How American Orthodoxy Turned against Social Dancing

June 20, 2016 | Zev Eleff
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Until the 1960s, it was quite common for Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. to hold regular social events featuring mixed dancing, often with tacit approval from their clergymen. By the 1980s, such gatherings had disappeared even from Modern Orthodox synagogues as rabbis reasserted the halakhic prohibitions on social dancing and on public physical contact between the sexes in general. Zev Eleff seeks to explain this transformation:

Some point out that the generation [of congregants] that halted social dancing [comprised] the first graduates of Orthodox day schools. These women and men were more Jewishly literate than their parents and helped “slide” their community to the “right” [to use one sociologist’s memorable formulation]. Others maintain that [the shift in attitudes] was the result of the influence of a more rigid crop of rabbis who had immigrated to the United States directly before and after the Holocaust.

Both points are valid and contributed to the transformation of Orthodox youth culture. But another explanation should also be added, one that takes into consideration the broader scene of American religion. In the heat of the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, a number of conservative religious communities redrew their red lines. Consider the situation at faith-based colleges. In this turbulent decade, for example, Gordon College in Boston banned social dancing. . . . In another instance, one suitor wrote to his girlfriend at the Presbyterian-affiliated Hanover College in Indiana that he was “sorry to hear that your mother frowns on the hop.”

The same was true of the leading Orthodox college in New York. In 1960, the Yeshiva College student newspaper polled undergraduates on their religious punctiliousness. Sixty percent . . . . admitted, despite Jewish law’s proscription against it, to having regular “physical contact with girls.” In response to the startling figure, the editors lamented that a “majority of the Yeshiva boys apparently have not the slightest appreciation of what Orthodox Judaism fully entails.”

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