Attention Jews! Something Gay Is Happening With The Moon Today

Hello Niche readers! Seph here. It’s been a while! I’m here to share some very exciting news about something that’s happening in Judaism this weekend.

Today is Shabbat Machar Chodesh, the shabbat before the new moon. As such, we have a special haftarah* reading: I Samuel 20:18-42. We read this passage every time Shabbat falls before the new moon, because it begins: “And Jonathan said to him: Tomorrow is the new moon.”

That’s right, this is about David and Jonathan.

In this passage, Jonathan is making a plan with David. Jonathan’s father, King Saul, is trying to have David killed, because he sees him as a threat to his power. Indeed, David will inherit the Kingdom when Saul dies, because of his covenant with Jonathan.

This covenant is made verbally between David and Jonathan, but it is also something that happens to them. After David kills Goliath and brings his head to Saul, he turns to Jonathan:

And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.

(1 Samuel 18:1 KJV)

David and Jonathan decide to make their covenant, but the love that covenant is rooted in is something their souls do on their own. It is beyond their choosing, just as much as the blood tie between Jonathan and his father is beyond his choosing.

The Mishnah, the oldest section of the Talmud, uses David and Jonathan as an illustration of love which is pure because it is selfless. Neither of them stands to gain anything politically or socially; indeed, by choosing one another over each of their allegiance to the King, they take their lives into their own hands.

Any loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But any which does not depend upon something will never come to an end…. What is a loving relationship which does not depend upon something? That is the love of David and Jonathan.

(Avot 5:18)

By this point in the story, David and Jonathan know about Saul’s plan to kill David, and are at their wits’ end trying to thwart him. One of my favorite moments in the story is this:

[10] Then said David to Jonathan, Who shall tell me? or what if thy father answer thee roughly?

[11] And Jonathan said unto David, Come, and let us go out into the field. And they went out both of them into the field.

1 Samuel 20 KJV

Jonathan sees David starting to panic, and cuts him off, taking him outside. They can breathe easier there, outside the walls of Saul’s house. You could read a symbolic meaning here: their relationship takes place outside the house, outside the structure of succession and patriarchal duty. They need to go outside.

The earth was damp against my back. The sun was hot and the breeze was cool. I felt happy. Nature held me close and seemed to find no fault with me.

Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues

This is where the haftarah portion begins. It is the night before the feast of the new moon. David and Jonathan come up with a plan, involving a secret code. It seems to me that the purpose of this code is so that David can leave without having to directly talk to Jonathan or be seen with him; but as soon as Jonathan gives him the signal, David can’t help but come out of hiding to say goodbye again.

David has now been camped out, hiding in the field, for three days. Two days into the lunar month, the moon is barely a sliver in the sky. It is very dark. They do not know when or if they will ever see each other again. David bows to Jonathan three times, pressing his face into the ground at his feet. They kiss and weep together.**

I like that we read this passage now because of the moon. On the Friday evening of Shabbat Machar Chodesh, the moon is in the same shape that it was when Jonathan went to his father’s party, and tried to explain david’s absence, only to have his father threaten his life. Tonight, Saturday, the moon will be in the shape that it was in when David and Jonathan took their leave of each other.

On the eve of the new moon, the world is dark and confusing. David has to flee the city in the dark, with only the memory of Jonathan’s vows and kisses to guide him. The covenant is something David and Jonathan feel instinctively, in their bodies; but they also repeat it verbally every time they meet. Because it is not tied to patriarchal lines of descent, because it does not “depend” on any worldly ambition or obligation, it rests on the strength of their commitment to each other.

The triumph of David over Saul, I would argue, is a story about chosen connections over inherited ones. The bond between David and Jonathan is rooted in a deeper, more natural law than that between Jonathan and Saul. It comes from nature, directly from G-d—and as such is a threat to the laws of Man:

And Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him, and was departed from Saul.

1 Samuel 18:12 KJV

Over the nights that David journeys from the house of Saul, the moon grows fuller in the sky. He is leaving a place where he wasn’t safe, but he doesn’t know where he’s going.

In a podcast episode on counting the Omer (the 49 days between the exodus from slavery and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai) Ezra Furman says:

The answer to ‘are we going away from [Egypt], or are we going towards [Mount Sinai]?’ Of course, I’m gonna be non-binary about it. It’s like, you gotta get out from under the thumb of oppression, but getting out only starts to mean something when you realize there’s a future — it’s not just freedom from them trying to kill you, it’s freedom to become something. So like, now we can breathe, we can ask the question, ‘What do we want to become?’ And this is very live for me, in being queer and being trans. You have to get out of the closet. You have to start, but you have to also understand that it’s just starting. There’s this great rebellion that is being like, ‘I’m gonna go this way which is unsanctioned, which is outside of your society; I’m leaving the world I was expected to be in servitude in,’ and you come out—but you don’t become at that point what you want to become. That’s not self-actualization, you know what I mean?

Ezra Furman, 2 Queers, 4 Questions, co-hosted with Agnes Borinsky

Maybe part of the reason we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each lunar month, is to assure one another that the moon, now hidden, will return. We are in darkness, having not yet found our way. But like David, we trust in nature, and in our love for one another, that we will be able to move, maybe not to safety, but to something better.

In a poem addressing the specific historical significance of Rosh Chodesh for women, Marge Piercy writes:

We greet the moon that is not gone

but only hidden, unreflecting, inturned

and introspective, gathering strength to grow

as we greet the first slim nail pairing

of her returning light. Don’t we understand

the strength that wells out of retreat?”

Marge Piercy, The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems on a Jewish Theme

David and Jonathan also also understand the strength that wells out of retreat. David flees because he is not strong enough yet to challenge Saul; but he will be when he returns.

It might seem at first like the reason for reading this text on Shabbat Machar Chodesh is contrived or even arbitrary. But I think that by connecting this story with the calendar, the tradition asks us to superimpose David and Jonathan’s experience onto our own. Just as we are asked at Passover to imaging that we personally were liberated from slavery, we are asked now to imagine being David, saying goodbye to our lover under cover of darkness. I’m reminded of what James Baldwin said:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

James Baldwin, interview in Life Magazine, 1963

You are not the first person to struggle to find your way in the darkness of a moonless night. You are not the first person to have to rely on the care of someone you love in the face of a hostile world.

This month, as we watch the moon grow brighter, I hope we as gay people feel ourselves growing stronger, too; buoyed up by the knowledge that all things move in circles.

I bought special moon wine for Moon Shabbos 🌑


*In Judaism, we read one portion of the five books of the Torah every week. Along with each Torah portion is another passage from a different part of the Bible, which we read in concert with it. This is called the haftarah portion. Sometimes, there is an additional haftarah portion for special occasions.

**There is a phrasing that I would love some clarification on, if any readers have better Hebrew than I do: עד-דוד הגדיל. That verb is from the root GDL, meaning great. The KJV translates it as “and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded.” Modern translations seem to have it as “…and wept with one another, and David wept the more.” Is this verb indicating the greatness of David’s sorrow, relative to Jonathan’s? That doesn’t make sense to me – why would David be sadder? Or does it mean David himself became great with feeling, overwhelmed, spilling over, losing himself in a feeling too great for his body to hold?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s