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A Marvelous Night for a Moon Dance: Reflections on Kiddush Levana

By Steve Greenberg

When I was a teenager, we called it the moon dance. Later, when we began to grasp how outlandish a performance it was, we began calling it "howling at the moon." We were Jews pretending to be werewolves on the first Saturday night of every month. The conglomeration of psalms, handshakes, blessings and dancing took less than seven or eight minutes, but it sticks in my mind today as a spiritual highlight of my youth.

What on earth was I doing?

Kiddush Levana, literally, the 'sanctification of the new moon', is a short service recited sometime between the third and the fourteenth day of the lunar cycle. It is commonly said at the conclusion of the first Sabbath which falls out during this period. After havdalah folks leave shul with siddur in hand and look up to the sky. If the moon is visible, then the crowd begins chanting the service.

Then, after saying "shalom aleichem" to one another, the stalwarts would finish off the ritual with a shuffling circle dance. Verses from the sabbath morning service describing the creation of the celestial lights, the sun and the moon were sung to a special tune. We used to dance right outside the front door of the shteibl, in full view of any passers by. It was a unique pleasure to carry this strange and beautiful ceremony into a public space. I loved the din of shaloms and aleichems, the smiles and handshakes and the movement between greeting and responding to the greeting of others. I also loved the dance under the moon and hoped that our non-Jewish neighbors took us for the Indians that we were.

Why is moon dancing part of Jewish prayer? Certainly we are not praying to the moon. So, what role does the moon play in Jewish theology?

The book of Genesis describes how God created the sun and moon on the fourth day as follows: And God made the two great lights, the great light to rule over the day and the small light to rule over the night. (Genesis1:16) Here's the midrash:

And God made the two great lights? but later it says: "the great light and the small light"! The moon said before the Holy One: Master of the world, is it possible for two kings to share (literally: to use) one crown? God said to her: Go and diminish yourself! She said before God: Because I asked a good question, I should diminish myself? God said: Go and rule both in day and in night. She said: What advantage is that? A candle in the daylight is useless. God said: Go and let Israel count their days and years by you. She said: They use the daylight [of the sun] to count seasonal cycles as well...Seeing that she was not appeased, the Holy One said: Bring a (sacrificial) atonement for me that I diminished the moon! This is what R. Shimon ben Lakish said: What is different about the ram of the new moon that it is offered "for God" (And one ram of the flock for a sin offering for God...Numbers 28:14). Said the Holy One: This ram shall be an atonement for me that I diminished the moon. (BT Hullin 60b)

The moon's diminishment is understood by the sages as a sin committed against the moon for which God must atone. The standard symbolic association of the sun with masculinity and the moon with femininity makes the story rich with possibilities. The midrash appears then as an invitation by the rabbis to imagine a world of restored harmony and equality between men and women. Kiddush Levana is a mystical liturgy introduced into Jewish custom by R. Yitzhak Luria in the 16th century. If God brings an atonement for the diminishment of the moon, then there must be some desire on high to truly repent of the violence done to her. The last and most powerful statement in Kiddush Levana is a prayer that wishes for a restored moon.

They taught in the school of Rabbi Yishamel: Were Israel able to greet their Father in heaven only once a month, it would be enough. Abaye says: For this reason it should be said standing. "Who is she, coming up from the desert, leaning on her lover?"(Song 8:5) May it be your will, O Lord, my God and the God of my fathers to fill in the darkness of the moon that she not be diminished at all. And let the light of the moon be as the light of the sun, and as the light of the seven days of creation, just as she was before she was diminished, as it is said: "the two great lights." And may we be a fulfillment of the verse: "And they shall seek out the Lord their God and David their king," (Hosea 3:5) Amen.

Jewish feminists have used this imagery to restore and to build upon women's traditions and rituals associated with the new moon. The wisdom is simple--the world was not perfect when it was created and it is not perfect yet. It is a very Jewish sensibility to give testimony that the messiah has not come. We are not there yet. The disharmonies of the creation are a work plan, a set of duties, the last act of which will include God's joyous restoration of the moon. For this reason we dance underneath it's light, reminding ourselves that the work of restoration is yet to come.

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