Academic journal article Ethnology

New Myths and Meanings in Jewish New Moon Rituals(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

New Myths and Meanings in Jewish New Moon Rituals(1)

Article excerpt

In recent years new rituals linking women to the traditional festival of the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, have become an important part of Jewish life. A central element of these rituals is the recasting of traditional Jewish origin myths about the moon. An examination of this process reveals a tension between gendered and nongendered readings and versions of these myths. Despite this, ali new versions attempt to root new myths in the authentic soil of Jewish tradition. (Moon, myth, women, Rosh Chodesh, Judaism)

Over the last 25 years, a set of striking new Jewish religious rituals has developed. At the heart of these new rituals are specifically women-centered celebrations of the moon. Owing to their newness, these rituals have neither a universally recognized name nor a specific set of ritual conventions, yet in various forms they have spread throughout the United States and, to a significantly lesser extent, Europe and Israel, as Jewish women have sought to symbolically link themselves to the cycles of the moon. These celebrations are commonly held monthly, on or near the day of the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, and draw upon well-established ideas in Jewish history and practice that the day of the new moon is, in some sense, a women's holiday. The rituals often take place within the framework of monthly meetings of women's Rosh Chodesh groups. Sometimes these meetings are synagogue based, but frequently they are held at the homes of participants.

A central element of these new rituals is a recasting of traditional myths about the moon found in the Bible, the Talmud, and other forms of traditional Jewish religious literature to reinforce a special connection between contemporary women and the moon. These modern forms of traditional myths provide a mythical charter for new religious practices in contemporary Jewish life. This article traces the development of these new myths and thereby reveals the process of contemporary mythmaking in the Jewish community. Central to the modern mythical development is the reconfiguration of old myths into allegories that express the necessity of equality between men and women in contemporary Jewish life. This remythologizing of Rosh Chodesh is vital to the creation of new rituals for Rosh Chodesh but, as with pouring new wine into old jugs, the remythologizing process remains disguised.

The myths connecting women to the moon are origin myths; defined here, following Dundes (1984:1), as sacred narratives that explain how people and the world came to be. Characteristically, origin myths exhibit remarkable flexibility in structure and content. Levi-Strauss (1967:203-04) notes that "in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen ... everything becomes possible." This is possible because origin myths are set in a time outside history: "Mythological time ... is both reversible and non-reversible, synchronic and diachronic" (Levi-Strauss 1967:207). Similarly, Leach (1969:29) describes mythical time as a kind of "dream time" and the analysis of myth akin to the analysis of dreams. Indeed, the structural analysis of myth itself has created a methodological dream time: myths were to be studied by unpacking and rearranging their constitutive elements to reveal their underlying meanings. This approach has been taken not only where the history in the myth was clearly impossible to retrieve (as might be the case with many nonliterate societies), but even where it might be possible to establish a reliable chronology. Thus, for example, Leach's (1969:34) analyses of biblical narrative eschew a historical approach on methodological--not empirical--grounds.

This lack of concern with the order of events in myth, and the assumption that chronological order is not only unimportant but actually irrelevant to the meaning of the myth, are is not confined to anthropological forms of analysis. Anthropological analyses share this anything-can-happen sense of myth with orthodox Jewish interpretive traditions. …

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