Academic journal article Journal of Women and Religion

"On Your New Moons": The Feminist Transformation of the Jewish New Moon Festival (1)

Academic journal article Journal of Women and Religion

"On Your New Moons": The Feminist Transformation of the Jewish New Moon Festival (1)

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the last 30 years the Jewish new moon festival known as Rosh Hodesh, (2) the observance marking the beginning of the new month of the Jewish luni-solar calendar, has been reappropriated by Jewish women who have transformed it into a celebration of women within Judaism. The observance involves a gathering that is usually restricted to women and takes place at a private home or a synagogue on the evening of Rosh Hodesh. (3) While the exact activities of the gathering vary, they tend to include prayers, blessings, rituals, study, food, and socializing related to the month and the annual holidays that will fall in it. Freedom to innovate and experiment within Jewish tradition is a key element of these activities, although the amount will vary depending on where each group's denomination falls on the Jewish religious spectrum (from Orthodox to Secular, with Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal in between).

While Susannah Heschel's 1983 groundbreaking collection of essays, On Being a Jewish Feminist, included a few essays touching on Rosh Hodesh, the first book devoted to the revival of Rosh Hodesh was Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year published by Penina Adelman in 1986. A subsequent collection of essays published by Susan Berrin in 1996, Celebrating the New Moon: A Rosh Chodesh Anthology, provided more perspectives on both the history and practice of the holiday. The newfound significance of Rosh Hodesh is reflected, for example, by its designation as a major section of Marcia Falk's feminist liturgy published in 1996, The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival some of which has been set to music. (4) The observance of Rosh Hodesh has become sufficiently important and mainstream that the 1999 theme for the annual "Feast of Jewish Learning" week sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) in San Francisco had the theme, "Rosh Hodesh: It's About Time." The BJE created a web-site and multimedia packet of educational materials which was sent to Jewish institutions throughout the Bay Area to increase awareness and observance of the holiday, including suggestions for family activities. (5) Even Hadassah, one of the oldest and largest American Jewish women's organizations, has published its own compendium, Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide. (6)

In this paper, I briefly review some of the biblical and Talmudic textual sources for Rosh Hodesh, as well as later kabbalistic and contemporary Orthodox rituals. This lineage of observance is often thought of as "traditional" Judaism. I then discuss the feminist transformation of Rosh Hodesh, tracing how its proponents' claims to authenticity seek to affirm a continuity with traditional elements at the same time that they consciously change that tradition with the aim of making it responsive to their concerns. In particular, I discuss why what I will call the "feminist Rosh Hodesh" works as a focal point for the articulation of dual commitments to Judaism and feminism by many Jewish women. While the process of renegotiating cultural commitments as a minority group is familiar and similar to various adaptations of Jewish culture (7) into categories amenable to the modern world--such as religion, history, ethnicity, nationality--the direction of the change made by the feminist Rosh Hodesh toward postmodern, ecofeminist categories and values is a new and different development.

Part of this will include attention to the changing understanding of the relationship between humans, God, and nature. While it is well known that the Jewish holidays include both agricultural and mytho-historic elements, both of which are linked to God, these three elements exist together under tension, constantly subject to flux and change. Different eras have shifted the emphasis between these and reinterpreted them. Indeed, the multidimensional tension provides a rich source for cultural evolution and renewal. …

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