The Seven Who Danced in Paradise*
[by Phyllis Ocean Berman and Arthur Ocean Waskow, from their book TALES OF TIKKUN: NEW JEWISH STORIES TO HEAL THE WOUNDED WORLD.]
Imma Shalom was dancing like a storm of fire. Not for nothing did the people call her “Mother of Peace, Daughter of the Flame!” For all her solid middle age, she was no staid matron but a blazing energy.
She leaned even deeper into the dance, looking around for the others in her study band of six: gentle B’ruriah, who showed deep wisdom in her loving knowledge of the Torah; awkward Akiba, who was so deft with language; the dour Elisha ben Abuyah; and the two tall Shimons — ben Zoma and ben Azzai. B’ruriah had joked again and again that it took all four men to keep up with the Torah-learning of Imma Shalom and herself.
The moon glowed round and full. Heat poured from the earth; the midsummer month of Av had been hotter than usual. For the last few days, shepherds, farmers, and foresters had been gathering from all across the Land of Israel, so that the young women could dance in the fields and choose husbands for themselves. Now, under trees and beside the trickling streams, bright canopies of color were unfurled to house the marriage ceremonies.
As the night grew darker and the whirling deeper, a woman raised up a pair of timbrels and began to chant. Imma Shalom peered into the dark, but could not recognize the singer. She listened closely to the melody, one she had never heard. The words, she recognized:
"I will open to you, my beloved;
will you open, open to me?”
And she began to chant them with the singer. As her eyes closed and she moved deeper and deeper into the chant, the words themselves began to be her world. After what could have been a moment or an hour, the melody changed, the words changed:
“Your breasts will be tender
as clusters of grapes,”
and then, after a still deeper immersion in the chanting, she dimly heard it change again:
“His belly smooth as ivory,
bright with gems,”
And then the three different chants became a round, spinning from one melody to the next, woven in a spiral with each other. Imma Shalom thought one last ordered thinking: “Ahh! The words are from the Song of Songs that lovers sing when they make love with each other. But I have never heard them sung this way before. . . .”
She gave herself entirely to the music, letting herself whirl into a dance that wove its path among the wedding guests as the words of the Song wove in and out of the melodies.
As Imma Shalom’s body whirled in the dancing, the thoughts whirled in her head. Whirling and swirling, she lost and found herself. Within her and around her danced the words and music. The words became visible, the melodies turned to visions. Within her and around her danced juicy figs and musky apple blossoms, eyes bathed in milk and cooing turtle-doves, women and men whose hair as black as goats wound down the slopes of their own bodies.
Minutes, or hours, or weeks later, Imma Shalom looked around again, Dancing with her in the circle she saw the five beloved others of her Torah circle. The other guests had vanished. Still with them was one other face and body: the nameless singer whose chanting had engulfed her. Whose very face was whirling as she watched: now Miriam, now Ruth, now D’vorah and Tzipporah, now Batya and Batsheva, Tiferet and Tamar.
As Imma Shalom and her six companions danced, the trees themselves began to join the spirals of their joy. A brook gurgled its way into the music, a breeze whistled through a mountain pass. Tossing back her hair to laugh as the seven made an intricate twining with the earthy life around them, Imma Shalom touched hands with Ben Azzai. “Shimon,” she called, “What think you of this Garden?”
“Every healing deed is a path into more healing,” he said, “and every shattering deed a path toward shattering. But here I see no paths, no shattering, no healing. Here I see only a wholeness past believing. This is the Garden of Delight, of Paradise. Seeing this is all I need to see, living here is all I need to live, leaving here would be more death than dying.” He smiled, and died.
The spiral dancing of the six continued. Imma Shalom touched the hand of Ben Zoma. “Dear Shimon,” she said, “Don’t leave me. What think you of this Garden?”
“It makes no sense to me,” he said. “I have studied the Torah of our words and lives, and I have come to learn from paradox. Ask me who are wise, and I will tell you: Not those who teach all people, but those who are so open as to learn from everyone. Ask me who are powerful, and I will tell you: Not those whose armies can assert their will on others, but those who have the power to control their urges.
“So I have learned the heart of Torah, which is paradox. But Paradise is not a paradox. This Garden is not paradox but harmony. This Garden is a Truth, but not a Torah. The Torah is a Truth, but not a Garden. I cannot grasp it, my mind is torn in two.” And he began to babble, lost at last in a paradox he could not fathom.
The music slowed, the chant grew quieter, Imma Shalom slowly found herself once more in the rooms where they were dancing. All the guests had left except the six others she had seen as the chant became a vision. “This was somewhere between a dream and prophecy!” she said. “Were the rest of you also on this journey with me?”
Four of the others nodded. But Ben Azzai’s death, she saw, was not a dream. On his face remained a smile so deep, so genuine, so good-humored, that she could not find it in her heart to mourn him. “Blessed is the True Judge, truly!” she murmured, though she heard Elisha snort and grunt instead of saying “Amen.”
And when she turned to see why Ben Zoma had not answered, she saw he was outside himself, beyond himself; he could not answer.
“B’ruriah, Akiba, Elisha, and you Nameless One — I need to talk with all of you,” she said. “This was the strangest evening I have lived through. Will you come home to talk with me?”
Akiba hesitated. “One of us has died, and one seems to be mad. I need to rest, to immerse myself in the sacred waters, to meditate. I do not think that I could bear to talk.”
Imma Shalom nodded. “Will you meet with me one month from now, at the full moon of Elul?”
She turned to the woman who had sung so sweetly. “You helped invoke this Garden Paradise for us. What is your name?”
The woman smiled. “Why do you ask my name? Best ask your own. Once you have danced in the Garden Paradise, what is the name that beckons you?”
They all agreed to meet at the next full moon, and each one left for home.
But even before they could gather again, their night of dancing in the Garden was making waves and changes in the country.
First, Elisha ben Abuyah held a public seminar. He sent out word ahead of time that it would be his most important teaching. So all the most learned of the Rabbis came, even the ones he had brusquely bested in debates on Torah. Even the politicians he had sneered at came. And all the social climbers who loved to be present when “important” things were happening. And all the local students of Greek philosophy, with whom Elisha had often shared a cup of ouzo.
Elisha stood and smiled, took off his t’fillin, and tossed them at the crowd. They gasped.
“The Greeks are right,” he said. “There is no Judge or Justice in the world. The world is beauty, and at its heart is terror. I hear the leopard roar and leap upon the lamb. Its roar is full of beauty and the curve of the leap itself is full of beauty. I shake with terror at the strength and danger of the roar and the leap, but in my very terror is the purity of beauty.
“Then I touch the lamb’s soft wool, and I dip my fingers in the redness of its blood. The wool and blood are also full of beauty. Yet most beautiful of all is most terrible of all: the lion devours the lamb. Those are their roles in the great drama of the universe. If they lay down together, or if the red blood turned white as wool, as our silly Prophet imagines — the great drama would lose its terror and its beauty.
“And I see the blood rise in men and women as their passion swells. I see their bodies quiver, I hear them groan like glorious animals. This too is full of beauty. But there is no Justice in it, and any judge who fences it around with rules and statutes destroys its terror and its beauty.
“Forget this Torah and its talk of Justice. Compared to the love songs that are sung in bawdy-houses, the ancient Torah is an empty puff of wind.”
Then he sat down. Or he tried to. But the crowd was shrieking, wailing, and a dozen of the Greeks had to lock their arms in a circle around him, to get him out before his own red blood could make a terrible beauty on the sand.
By the next day, the Rabbis had rubbed out his name from dozens of Torah teachings in hundreds of parchments. They decided to preserve the teachings themselves, since they could see that there was wisdom in them. But where Elisha’s name had been, they wrote in the scarred and empty spaces of the parchment the name Akher — “the Other One.”
Meanwhile, reports began to spread that a singer whom no one had ever heard before was appearing in taverns and dance-halls, on the public greens and commons and in the market-places, where the women gathered at the edges of streams to wash their clothing and at the edges of the forests where lovers liked to walk. She was singing the well-known verses of the Song of Songs, but with new melodies that were bewitching. Often she would chant a line or two for hours, and the people — some said — were being driven mad by the music. Cries arose to outlaw the public singing of her chants, or even the very verses of the Song of Songs.
In the midst of all this uproar, sweet and gentle B’ruriah called together the brightest of her students — men and women. Never before had she taught them together. For though she herself had studied as Imma Shalom’s protege in the six-fold group with Akiba and the other men, she had till now felt herself too young to lead a group of her own that would challenge the custom of the rabbis.
When her students gathered, they looked at each other shyly, uncertain, ready to flee like deer into the wooded hills. But B’ruriah calmed them, saying she had realized that there would be deeper Torah if they learned together.
“And deepest of all Torah,” she said, “is the Song of Songs.” Her students gasped. “A woman wrote most of these poems,” she said, “and a woman wove them together in this Song. A woman brought them new life through her chanting; now a woman must teach them as Torah.” They gasped again. One young man, his voice shaking, said, “But teacher, our Rabbis have not even said that these songs are touched with the Holy Spirit. This very night, they are being sung in dance-halls and bath-houses. You say they are the deepest Torah? How do you know?”
“I have lived in the Song, and I know,” said B’ruriah.
“This is Torah, the flowing face of Torah. There is a kind of Torah that says, ‘Until what time can we do this or that?’ That is the Torah the men are always teaching. But here in this Garden, time is much more flowing. ‘Do not rouse love until ... it has its pleasure.’
“When Ruth sang to Boaz on the threshing-floor and took the tunic from his body, these songs are what she sang. She taught us: May those who stoop and sweat to reap the harvest turn to share the kisses of their mouths. When Tamar sang to Judah in the tent to which she brought him beside the road to Timnah, these are the songs she sang him. She taught us: Sing them in the wine-halls to sweeten loneliness, sing them to mystics and to bawdy troubadours, sing them where men dance with men and women with women, and where men and women dance together. Sing them where the bee buzzes and the redwood rustles. Dance them in the most cloistered regal bedrooms of our people.
“Where the men have always taught the God of clock and calendar, we women know the blood of passion flows from our bodies whenever our bodies wish. The men can barely understand this Garden; so we women must teach it to our people. From now on, I will study only the Torah of this Song, and I will do that only with all of you together — men and women.”
Within a week, rumors had spread all across the land that B’ruriah had turned the House of Study into a home for lechery and license. “She is sleeping with her own students,” some were whispering.
By the time the Sanhedrin met to hear witnesses about the reappearance of the moon for Elul, the land was full of tumult. At the edges of the forests, women were barring the shepherds from their usual pathways, warning that when their flocks ate all the saplings the mountains were left bare to fierce erosion. In Torah-study sessions, those who had always been silent were disagreeing with their teachers. In the market-places, the poor were insisting that the prices of necessities must be cut.
When the Sanhedrin convened, its president was Gam’liel, Imma Shalom’s brother, an arrogant man notorious for impatience toward many of the rabbis. Once again he snapped at a well-beloved Rabbi, ordered him to stay standing through the whole assembly as a punishment for disagreeing with Gam’liel.
But this time the other Rabbis began to shout: “Resign, resign!” until Gam’liel was unable to make himself heard. Finally he left the chair. The Sanhedrin elected a new president. The members invited several hundred students who for years Gam’liel had kept in limbo at the door of the Yeshiva to become full members. And they took up a question that had been long postponed, but now was on the lips of all the people: was the Song of Songs to be considered Holy Writ?
The debate was hot. Many argued that no songbook full of erotic wine-hall verses could be sacred. Others pointed out that the Name of God appeared nowhere in the poems: How could they be praise to the Holy One? But others recalled that the wise King Solomon, builder of the Holy Temple, was reputed to have written them. “Maybe when he was sixteen years old and not so wise!” called out one Rabbi.
Then Akiba rose to speak. “My learned, worthy brothers,” he said, “I myself have lived within the Garden of this Song.” The rebellious Sanhedrin hushed.
“Yes, I lived and danced there. But I was not dancing with another mortal, man or woman. These poems are the dance of love between our people and the Holy One of Being. Every kiss is a moment of connection from God to Israel, from Israel to God. Every embrace brings us deeper into union with our Holy One Above. When the woman in these poems searches for her Lover Who is hard to find, we hear ourselves, yearning for the God Who appears and vanishes.
“Of course it was Solomon, builder of our Temple, who wrote these poems. For now that the House of God has been destroyed, the Song of Songs remains for us the Holy of Holies at the heart of our living Temple.
“Let every generation chant these poems at the time of Pesach, the Festival of Freedom. For that is when our God called us to venture into a wilderness, to seek the One Who always vanishes upon the fragrant mountain. There we became betrothed to our Creator, waiting for the chuppah of the cloud at Sinai; and this is the dance of our betrothal.”
Many of the Rabbis called “Keyn yehi ratzon — May it be God’s will!” But a sturdy voice rose above the refrain: “If you are right, Brother Akiba, then this sacred teaching must not be dirtied in the markets and wine-halls of our nation, as if it were a ditty of whores and vagabonds! And it must not be studied where young men and women may think it something other than an allegory.”
So the Sanhedrin voted that the Song of Songs had been touched by the Holy Spirit, that at its head should be added the title, “The Song of Songs, which is by Solomon,” and that it must no longer be sung in wine-halls or market-places, or anywhere at all except synagogues and houses of Torah-study where men alone would learn its higher meaning.
Two weeks later, when the full moon of Elul rose, B’ruriah appeared at Imma Shalom’s house. They shared their news of what was happening: Elisha’s heresy; Ben Zoma still babbling; the nameless singer, vanished; the Sanhedrin’s vote. The slanders that were being spoken of B’ruriah.
As they were talking, a messenger arrived. He carried a letter from Akiba:
“Dear Imma Shalom, I know that when we danced in the Garden it seemed as if the rivers of Eden were beneath us and around us, that all reality had turned to open flow. I remember seeing waves of depth that invited us to enter and immerse ourselves as if in waves of ocean.
“But do not mistake the appearance of waves for the reality of flow. These waves were written not in water but in marble — a hard, unyielding stone. A stone deep in meaning, a stone that beckons us to see beneath its surface hidden layers of new beauty, but still stone, rigid stone . The world still needs solidity and structure.
“If you try to dive into what look like the waters of the Garden Paradise, I am frightened that you will be crushed by this unyielding stone.”
B’ruriah sighed. “So,” she said, “Even Akiba is afraid to come, to join with us. He took one step, he persuaded the Sanhedrin to approve the Song, but he has taken our fierce and flowing dancing in the Garden and encased it in a box of stone. He thinks he is protecting it, but I think he is burying what we found.
“And I have not been able to keep teaching what we learned. The rumors about me have frightened my students away. Some of them still come to study with me, but only secretly, only one at a time. A man one afternoon, a woman next morning. In the long run, that will simply make the slanders worse.
“Me’ir believes in me, he scoffs at all the rumors, he holds me close when I tell him the story of the Garden, but he says there is nothing he can do.
“And me — What am I to do? How can I abandon the joy we felt a month ago?” And she began to sob on Imma Shalom’s shoulder.
They cried together. Then Imma Shalom took B’ruriah’s hands and looked into her eyes. “Sweet B’ruriah,” she said. “You are right. But Akiba is still a partner in our dance. He is burying the Garden, but not in death: he is sowing, as a gardener sows the seed. This notion that the Song is just an allegory is like a tough shell around the tender seed. We are still living in a kind of wintertime; too chilly for our dancing naked in the sun.
“When the sun warms the bodies of our dancing great-granddaughters, the seed will grow and burst the shell apart.
“Wait, I see it, what a joke! —I see, I see, the men themselves, all unawares, will water it toward growing!
“They think this shell — the allegory — is the seed itself. So they will suck on the shell, keep chewing on it, until the shell softens and the seed within turns juicy.
“And then! — The long long winter is over and gone, the rains have watered the seed, the song of the dove and the dance are heard in the land.
“And with their music come six hundred thousand swirling dancers who know that every whirling thigh is God.”
*Copyright © 1996, 1997 by the authors, from their book Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World (Jason Aronson, 1996).
Phyllis Ocean Berman is the Founding Director of the Riverside Language Center and from 1993 to 2004 was Director of the Summer Program of Elat Chayyim Center for Healing and Renewal. Her articles on new ceremonies for women and new midrash have appeared in Moment, Worlds of Jewish Prayer, Tikkun, and Good Housekeeping,
Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; director of The Shalom Center, a division of ALEPH that focuses on Jewish thought and practice to protect and heal the earth and society; and author of Seasons of Our Joy ; Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life ; and Godwrestling — Round Two (recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1996).
The two have also written A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE UNDER HEAVEN: THE JEWISH LIFE-SPIRAL AS A SPIRITUAL PATH.
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“The Seven Who Danced in Paradise” is an exploration of the story told in the Talmud (T. B. Chagiga 14b; Soncino, pp. 90-91) about the four Rabbis who “entered Pardes.” We asked ourselves about the “missing persons” of the story — three women, two of whom are actually among the very few women named as teachers of Torah in the Talmud, and who were living in the same generation as the Pardes Four. Surely these two great women — B’ruriah and Imma Shalom — had not been left behind when their friends went into Pardes! What parts of the story were omitted when the women were omitted?
“Pardes” means literally a delightful garden or orchard, metaphorically therefore “Paradise.” It also was used symbolically by the Rabbis of the Talmud to symbolize the four paths of interpreting Torah represented by the four Hebrew letters PRDS — P ’shat, the plain meaning of the text in its original historical context; Remez, the allegory that the text hints at; D’rash, the interwoven web of meanings that come from searching in the interwoven web of words and letters from several different texts; Sohd, the mystical meaning of the text as it might arise in God’s Own reading of it. Since for the Rabbis the richness of studying Torah was itself a taste of Paradise, they reinterpreted the word itself to symbolize such study.
So this fusion of the Garden, Paradise, a direct mystical experience of the Divine, and the study of Torah led us to imagine that famous trip into Pardes as a journey into the very Garden of the Song of Songs. The connection came also out of the history of the great Rabbi Akiba, who was one of “the Four” who traveled into Pardes; was the great proponent of the Song of Songs when the Sanhedrin came to a vote over whether the Song was to be considered a sacred text; and was also the Rabbi who proclaimed that in his day the Mashiach had come, in the person of the guerrilla warrior Bar Kochba. (For these aspects of Akiba’s life and the great revolutionary moment when the Sanhedrin overthrew its president and then voted to canonize the Songs of Songs, see Berakhot 27b-28a, Soncino, pp. 166-170; Chagiga 14b, Soncino, pp. 90-91.)
The Talmud treats B’ruriah with great respect. (See stories about her at Berakhot 10a, Soncino, pp. 51-52; Eruvin 53b-54b, Soncino, p. 374; Pesachim 62b, Soncino, p. 313, among others.) Yet Rashi, more than 500 years later, tells a scurrilous tale in which her husband Rabbi Me’ir tries to trick B’ruriah into being sexually seduced by one of his students, and succeeds. We cannot believe that the Me’ir or the B’ruriah who are described in the Talmud would have behaved this way; so we accepted the challenge of imagining what events might have started such terrible rumors. (See Rashi, commentary on Avodah Zarah 18b.)
Our sense of Imma Shalom’s role in the “Pardes” story was shaped by her role in the story of “the oven that coiled like a snake.” As for the third, unnamed woman in our story — she owes much of her being to Rabbi Shefa Gold, whose new forms of Hebrew chanting and whose extraordinary spiritual leadership have taken us and many Jewish communities into new places of the spirit. And part of our understanding of this third, unnamed, mysterious woman is rooted in our understanding of the Holy Shekhinah.