The Miriam Tradition: Living the Path of Joy


Remember reading about Miriam in the Bible?  As the sister of Moses, some people remember her from the film Prince of Egypt, and the scene where she leads women in music and dance. The film does a fairly accurate job of telling an ancient story of freedom. The scene is taken from the Bible, where she is portrayed as even more of a hero. Miriam is considered a prophet like her brother Moses.  In Biblical times, music and dance could be a form of prophecy!

Why was movement considered so powerful?  Movement aids in bringing important thoughts to the surface, and letting you know what actions you should take. The story of Miriam is one of ritual action that provides a sense of how to appropriately respond to events. The results of the symbolic movements in ritual set a pattern of thought that carries over to every day actions. The result is more ethical, compassionate behavior.

My recently published book, The Miriam Tradition, points out the importance of more secular music and dance to living out our Highest Values. I wrote this book about Jewish women who were valuable dance and music leaders in their communities, called Tanyaderas. I discuss how words are reflective of our actions. I think many people think it is the other way around — that actions are a result of the words we speak. Unfortunately, I think that this perception is blocking a true, complete discussion of what creates a climate for civil discourse in our culture.

Linguists such as George Lakhoff (Philosophy in the Flesh), and even recent neuro-biological studies, tell us that words begin with our bodies and our actions. If we want to create a space for plural voices of caring and concern, then perhaps we should be more concerned with movement. When we pay attention to our movements, we start to understand where our words come from, and how important our movements are to social well being.

Where do we allow for movement in our lives? Is it simply for utilitarian tasks of walking to a vehicle and typing on a computer keyboard? Or do we allow for actions and gestures that create “the way the world should be.”  Such movement, found in dance and ritual, forces us to slow down and pay attention to our actions, and in the process allows for our non-cognitive, non-verbal brain to surface its dreams and hopes.  Ritual scholars like Catherine Bell describe a process of ritualization — the changes in patterning and movement in a ritual. Good ritual always evolves, allowing for the unspoken to surface.

I remember my Jewish meditation teacher beginning each session with instruction to “greet your neighbor,” with a reminder note that most of the work in Judaism was exactly this. Following instruction, we would all turn to one another, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Such small but symbolic actions are simple rituals that convey a longing for unity, connection, and love of neighbor.  Possibilities abound for such simple but meaningful gestures. But it all begins with a recognition that movement does matter very much.  Accepting and valuing yourself as a living, moving being empowers you to act more effectively in the world, and also better understand other people. It’s partially because you learn to read body movement, but also gain a sense of how you think through your body.

The Torah path is awesome and expansive, recognizing the importance of movement to joy.  The Miriam Tradition includes a search for this broader understanding of Torah that doesn’t separate words and actions. This idea goes way back – to the time of Miriam, and the Tanyaderas who followed in her tradition. They may not have been Rabbis, but the leadership they did provide helps us remember the power of conscious movement, and the value of music.

Cia Sautter will host a workshop entitled “The Miriam Tradition:  Living the Path of Joy,” Saturday, April 30, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Center for Harmonious Living, 12201 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka, MN.  The workshop will highlight her new book, and offer exercises to improve your relationship with yourself and those around you. The cost is $15. For more information, email Cia at [email protected] or visit

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