Over The Moon
Tue, 04/05/2011

I recently attended my daughter’s fifth grade American Heritage Ceremony. The students researched how various important documents from American history were created and then wrote and performed in skits about what they learned. One group was assigned the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Sitting in the assembly, listening to “Susan B. Anthony” (aka an 11-year-old girl) passionately insist that women are capable and worthy of making important political decisions, to my surprise, I found myself moved to tears. Something about watching a group of pre-adolescent girls re-enact such an important moment of empowerment for women was very stirring. The tears were a wish for the girls to keep the brave, confident, expansive spirit of Susan B. Anthony inside as they grow up.

I imagine a similar wish in the hearts of the women involved in the revitalization of Rosh Hodesh as a holiday of women’s empowerment, connection and community in the 1970s. At that time, small groups of women began gathering on Rosh Hodesh for prayer, study and other creative celebrations. It is a measure of the success of these early women’s groups that today, Rosh Hodesh celebrations and activities for women have become an expected part of the Jewish calendar. Many synagogues have women’s Rosh Hodesh groups and there is a nationwide program for girls called, “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing.”

Two rabbinic texts are frequently quoted as sources connecting women and Rosh Hodesh. The first is a teaching (quoted by Rashi, BT Megilla 22b), that women but not men are exempt from working on Rosh Hodesh as a reward for their exemplary behavior during the incident of the Golden Calf. According to the Rabbis, when the Israelite women were asked by their husbands to remove their gold bracelets for use in building the calf, the women refused.

The other source text on the relationship between women and Rosh Hodesh has, at first glance, a more problematic message from a feminist perspective. It is a Talmudic story (Hullin 70b) that emerges from a contradiction between the first description of the sun and the moon in Genesis, “And God made the two giant lights” and the second description of these celestial bodies, “The big light and the small light.” Rabbi Shimon ben Pazai asks: “Were the two lights the same size, or was one bigger than the other?”

He harmonizes the two verses with a story. Originally, the sun and the moon were created the same size. But the moon challenged this structure, asking God, “Can two rulers wear the same crown?” — meaning, “Shouldn’t one of us be bigger and therefore in charge?” God replied, “Go, make yourself smaller.” After the moon objects to this outcome, God compromises and instructs the Jewish people to bring sacrifices on Rosh Hodesh as an atonement for God’s decision to make the moon smaller.

This midrash is an etiology — a story that explains why things are the way they are. The story teaches why we celebrate Rosh Hodesh. But it is also an etiology of a different kind. Given the moon’s association with women in other Jewish sources, and the fact that in this story, the moon is referred to in the feminine (“she said” etc.), some contemporary scholars have pointed out that the midrash can be seen as a rabbinic response to the question, “Why do women have a lesser role in Jewish life? Why don’t they have the same privileges and responsibilities as men?” (On the one hand, it’s hard to love the response that the uppity, demanding nature of the moon, aka women, created the need for someone to dominate. On the other hand you have to admire the Talmudic rabbis for writing and codifying a story that raises such a question 1,500 years ago).

It seems strange to have such an anti-feminist message in one of the key texts that supports the revival of Rosh Hodesh as a women’s holiday. Some feminist thinkers have sought tikkun (repair) for this message in the Talmudic promise that one day, the moon will be made bright again when those like her on earth are restored to their rightful place. While in rabbinic terms, this statement refers to the Jewish people during their long period of their exile, it can be easily re-interpreted as a messianic wish for men and women to one day live as true equals.

The fifth graders posing as suffragettes helped shine a light onto a different feminist perspective to the story of the moon and its relationship to Rosh Hodesh. While the suggestion has already been made that the moon in the story quoted above is a metaphor for women, I believe that a new and more empowering understanding of this text emerges if we see the moon as not just a woman, but in particular, as an adolescent girl.

First of all, the moon is connected to women because of its monthly cycle. There are few times in a woman’s life when her menstrual cycle is the object of as much discussion and attention as during adolescence. In addition, there is a historical story relating to the sighting of the moon that has all the elements of a bona fide middle school brouhaha. In biblical and early Talmudic times, the new month was “ratified” by witnesses who reported to the Sanhedrin (high court) in Jerusalem.

The new moon was then announced to communities across Israel by a string of beacon lights that began on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg explains that this practice was rendered inoperative in part because a rival Jewish group, the Samaritans, was consistently attempting to sabotage the process by kindling “counterfeit” fires at the wrong time to confuse people. Talk about adolescent drama! Imagine the scene: “They are so cliquey, those rabbinic Jews – hey, I have an idea of a prank we can play on them…”

But the strongest argument for the adolescent femininity of the moon comes from the story quoted earlier about the moon, in its full form:

The moon said to God, “Master of the Universe, can two kings wear the same crown?” God replied, “Go, make yourself smaller.” She said, “Master of the Universe, because I said something logical before you, will you make me reduce my size?” God said, “Go rule the day and the night.” She said, “What good is that? [ruling the DAY and the night]. What use is a lamp in the daylight?” God said, “Go, and the Jewish people will reckon days and years by you.” She said to Him, it is impossible for them not to reckon the seasons by day (the sun) also, since it is written, “And THEY shall be for signs and for set times and for days and for years.” [God said] “Go, and holy people will be named after you “small Jacob,” “small Shmuel,” “small David [“named” for the moon because she will be the smaller light].” Seeing that she had not been appeased, the Blessed Holy One said [to the Jewish people]: “Bring an atonement sacrifice for Me, because I made the moon smaller.”

The moon shines here as a female role model worthy of Susan B. Anthony. She begins with an astute sociopolitical observation. “Can two rulers really wear the same crown?” Come on, everybody knows that there’s only one president. One queen bee. These leadership jobs are not shared. God’s response is to put her in her place for challenging authority. “Fine, you be the one that is smaller.” But God had not bargained for the fierce determination of a young woman who feels she is facing injustice. “Because I said something logical, will you make me reduce my size?” the moon asks tartly. God must see merit in her objection, because God offers a consolation prize. “OK, then, you will be the one that is visible both in the day and at night [commenting on the fact that the moon can often be seen during the day]. Now the moon shows her budding skill with repartee, a specialty of teenage girls: “What good is a lamp in the daylight?” God tries a few more unacceptable make-good options. The moon must have been especially annoyed by the suggestion that famous people will be named for her, all of whom have the word “small” in their names.

The story comes to an astounding conclusion. Having listened to the moon’s complaints and rebuttals, finally, God acknowledges responsibility for having made the wrong choice:

Seeing that she had not been appeased, the Blessed Holy One said [to the Jewish people], “Bring an atonement sacrifice for Me, because I made the moon smaller.”

The reason we celebrate Rosh Hodesh, and perhaps by extension, the reason that Rosh Hodesh has become a women’s holiday in modern Jewish life, is that we are atoning for God’s bad decision in reducing the moon’s size. By observing Rosh Hodesh as a vibrant holiday of women’s and girls’ empowerment, we are redeeming God’s mistake, working together to return women to the stature they deserve. All because of the spirited determination of a young woman named the moon.

Rabbi Anne Ebersman is the Judaic studies programming director for grades N-5 at Manhattan’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School.