reeds went out in a circle dance, a dance where all could experience a higher plane of existence, where all are equal, and there is no hierarchy.
The Hasidic master R. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his writings Ma’or va-Shemesh, told of the tremendous significance of the circle dance – whether by Miriam and the women, or by women seeking husbands on Tu B’Av, or of the hakafot, circle dances on holy days and celebrations. He explained that the circle dance is
“based on the secret of the female surrounding the male (‘a woman courts a man’ Jer 31:32, indicating something new in the world), so that through those same circular processions we will extend the light of the Sublime One to a point where there will no longer be any male (influencing or dominating) or female (receiving) roles. . . [this] in order to extend the light of the Most High in a way lacking any distinction based on distance.” (Ma’or va-Shemesh, II, 13b-14a).
In other words, all are equal in a circle, there is no leader, no hierarchy. The circle is the more perfect world that is coming. It is reflective of this, as well as generative.
The Ma’or va-Shemesh explained further, that the first thought of God in creating the worlds was to contract Divinity in the form of a circle, extending equally to all worlds. In the material world, this did not hold, and a linear, hierarchical world was created. But in the future, when each person will repair their soul to connect with its root, Divinity will appear once more as a circle, all accessing equally of that light. Then the world will be lacking (negative) aspects of male or female, in that no one would have to learn from another or be subservient to another. The lack of male dominance is key to this brave new world. Then, Divinity will assume the form of a circle marked by equidistance, as in the vineyard circle dance. (Id.)
In further radical interpretation, Ma’or va-Shemesh clarifies that is why at the Sea of Reeds, Moses called out “Ashirah” – I will sing (Ex. 15:1) – only in the future. Moses had a sense of what was to come, and hadn’t yet experienced it. Whereas Miriam was accessing a moment of the world-to-come during the circle dance. This explains why she said “Shiru l’Adonai (Ex 15:21) – Sing to the Lord – in present tense – because she was right there, present in that light (Ma’or va-Shemesh II, 13b-14a). Amazing – he indicates that Miriam, a woman, had the higher spiritual experience. It was so.
So the circle dance is both a metaphoric symbol of equality, as well as an embodied experience of those open to the magic of higher realms. It is one way of bringing in the light, of understanding the new way. It was anticipated, known through the centuries to the sages and mystics, that the non-hierarchical world, where people have true equality before God, and men do not dominate women, and men do not dominate other men, is the higher plane of existence.
Thus the Zohar alludes to the darkness on earth, manifested in part by the silence of the female. But the Zohar also gives hope that this exile, this dominance of the male, will someday come to an end, when the split between male and female heals. In a recent class, Zohar scholar Daniel Matt commented that the application of these principles for today is a model for the relationship of the male and female. The female, meaning women, as well as female energy of compassion, listening and nurturing, is yet in exile, still silent. He suggested a healing by male and female talking to each other, listening to each other, to overcome the separation.
So, this Tu B’Av, how will we celebrate? How to honor bringing back the female, the Shekinah, and the aspects of the male that have been suppressed? How to honor the higher plane of life, in which we are all unique but equal, all known and knowing that they are equidistant from Source. How to both celebrate moving in that direction, and nudge it along? Well, I will be doing circle dances, as is my wont on Thursday nights. (pm me if you want to join – but you can do a hora most anywhere!) And maybe we can, with a beer in hand for fortification, start having some of those real conversations – between the male and female.
So for now, Happy Tu B’Av! and stay tuned for the next installment on the secrets of the circle.
Rabbi Ora Weiss