Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2010
by Rabbi Miriam Maron, R.N., M.A.
One day a young doctor noticed an elder from the local Indian pueblo sitting in the waiting room of his clinic, watching him examine patient after patient. At the end of the day, the doctor, Carl Hammerschlag, then a recent graduate from Yale University Medical School, approached the elder and asked if he was next. The elder eyed him for a while and then said: "I am curious. They said a healer has come to the pueblo." Carl chuckled proudly: "That's me! I am a doctor." There was quiet. Then the elder asked him: "Do you dance?" Carl laughed again: "No." The elder rose and turned to leave, and said: "Then you can't heal."
This experience, which took place on the pueblo in New Mexico where Carl did his post-graduate internship, changed Carl's life and his entire way of practicing medicine.
Years later, at a Walking Stick retreat that he and I co-led, Carl (now a nice Jewish doctor in Arizona) realized that the pueblo elder could just as easily have been Reb Mendl of Kotzk, or Reb Nachman of Breslav -- that the Jewish tradition shared the same mindset around the power and sanctity of dance and its role in healing and in spiritual practice.
The word for dance and the word for illness, taught Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, are related: ma'cho'l for dance, machah'lah for illness or affliction. Not by accident do they both share the same root. After all, dancing brings one to a state of joy, and when the body is in a state of joy, the negative energies contributing to illness begin to dissipate (Likutei MoHaRaN Tanina, chapter 24). After all, the Shechinah -- the godly life force that moves us along our life walk -- is drawn more into manifestation in our lives when we are in a state of joy (Talmud Bav'li, Shabbat 30b).
Rebbe Nachman also pointed out that when the Torah says of our ancestor Yaakov, "he lifted up his feet" (Genesis 29:1), it implies dance, as the second-century Rabbi Acha commented: "His heart lifted his feet" (Midrash B'reisheet Rabbah 70:8), meaning that when his heart was stirred to joyfulness after his reassuring vision of the ladder that connected earth to heaven, and after God's promise to him, it moved his feet to dance (Likutei MoHaRaN, chapter 32).
Commenting on the words of the prophet Isaiah -- "Joy and celebration shall they seek, and trials and tribulations shall then be driven away" (Isa. 35:10 and 51:11) -- Rebbe Nachman wrote the following in Likutei MoHaRaN Tanina, chapter 23:
When one is pulled into a circle of dancers, one should not leave one's troubles outside, but invite them into the dance to thereby transform them and heal them. It is usually the case that in such situations, one would be inclined to leave their troubles outside the dance. But one ought to in that moment pursue their troubles, seize them, and bring them into the dance, to heal them and transform them into joyfulness.
As David wrote in Psalms, "You turned my grieving into dance" (30:12).
When Reb Moshe Leib of Sassov heard that his friend the Rebbe of Berditchev had become ill, he repeatedly muttered his friend's name over and over again and prayed for his recovery. Then he suddenly put on his new shoes, laced them up tight, and danced himself into a frenzy. A disciple who was present at the time reported how "power flowed forth from his dancing. Every step was in itself a powerful mystery. A strange kind of light then spread across the house and everyone watching it saw angelic spirits joining in his dance" (my own rephrasing of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim).
The power and sanctity of dance was always an integral part of our people's theology and spiritual practice, from biblical times to the present. The Jerusalem Talmud recounts, for example, how women would dance in the vineyards and orchards during Yom Kippur and on the full moon of the month of Ahv, when the sun's heat began to diminish. The ancient rabbis themselves are reported to have done their share of dancing during the harvest season (sukkot) as part of the ritual of the water-drawing (simchat beyt ha'sho'ey'vah), even entertaining the folk by juggling flaming torches while they danced (Talmud Bav'li, Sukah 51a and Tosefta Sukah 4:2). The ancient teachers also considered dance to be one of the reasons the Torah came down to us in the Moon of Twins, in Sivan. Why then? "Because the twins resemble humans, to whom God gave a mouth with which to speak, hands with which to create, and feet with which to dance" (Midrash Pesikta Rabati 20:2).
The prophets, the Tanakh recounts, used music in their spiritual practice and often drummed themselves into ecstasy (2 Sam. 6:16, and 1 Chron. 15:29), and I assume they also danced. How could they not? After all, dancing and drumming seemed to be a very common spiritual practice back then: "Praise Yah with drum and dance" (Ps. 150:4). Or, "Declare praise to God's name with dance" (Ps. 149:2). "And Miriam the Prophetess took drum in hand and led the Israelite women in dance and song" (Exod. 15:20). Nor was Miriam the only dancer in the family; her brother Aharon danced too, the ancient rabbis tell us. The two used to do special dances for their mother, Yocheved (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 12a). "The mountains, they dance like antelopes!" (Ps. 114:4). "There is a time to dance" (Eccles. 3:4). There absolutely is.
Maimonides reiterates how the ancient prophets of Israel and their followers would dance themselves into an ecstatic state of mind before channeling prophetic visions, and that they would do so with the aid of drums and chant. "All of the prophets do not prophesy just any time that they wish," he wrote. "Rather, they focus their concentration and sit in a state of joyfulness and good-heartedness and meditate. For prophecy does not happen amid solemness, only amid joyfulness. Therefore, the prophets would have before them leather wind instruments, drums, flutes, and hollow leathered string instruments, during those times when they would seek their visions" (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:4).
Movement is also an integral part of prayer: swaying, bowing, dancing about. Moving your body in prayer is based on the verse in Psalms 35:10, "All of my bones declare: ‘O Infinite One! Who is like you?'" and is mentioned as a sacred practice not only during prayer but also during Torah study (sixteenth-century Rabbi Moshe Isserles [RAMA] in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim, chapter 28 and 48:2). The Talmud recounts how the second-century Rabbi Akiva would employ so much movement and dance in his worship that he would begin his prayers in one corner of the house and end up in the complete opposite corner "on account of all the swaying and bowing" (Talmud Bav'li, Berachot 31a).
There are various ways of bowing. For example, the Talmud tells us that the second-century Rav Shey'sheht would bow like a bamboo shaft bending in the wind when he recited baruch, and then slither upward like a snake when he straightened to atah (Talmud Bav'li, Berachot 12a).
The sixteenth-century Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague explained that there were two predominant types of dance, both sacred, yet one intended more toward transcendence than the other. Ree'kud, the standard Hebraic word for dance, is a dance of any kind, such as a celebrative dance at a wedding or other sacred celebratory event. Ma'cho'l is a transcendent form of dance, one that brings one to a state of ecstasy, so that the soul frees itself from its subjection to the body and connects in that moment to the realm of Spirit. This is why the word for dance used in the account of Miriam the Prophetess leading the women in dance is ma'cho'l (Exod. 15:20). And that is the very form of dance we do in prayer when we recite kadosh, kadosh, kadosh -- "Holy, holy, holy is Infinite One, Mover of all the Forces" (Isa. 6:3); we dance in an upward, leaping motion representing ascension, transcending our earthly manifestation.
A third and lesser-known form of sacred dance in Judaism is Meh'char'ker, translated as "whirling dance," where the dancer completely loses himself or herself in the frenzy of a whirling movement, totally entranced to the point of dropping all inhibition. The term chahr'ker is therefore appropriately used in the story of the Hebrew chieftain David (of the tenth century B.C.E.) when he was overcome with ecstasy after having recovered the Ark of the Covenant from the hands of the Philistines. During a victorious parade with the holy Ark, David gyrated in a wild whirling dance in public through the streets of Jerusalem, wearing nothing but a loin cloth (2 Sam. 6:14-16 and 1 Chron. 15:29). Interestingly, this strange term for wild, whirling, ecstatic, transcendent dancing happens to be one of the seventy names of the highest of the angelic spirits, Matat'ron, who is also believed to be the angelic incarnation of the ancestor Enoch. Matat'ron's thirty-eighth name is Meh'char'ker, or literally "Whirling Dancer" (Midrash Ba'tei Midrashot, volume 2, chapter 46, number 30).
The power of movement and dance, Rebbe Nachman taught, is so potent it can even resurrect the dead! "Through a person's movement from here to there, one can resurrect the dead, as is written about Elisha when he resurrected the dead son of the Shunamite woman, that he ‘went to and fro, to and fro' (2 Kings 4:32-37). Movement causes the five wings of the lungs to flap; and through moving this way and that way, one moves into motion the five wings of the lungs which, when they flap, stir the heart so that the heart gives off sparks of lifehood and rekindles the life force throughout the body, and thereby even rousing the dead to life" (Likutei MoHaRaN, chapter 92).
Dance and movement is therefore held quite sacred and highly spiritual in the Jewish tradition, certainly not to be taken lightly -- although one needs lightness to dance in the first place. It is told that on one Simchat Torah, Reb Mendl of Kotzk (of the early nineteenth century) chose to sit quietly in a corner of the synagogue, watching his Hasidim dance around and around the beemah, singing and clapping hands as they danced. Finally, they approached him and asked him why he wasn't joining them in dance. He responded, "I would if you knew how to dance." Hearing this, they attempted a more frenzied dance, with more fervor and elevated voices and louder hand-clapping, but still the Rebbe of Kotzk chose to sit out the round, watching his Hasidim with a critical eye. Again they stopped and invited him into the dance circle, and again he declined, repeating his dissatisfaction with the way they were dancing. After several attempts to dance even better and even better than better, they finally gave up and begged the rebbe to just teach them the proper way to dance. "Close your eyes," he said. "Now imagine you are standing perfectly balanced at the very edge of the Abyss. Now dance!"
Volume 7 - Number 2
by Rabbi Miriam Maron, R.N., M.A.
The above quote sounds like something out of the sacred writ or oral traditions of Siberian shamanism, or perhaps even Native America, or Aboriginal Australia. Actually, it is an excerpt from the sacred Jewish writ of the 10th-century Rabbi Hai Ga’on, a master of what we refer to as Jewish shamanism. To many, such a concept might sound oxymoronic as Judaism has for too long been associated neither with aboriginalism nor shamanism, and instead relegated to the files of those religions that are antithetical to paganistic and pantheistic ideologies. The fact, however, is that Judaism is deeply shamanistic and has been so since its advent, albeit forced underground as were other aboriginal spirit paths who were overridden or silenced.
Actually, Judaism is rich with mystery wisdom that goes far beyond the contemporary venues in which Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism, has been translated. A whole other dimension of this ancient mystical knowledge lies encrypted in yet un-translated Hebraic and Aramaic source texts. Much of it remains in manuscript form, much of it still in oral tradition very selectively transmitted from master to disciple. The teachings emphasize the human’s relation to the three other beings that comprise the planet: the do’mem, or Stone Beings; the tso’mey’ach, or Sprouting Beings; and the cha’y, or Animal Beings (literally “Living Beings”). We humans are referred to as m’dah’ber, or Resonating Beings, as we resonate with speech, song, chant, manifestation, sorcery, etc. The human, this tradition teaches, is comprised of all the elements, of all four winds (Four Directions), as well as the plants, stones, and animals of the planet (Midrash Ha’ne’elam, folio 16b). In Hebrew, we are called ah’dahm, from one of the Hebrew words for the earth – ah’dah’mah – which refers primarily to clay. And everything in Nature, even the so-called inanimate, is seen by Judaism as alive, replete with spirit and soul-consciousness
All trees, the ancestors taught us, communicate with each other and with all creations (Midrash B’reisheet Rabbah 3:2). Even the stars are imbued with soul, a consciousness higher than that of the human, a little lower than that of the angels (12th-century Maimonides in Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Y’sodei HaTorah 12:9). If you listen carefully to the sound of the wings of a bird flying overhead, or to the sounds of an animal nearby, you might also hear the communication of the spirit of that creature (16th-century Rabbi Isaac Luria in Sefer Ru’ach Ha’Kodesh, D’rush Gimmel). Some rabbis even insisted that we cannot fully connect to Creator in prayer without also praying in the language of the grasses, the stones, the animals (Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hassidim [Shocken Books, Vol. 1 pp. 111, 266, and 275).
Wind, too -- not only creatures of physical substance -- is sacred and very much alive (Sefer HaZohar, Vol. 4, folio 118b). Judaism always refers to the Four Directions as ar’ba ru’cho’t, which literally translates interchangeably as Four Winds and Four Spirits. Each wind, or direction, has its own unique attribute: Mystery in the North, New Beginnings in the East, Clarity in the South, and Healing in the West. Each wind also has its spirit keeper, and animal attribute: Eagle in the North, Lion in the East, Human in the South, and Buffalo in the West (13th-century Rabbi Isaac of Acco in Sefer M’irat Ey’nayim, Bamid’bar, para. 2). Wind is also one of the three primal Mothers of Creation, the other two being Fire and Water. Fire birthed Light, Water birthed Darkness, and Wind birthed Wisdom (Midrash Sh’mo’t Rabbah 15:22). Wisdom, in turn, is associated with chant and song, since it is the wind within us that carries the voice and conjures the song. And as the 18th-century Rabbi Nachmon of Breslav taught: “Every wisdom has its own chant, its own particular melody. And when you sing that melody it will draw forth the particular wisdom associated with it” (Likkutei HaMaHaRaN 60:4).
I am deeply grateful to this rich tradition, for its inspiration to me personally, and for how much it helps me to help others in my work as a healer and as a teacher of Kabbalistic and Shamanic healing modalities. The guidance of this knowledge has proven invaluable in leading people in shamanic journeys that have aided them tremendously in restoring parts of themselves that had gotten lost in the shuffle of life’s turbulent waves. It has also inspired numerous chants and songs, powerful incantations and enriching adages that I have put to music throughout my seven albums.
Surprisingly, it was not any of these ancient sources of the tradition that first drew me to employ music and song. It was during a visit to a Hospice patient, a young woman locked in a fatal coma. Something beyond me, and possibly within her, moved me to sing prayers to her, and to hum a melody from my tradition, what we call a nee’goon, or wordless song. Although the woman had throughout her comatose state not shown any signs of response or movement, the chant touched her so deeply that tears streamed out of her eyes, then her eyes opened all the way, and her mouth opened as if she was trying to speak, or perhaps sing along. Our eyes met and our souls connected in such a way that I became part of the world she was transitioning to while she reconnected with this world. I knew in this moment that my life would never be the same and that my path was to shift and the direction was clear. This occurred repeatedly with each subsequent visit, although she grew weaker and weaker in her response as the time for her transition drew nearer. I realized then how powerful chant is, and I began to examine more of the teachings of my people around this incredible mode of spirit communication and transformation. I learned about the efficacy of what I had done by following intuition while in that room at the hospital; that chanting has the power to “lift up souls from out of the fertile void,” and that “the benefit of chant is without end and is the most potent form of healing” (18th-century Rabbi Nachmon of Breslav in Likkutei HaMaHaRaN, Ch. 60, No. 4, and in See’chot Ha’Ran, No. 273); and that chant was the very fabric that held together all of Creation: “If not for the songs and chants that you sing every day,” God says, “I would not have created my world” (Midrash O’tiyo’t D’Rebbe Akiva Ha’Sha’leym, Nusach Alef [beginning]).
I continued to employ chant and music in my healing work, observing with increasing awareness how it indeed was a potent implement in eliciting major shifts in the people I worked on and taught. I realized that in chanting I was blowing life- breath into the sacred stone or branch or plant that I would be using during healing rituals. Song conjured the spirit of the healing stone or plant and guided both client and ritual implement to a realm where the encounter of both became possible.
As I became more aware of the efficacy of song and chant in helping people to heal and to be comforted, I decided to share some of them with the rest of the world through my CD’s – seven to date. Each of them is filled with ancient and early-medieval Jewish sacred songs sung in their original language of either Hebrew or Aramaic. Each is described in the album inserts: their meaning, intent, and origin, as well as transliterations into English so that the listener can actually use these gifts for their own betterment and for the betterment of others. I wrote most of the music, and together with my music partner, Bogdan Knezevich, we created instrumental arrangements for these pieces that would not only be engaging and pleasing to the ear but that would also convey the intent and meaning of the songs and incantations to the heart and soul of the listener.
Over the past fifteen years, I have been blessed with opportunities to share the wisdom and songs of the Jewish Shamanic tradition to many across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Israel, both to Jewish people and to people of other traditions, seekers and the curious alike. Teaming up with Rabbi Gershon Winkler -- author of Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism -- has been a huge gift in my work, and for the past six years we have been teaching together quite a few series of intensive training programs designed to restore Jewish shamanic healing wisdom. We have also organized and led several Jewish Shamanic Tours of Israel, where we take people to remote regions where the ancient masters taught, and share their knowledge of the mystique of the land, its flora and fauna, its spirit and song. We perform rituals and ceremonies in underground caverns, beneath millennia-old oaks known in Hebrew as ey’lah, or “Goddess Tree”, and meet with remnants of our people who still follow the old ways.
The Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism, is far deeper than the pop-mysticism that today adorns the shelves of bookstores libraries, and the media. It is a rich and eclectic body of wisdom that is mostly encrypted in yet-untranslated Aramaic and Hebraic works as well as oral traditions that can be translated only through mystical experience and ceremonies. The music that emerges from this rich shamanic tradition of the Jewish people is sadly under-represented in the music world-at-large, Judaic and otherwise. It is my sincere hope that my albums will stir interest, further curiosity, and inspire deeper exploration of this long-lost, lesser-known albeit vast sea of ancient Jewish mystery tradition. My latest 2-CD album, Call From the Narrows, is my most important work toward that endeavor.
© 2008 by Miriam Maron
Article co-written by Rabbi Miriam Maron that appeared in Ask the Rabbis,
Judaism, like many aboriginal cultures, has a rich Shamanic tradition around healing. Healing is more about restoring to someone that which they have lost, than it is about fixing what has gone wrong. The second-century Rabbi Akiva traced the Torah’s injunction around healing to its injunction around restoring to someone what has been lost to them (Deuteronomy 22:1-2). When we are ill, we lose some piece of our life flow, some part of our passion and commitment to being here, and that is what needs to be restored (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 82b and Sanhedrin 73a).
In many cases, we get too entangled in the ailment that conventional attempts at restoration are frustrated. We would then employ a sh’ofar, believed to wield the power of shattering resistance (Likutei HaMaHaRaN 22:5-7). The sho’far is also used as a conduit for empowering the incense of medicinal plants and herbs (Midrash Te’hilim 22:14). Such rites are intended to stir us out of whatever stupor might be keeping us tangled in our crisis, and then to empower us with a fresh sense of life-commitment. The less the life-commitment, the less the soul manifests in the body, and the more vulnerable the body then becomes to death, toward which illness is believed to be a momentum (Likutei HaMaHaRaN, No. 268).
The most potent remedies are to be found in the earth, whether in plants or in stones (Likutei HaMaHaRaN, No. 277, para. 2, and Tanina 1:9). Plants wield great wisdom and powers that are imbued with divine energies (Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 80b). Stones, too, wield important healing powers. The Talmud recounts that “a stone hung from the neck of Abraham our Father, and all who gazed upon it were healed” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bat’ra 16b). A large portion of Shamanic healing rites were preserved thro ugh the teachings of a highly regarded Jewish medicine woman we know as Eyma D'Abbaya (Babylonian Talmud, Shabat 66b and 134a; Yoma 75a; Mo'ed Katan 12a; Eruvin 29b; Ketuvot 10b and 50a; Gitin 67b and 70a). Much of these alternative healing rites involve mantric chanting and incantations (Sefer S’gulat Yisra’el; Tol’do’t Ha’Adam; Ma’aseh Ro’ke’ach, Sefer Rozi’el HaMal’ach, etc. etc. etc.). Some involve rituals with fire and dance (K’nesset Yisro’el 12a). Drumming, too, is a powerful implement for channeling the divine flux for healing and other sacred purposes (Maimonides: Mishnah Torah, Hil’chot Yesodei HaTorah 7:4). The wide variety of healing modalities in Judaism also include more conventional down-to-earth remedies such as a good night's sleep (Midrash Pirkei D'rebbe Eliezer, Ch. 12) and sexual intercourse (18th-century Rabbi Yaakov of Emden in Mor Uk'tsiyah, No. 240). Faith and prayer, too, are important medicines. With faith, taught the 18th-century Rebbe Nachmon of Breslav, you can heal with anything – “even bread and water” -- since faith reminds us that all is rooted in the Singular Power behind all powers (Likutei HaMaHaRaN Tanina 1: 9).
The most fundamental remedy for illness, however, is joy. In Hebrew, both “affliction” and “dance” share the same word: ma’cho’l. "When there is a defect in one's quality of joy,” taught Rebbe Nachmon of Breslav, “it leads to illness...and it is through rejoicing that all illnesses are cured... This is why dancing and rejoicing are called [by the same name as] illness" (Likutei HaMaHaRaN Tanina 24:1).
Ravi Miriam Maron, R.N., M.A., holds a BSN from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a Registered Nurse with a graduate degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Southern California. A spiritual healer and mentor in private practice, Miriam also teaches intensives on Jewish Kabbalistic healing modalities and has facilitated workshops, services and retreats across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Israel on healing and mind, body, and soul integration. A prolific singer and songwriter, her concerts, as well as her albums “Wings of Light”, “Light out of Darkness”, “Chants of the Sacred Four”, “Mystic Convergence”, “Surrender,” "AngelSong" and “Call from the Narrows,” feature Jewish healing and mystical songs and chants, and have received wide acclaim from interdenominational sources across the globe.
A mother of two, Miriam also performs life-cycle ceremonies and sacred dance, and has taught at numerous educational institutions and retreat centers, including Esalen Institute, Philosophical Research Society, Naropa University, Chochmat Halev Center for Jewish Meditation, Rowe Conference Center, Metivta, SEED Graduate Institute, Marywood University, Integral Yoga Institute, and Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality. Her rendition of a traditional Hassidic melody that appears on her CD Wings of Light was selected as a major segment of a motion picture soundtrack for the foreign film "Black Prince," a drama based on the illustrious biography of the notorious 19th-century Russian poet, Pushkin. The film won First Prize at the New York Independent Film Festival in 2005.