What Rosh Hodesh Means for Jewish Democracy

By | Jun 07, 2013

The Jewish calendar is structured on lunar activity. Every time there is a new moon, a Hebrew month begins. We read in Exdous that God told Moses: “Ha’hodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodashim rishon hu lachem l’hodshei ha’shanah.” “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This statement–that the Jewish people must mark the months–is counted as the first mitzvah that the Israelites received on their way out of Egypt. Rosh Hodesh happens every month, and in modern times, often with little note. But, traditionally, the determination of the first observation of the monthly new moon is the key action by which we live and act as Jews. Before the establishment of settled, printed calendars, it was the diverse voices of Jewish witnesses that set our Jewish calendar, without which we could not have set dates for any of the Jewish holidays. Witnesses traveled to Jerusalem from near and far to testify about having sighted the new moon. The date of every single Jewish holiday, and thus our celebrations and sacred markings of time, can only be determined by reference to the dates of the new moon.

The Mishnah vividly describes to us the importance of the diverse voices testifying about the new moon. Rosh Hodesh is the ultimate occasion of coming together in unity from all of our separate places–even violating Shabbat to testify about the first sighting of the new moon. Even those who could not travel by foot: “They may bring him by donkey [even on Shabbat] and if necessary even [carry him on Shabbat] in a bed…Because for a night and a day they may desecrate the Shabbat and go forth to testify about the new moon.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 22a). Everyone’s voices are what makes Rosh Hodesh Rosh Hodesh.

And even today, we gather together as one Jewish people to celebrate Rosh Hodesh. For almost the last 25 years, every month, a women’s group called Women of the Wall has been celebrating Rosh Hodesh at the women’s section of the Kotel in Jerusalem, seeking to connect with our ancient traditions and God’s presence. Recently, there have been many arrests and much discord and violence, arising from Haredi objections to the women davening out loud, wearing tallit or tefillin, or reading from a sefer Torah.

As we consider the Torah reading for this week, Korach, coinciding on Shabbat and also Sunday with Rosh Hodesh Tammuz and the present situation of disharmony and violence at the Kotel, who among us doesn’t feel a little shiver down the spine? Korach and his family and his possessions, all swallowed up by the Earth in a demonstration of God’s power in rejecting their challenge to Moshe’s leadership. In our modern day, who is Korach and who is Moshe?

Korach confronted or stood up to the established leadership of the Israelites, saying that all Israel is holy–and literally was struck down by God for doing this. Did God reject a populist democracy? And who would dare challenge religious leadership or want to follow in his footstep after this?

Or was Korach’s sin an attempt to bring about anarchy and the disruption and elimination of ongoing religious ritual, by challenging not just Aaron, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest, but also all of the priests and the whole structure of religious, sacrificial worship to God? What was Korach’s vision if he had survived to carry it forward? In modern terms, was Korach a democrat or a fascist?

In considering this question a number of years ago, Rabbi Elliot Dorff posed two possible responses. Perhaps Korach was not wrong in seeking a democratic structure for the Israelites, but his timing was wrong. Too many challenges and crises, in a society not ready or able to cast aside strong leadership. Or maybe, Korach’s challenge to the leadership was that of an anarchist, seeking to undo the rule of law, which would leave the people on their own in the wilderness, facing attacks from hostile surrounding nations.

In the end, the elliptical text does not allow us to determine with certainty what was truly dangerous about Korach’s position. And that, I think, is exactly the point.

It would be so tempting to say: “I have the answer–my position is like that of Moshe, not Korach, and I will seek to bring God to strike down everyone who doesn’t see it my way.” With a narrative this rife with this ambiguity, however, none of us can honestly say that.

Let us also remember the alternative to Korach. The challenge was not only to Moshe, but also to the High Priest, Aaron.  Presumably, had he survived and succeeded, Korach’s regime would have replaced Aaron. With all of Aaron’s errors and sins–silence in the face of his own sons being struck down by God, collaborating with the Israelites to build the Golden Calf–how is he seen in our tradition? “Moshe used to say ‘Let the law pierce the mountain.’ But Aaron loved peace, pursued peace and made peace between people, as is said: ‘The law of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.'” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 6b, quoting Malachi 2:6.)

From the ambiguity of the narrative and the survival and triumph of Moshe and Aaron over Korach, perhaps we can learn that shalom and shleimut–peace and wholeness–are what we must always strive for, even and especially, in the most challenging times. So for our challenging times, this year, in thinking about the challenges facing our Jewish people, especially on this Rosh Hodesh Tammuz at the Kotel, we offer this prayer for shleimut and izun, wholeness and balance.

Iris Richman is a Conservative rabbi, urging tolerance, pluralism and inclusion for all Jews in the U.S. and in Israel. To learn more about religious tolerance or to get involved, visit http://womenofthewall.org.il/category/divrei-torah/ or email JewishVoicesTogether@gmail.com.

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