Rosh Chodesh, The Sabbath, Moons, and Women (Also: A Mysterious Image!)

The Sabbath is one of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s best-known works. In it, Heschel outlines his understanding that Judaism is a religion primarily concerned with time over space. Judaism’s focus on time places Judaism in a metaphyscial tension with the broader Western world, which Heschel sees as overly-focused and overly-entrenched in the realm of space. In the space-realm people are concerned with making money, dominating the natural world, and their metaphorical and non-metaphorical “place” in society.

The sabbath or shabbat, the day of rest observed by the Jewish people, gives people the ability to suspend that kind of rush-rush-rush mentality of the space-realm. For Heschel, the observance of shabbat can and should be a transformative weekly event that reminds humans of their relationship with the Divine and their innate human ability towards reflection, prayer, and peace.

As part of my research on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic theological work on space and time, The Sabbath, I read Ron Feldman’s article “The Sabbath versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of the Sabbath.”

The main thrust of the article is that Heschel’s emphasis on the Sabbath as a time of rest from the innate dominating nature of humanity backfires due to the fact that the seven-day workweek is not an Earth or “nature” based way to measure time. He writes:

Nevertheless, the reliance on the Sabbath as a model of “peace with nature” strikes me as problematic because, as noted by many others as well as Heschel, the temporal rhythm of the Sabbath is inherently “unnatural.” Indeed, Heschel lauds this as the ground from which the observer can “become attuned to holiness in time.”

(Ron Feldman, “The Sabbath Versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of The Sabbath,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54, no. 1 (January, 2005): 28.)

Feldman continues:

Therefore the endless seven-day rhythm of the Sabbath, ostensibly established by divine decree but only marked in the world by human counting, hardly seems like a moment of peace between “man and nature” or “complete harmony between man and nature.”

(Ron Feldman, “The Sabbath Versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of The Sabbath,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54, no. 1 (January, 2005): 29.)

What Feldman suggests instead of Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh, the monthly day of the New Moon in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, sometimes called an “adjusted” lunar calendar. While the Jewish calendar is based on months based on the cycle of the moon, the calendar does employ a leap year to “correct” itself so that the seasons stay roughly at the same point in the calendar every year. This is unlike the Muslim calendar which does not adjust; the months in the Muslim calendar can occur at any point in the seasonal year. For example, Ramadan can come in the summer or winter, depending on the year. On the other hand, Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, will always occur roughly at the beginning of the Fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

The experience of a Jewish holiday coming “early” or “late” in a particular year (September 15th versus October 1st, for example) is discussed by Feldman:

In contrast, the Jewish holidays-dependent on the lunation-are commonly experienced as coming “early” or “late,” conveniently on the weekend or inconveniently in mid-week; every year is different from the last… Of course, the holidays of the Jewish calendar are never “early” or “late”—they simply fall when they fall, matching the rhythm of the moon.

((Ron Feldman, “The Sabbath Versus the New Moon: A Critique of Heschel’s Valorization of The Sabbath,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 54, no. 1 (January, 2005): 32.)

Feldman here doesn’t touch on the fact that the Jewish calendar does adjust for leap years, which seems similar to Feldman’s earlier dislike for a purely human method of counting the days of the week. However, because the end result of the leap year is, as mentioned above, a continuity between seasons and months, this is perhaps not a strong point against the article.

Several times in the article Feldman refers to “wild time” and “tame time.” “Wild time,” for Feldman, is that time where we become accustomed to the “rhythms of nature” of which humans do not control. As much as we count, the moon wanes and waxes with or without us.

“Wild time,” therefore, is exemplified by Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon celebration in Judaism.

Rosh Chodesh is increasingly becoming practiced as women’s holiday. David M. Rosen argues in “New Myths and Meanings in Jewish New Moon Rituals” that while Jewish communities will occasionally claim that Rosh Chodesh has “always” been a women’s holiday, the reality is murkier.

While there are associations with women and femininity in literature surrounding Rosh Chodesh, the traditional liturgical blessings for the New Moon and the traditional announcement of the next New Moon both are synagogue-based rituals in which women (depending on community) are occasionally marginalized.

Contemporary women’s New Moon ceremonies, therefore, are often highly innovative. Rosen writes that some are decidedly “New Age,” writing:

Other women interviewed were profoundly alienated by rituals that introduce so-called “New Age” symbolism. In one instance, participants were asked to pierce a pomegranate whose juice was said to symbolize female fertility and fecundity. In another instance, women were asked to cut an apple in half to look at the “star” inside the fruit and contemplate the symbolism of the “stars hidden within oneself.”

(David M Rosen. “New Myths and Meanings in Jewish New Moon Rituals,” Ethnology 39, no. 3 (July 2000): 266.)

The association between the “New Age” community, the lunar cycle, and femininity, gives me pause when thinking about Feldman’s claim that the New Moon can be indicative of a “wild time.” This is reminiscent of an old trope– found in Jewish thought and elsewhere– that women and femininity are aligned with the wild, the “unhinged”, the natural.

To think more about the associations between the moon, women, and a New Age conception of wild, I (always an academic, always using the best sources) headed over to google. A quick search on google for “moon” and “woman” quickly brought me to the following image:

moon woman pregnancy 1

The image here obviously connects the concepts of motherhood, pregnancy, particular kinds of being-woman, and the moon– and all wrapped up in a “New Age” cloth, at that!

Thinking I might like to include the image, as it does speak to the commonality of associating the lunar cycle with femininity and womanhood, I clicked on the link to find the photographer’s name. I was taken to Pinterest, a site where people frequently upload images without citing the original artist.

I reverse-image searched it. This took me to yet another Pinterest page, with the following image.

moon pregnancy woman

An altered image! And this one even includes the term “wild,” the same term that Feldman used to discuss “wild time”! “I am a Wild Woman, I Dance with the Tides of the Moon,” this altered image proclaims.

Page after page of the reverse image search found this image being used for various New Age and New Age adjacent specialties: midwifery, spiritual counseling, crystal healing sessions… they all like this image. I found several other altered images, as well.

Who made the original image? I still don’t know. If you know who did, let me know. If you made it, and you want me to credit you or remove the image, let me know!

This brings me to another question– only tangentially related to the original thought(s) about the Sabbath and Rosh Chodesh. Is the association between the moon and women– particularly a “New Age” conception of womanhood that may be quite essentialist– so overdone, so tired, so obvious that it makes perfect sense for people to steal and alter this image and use it for their own projects?

Feldman also takes pains to say several times in his essay that some important Jewish environmentalists have created and generated useful political ideas out of the concept of the sabbath. He, while wondering at its use-value, still wants to appreciate those efforts.

I’m in a similar boat as Feldman. Perhaps in our current political and cultural climate the best thing is to reconnect with feminine and the natural without assuming there is some kind of inherent or essential relationship between the two. We could certainly do with caring for the earth more, as well as caring for women and feminine peoples.

While I like some of his points about shabbat, Heschel’s The Sabbath and ecology, I think his analysis desperately needs a gender intervention. The moon, and the lunar cycle are associated with a preconceived concept of “women” (albeit this seems to happen most often in various New Age communities); Rosh Chodesh is increasingly being celebrated and reinvented by women and a women’s holiday. Not taking this into account does a disservice to the article.

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