Zumba has become a phenomenon. This fitness program, with its loud dance music at the backdrop of intense, coordinated dance moves, has become popular worldwide, as participants enjoy their workout and even make long-lasting friendships with classmates.
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It has also become popular in Orthodox Jewish communities - some might say too popular. In various ultra-Orthodox communities, Zumba is prohibited by rabbinic edict. In others, only kosher Zumba is permissible. Kosher Zumba is open to women only and may substitute the Latin dance music with Jewish tunes. In yet other communities, the battle over Zumba’s acceptability is ongoing.
The phenomenon spans from the United States to Israel. In 2011, a popular gym in Lakewood N.J. - a town dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews - was reportedly pressured into canceling its Zumba class after locals complained to rabbis, saying that the classes were “less than desirable for a Bas Yisroel.” In September, Haaretz reported that a rabbinical panel in Beitar Illit banned religious women from attending Zumba classes, even those that were exclusively for women. Even in more diverse Orthodox Jewish communities in America – like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – rabbis are addressing the Zumba question. In these communities, some rabbis are following the example of the more insular communities and banning Zumba. Some rabbis encourage Zumba participation. Other rabbis find the entire issue not worthy of comment at all.
Under Jewish law, co-ed Zumba classes are out of the question. Halakha prohibits women from dancing provocatively in the presence of men, for it almost unequivocally violates the accepted standards of modesty. But do women-only Zumba classes violate established precepts?
Rabbis who oppose Zumba make rhetorical statements to support the ban. They will say things like “it is not befitting” or “this is too goyish” or “it is turning our town into a jungle” or other similar “arguments” that are more guilt-by-association than halakhic reasoning.
The various arguments in favor of banning all-female Zumba classes are built upon three basic assumptions: First, that the music in Zumba can damage one’s soul; second, that the dance moves in Zumba can harm one’s spirituality; and third, that this damage will lead to actual sin.
None of these assumptions are objective. Rather, they depend on one’s personal taste, tendencies and sensibilities. Thus, the Zumba question cannot be answered objectively.
It is true that music or dance can have a negative effect on God-fearing Jews. While it is not inevitable or even reasonable, I grant that it is possible. So if Zumba was actually harming someone, I believe it would be wise to try another form of exercise. However, I think it is unwise to impose these assumptions on everyone.
This gets to the heart of how Orthodox Judaism should handle matters that are not codified in Jewish law. There is no section on Zumba in the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law). Therefore its status is subject to personal opinion. For many Orthodox Jews, the only personal opinion that matters is the opinion of their rabbi or spiritual leader. If a rabbi says Zumba is wrong, they will yield their decision-making to the wisdom of their rabbinic authority. This applies even on matters that are not objectively wrong.
There is another view. This alternative view suggests that Orthodox Jews self-diagnose. Each person should evaluate the elements of their behavior that are not subject to objective Jewish law, and analyze whether the behavior is helping them in their observance, harming their observance or neither. If one needs assistance in making this analysis, a rabbi or other mentor would be a wise choice as a consultant.
Thus, if Zumba were negatively affecting one’s observance, then of course he or she should abstain from it. But if Zumba was making one feel great and giving one the energy and inspiration to serve God, then how could a rabbi say this activity is prohibited? If it does neither, why look to increase prohibitions? We should not be seeking out more ways to restrict ourselves outside the confines of halakha.
For too many Orthodox Jews, the rabbi has taken the place of the brain. The truth is that each individual person in the best position to evaluate the effect any activity has on himself or herself. It may be laudable if they seek outside help in making that determination, but by no means should subjective activities be banned by unilateral rabbinic fiat.
Activities and music do not require a kashrut certificate. They require common sense. When Hasidic music superstar Mordechai ben David was asked about a plan to give a hekhsher on Jewish music that a particular “activist" deemed appropriate, this was his response:
“You have to be one sick guy, a very sick person, who thinks that Hashem sent him down to this world to decide which music is kosher and which is not kosher… He needs a good doctor. The sad thing is that he went to rabbanim in their 80s and 90s who never heard the music in their life and he tried to get their endorsement to endorse him as the mashgiakh for kosher music. Nebach. Refuah shlemah. (May he have a speedy recovery)”
This sickness is spreading.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or email. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com.