through the bamboo grove;
a cuckoo crying.
“Moonlight slanting,” Matsuo Busho
Rosh Chodesh is a monthly holiday acknowledging the arrival of the New Moon and marking the beginning of a new month in the Jewish calendar (“Rosh” means “head” and is the same as in “Rosh Hashanah,” the new—or “head of the”—year). It serves as one among many signals of Judaism’s ancient relationship with the natural rhythms of the world and is one of the rare traditional Jewish observances that is thought of as being particularly linked to women and femininity due to the common association between women and the moon. For many observant Jews throughout history, Rosh Chodesh has been recognized as something like a bonus Sabbath for women—a time when they are to rest and do no work. In contemporary times, Jewish feminists have revitalized the observance of Rosh Chodesh, creating new traditions centered around the roles and experiences of women within Jewish communities (Waskow 229). On our last Tuesday together in Berkeley, a group of other Fellows and I decided to put on our own Rosh Chodesh service, pulling from a model created by one such Jewish feminist organization, the Women of the Wall. Already in this contemporary moment of Judaism, one can observe the transition of newly-minted ritual turning into intergenerational tradition. In observing Rosh Chodesh together and doing so of our own volition, without the facilitation of Urban Adamah or anyone outside of the group, it felt like we were engaging in something special and important, like we—as young Jews and as young Jewish feminists—were in some small way doing our part to seal together the future and the past of our tradition and to mark it with our own imprint. And for me, it was very special to do it in a context that observed and honored the moon.
What’s the deal with the moon, anyway? Why, of all symbols, is that the one that comes to the fore on Rosh Chodesh? The most obvious answer is, of course, that Jews, like many ancient societies, mark time in accordance with the moon, following a lunar calendar as opposed to a solar calendar such as the Gregorian system. Since each month begins with a new moon, and the Jews saw it fit to acknowledge the beginning of the months with a holiday, it’s only natural that the moon became involved with that ritual observation. But, of course, the rabbis saw fit to come up with a better story than that.
According to Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s appendix on the moon in his book, Seasons of Our Joy, which provides an overview of the major Jewish holidays, there is a story within Jewish folklore that maintains that when God created the Sun and the Moon, They made a mistake in “diminishing” the light of the moon to the benefit of the sun. In acknowledging this mistake, God gave the Moon Rosh Chodesh as a form of compensation, and a promise that Her light would one day be restored. Many have interpreted—somewhat paternalistically, I’d say—this fable as having to do with the role of women within traditional Jewish societies, the idea being that the sleight dealt to the Moon represents the “diminished” position of women in society, with God’s promise representing the promise of a perfect, future world in which misogyny and patriarchy have been eliminated, and women have been “restored” to their proper place as equals among men (Waskow 229). To me, this interpretation of the myth seems problematic, not because women and femmes haven’t experienced injustice throughout the course of history, including Jewish history, but because of the insinuation that this has resulted in them being “diminished” such that they can only be restored through some outside force, through the hand of God, who in much of the common imagination is represented as a man.
What I do find useful and interesting about the story is probably its most controversial facet: this idea that God—a supposedly perfect, divine “being”—could have somehow made a mistake. Given God’s supposed omnipotence and righteousness, divine mishaps should theoretically not be possible. But when interpreted through a kabbalistic lens, the whole thing makes more sense. One key aspect of kabbalah is the belief that the state of the material world and human society mirrors the state of the Divine. This understanding of the relationship between the Divine and the mundane elevates the role of ritual; in kabbalah, ritual serves the purpose of trying to bring together the Divine and material realms in harmony, to try to balance and “repair” both of them. All of this relates back to the idea of tikkun olam—this concept that the world is in a state of brokenness that requires repair, and that the repair of the world serves some Divine significance. This is because, just as there are fractures in the accessible, tangible world around us, kabbalah understands Divinity to be in a certain state of being fractured, as well. Kabbalah refers to an idea of “catastrophe” within the Divine, a splitting-apart and alienation of the various aspects of Divinity from each other and from humanity. While the ultimate nature of God in kabbalah is understood to be divine perfection, there is also an understanding that, insofar as Divinity relates to humankind and approaches materiality, there is brokenness in it as well. In some respects, the goal of kabbalah is then to try and restore Divinity to its proper, united state, and in the process to bring the material world into that same state of perfection, as well. Rosh Chodesh in some ways reflects this line of thinking.
According to Waskow, the mystics of Safed—a major center of kabbalistic thought and study in 16th century Ottoman Palestine—saw “the waning of the moon as a symbol of the exile of the Shechinah (God’s presence in the world) and of the alienated and shattered state of human and cosmic existence. Rosh Chodesh for them was a symbol of renewal and hope” (Waskow 228). In other words, the arrival of the New Moon and the beginning of the waxing process was read by the mystics as a sign of a hope that both the Divine and earthly realms of existence could and would be restored, that repair was as natural as the process of calamity that is so familiar in all of our lives. Thinking of the state of things in our world today, this idea brings me hope, as well. It seemed like impeccable timing, that the last Rosh Chodesh of our fellowship cycle should fall right in the midst of our last week together. As one chapter ends, another begins, and while it is sad to be torn away from what is familiar and nurturing, such change is necessary if we are to go on to brighter things, to realize our potential for creating a better and more harmonious world for ourselves and for others. I’ve always felt an affinity for the moon, a pull towards its dimmer light, an admiration for its patterned fluctuations—it serves and will continue to serve as a reminder for me of the constancy of change, and of moments past and moments to come.