Not many rabbis-to-be, it’s safe to say, are known for their dancing prowess.
But Zohar Atkins, a second-year rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary, believes that dance is an essential part of connecting to God. While studying in Jerusalem last year, he founded a weekly meditative dance group called “Ecstatic Dance in Jerusalem.” The class (no choreography here) is two hours of “free movement.”
“The goal is to be in your body,” said Atkins, “to connect with the spiritual without trying to intellectualize.”
For Atkins, a Rhodes Scholar, moving beyond the mere intellectual is both a task and a goal. As a theology student at Oxford, he wrote a doctoral thesis in 2014 on the theological importance of poetry as an art form. His work constantly aims to synthesize the spiritual and the intellectual, he said.
“At the end of graduate school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher of Torah who integrated head and heart,” he said. “My goal was to give agency to the modern reader.”
His innovative takes on learning ancient texts, including his “Write Your Own Talmud” series at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which explores Talmudic writing as an art form, are part of his unique approach. As a future “rabbi, professor, writer and thinker,” he hopes to create “space for the holy” in an increasingly technological age.
“The price we’ve paid for certain technological progress is an emphasis on efficacy and scientific truths,” he said. “These values can often crush openness, curiosity and creativity.”
Though Atkins believes modernity poses a “crisis” for the religious person, he hopes to present a Judaism that speaks to today’s youth, many of whom are losing interest in conventional religion.
“For young people, synagogue simply isn’t giving them the spiritual nourishment they seek,” he said. “If we don’t innovate from within, they will seek meaning outside the tent.”
The solution: innovating within tradition. “I want my Judaism to speak from within the experience of crisis, rather than supplying ready made answers,” he finished. “In times of emergency, we need to think outside the box.”
Just dance: After quitting the high school wrestling team, Atkins danced for two years in a school dance company. As an undergraduate at Brown University, he took classes in West African dance.