July 20, 2019

Feminist Journey into Prayer

by Amy Sessler Powell

On Nov. 6, Marcia Falk will discuss and read from the new anniversary edition of The Book of Blessings as well as The Days Between. On Nov. 7, HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe will interview Falk in a live webinar, Conversations with Extraordinary Women. See below for details and webinar registration.

“Let us bless the source of life that brings forth bread from the earth,” or “Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth”?

The first, a translated version of “hamotzi,” the Jewish blessing before the meal, comes from Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings. The second is the traditional translation of the same prayer, in this case provided by ReformJudaism.org. It’s a simple, yet elegant example of Falk’s style of removing the patriarchal language from the liturgy.

The story of Falk’s engagement with writing prayer began several decades before she published her groundbreaking books including the The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, now reissued in a 20th anniversary edition.

“The words of prayer have always mattered to me,” said Falk. “As a Jewish feminist in the 1970s and ‘80s, I thought it was important not just where and how we participate in synagogue life, but what we actually pray there. I had been a regular davener for years; I belonged to synagogues and attended services every Shabbat. I participated, gave drashot (talks about the Torah portion). But in the early 1980s, the liturgy was becoming more and more disturbing to me as a Jew and a feminist trying to live with integrity.

“I was in crisis. The liturgy wasn’t speaking for me, and in many ways I found it hurtful. But I didn’t want to give up my relationship to my community; I was attached to being a Jew in the Jewish world.”

Falk started to silently change the language, sometimes while on her feet during the Amidah (the prayer recited silently, while standing). She was often the last one to sit back down, because she lost track of time as she struggled to adapt the Hebrew words, changing the patriarchal image of God as the Lord and King to other, gender-neutral metaphors. She was not yet writing her new prayers down or sharing them publicly.

A turning point came in 1983, while she was a teacher at the Havurah Institute in Princeton. Rabbi Arthur Waskow was in charge of the Havdalah service to take place on Saturday night, and on Friday afternoon he asked Falk to provide a kavanah, meditation, for each of the blessings.

“I told Art I just couldn’t do that, and when he asked why, I blurted out that I didn’t say those blessings any more. That was the first time I said aloud that I no longer prayed with the traditional words. Without missing a beat, Art said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, ‘So write your own blessings.’ I told him I thought they’d stone me. ‘Marcia,’ he said in a booming voice, ‘they won’t stone you.’

So I sat down that afternoon and wrote my first four blessings, and the next night, full of trepidation, I recited them before a community of 300 Jews ranging in affiliation from atheist to Orthodox. I recited the new words without introduction, as though they had been written a couple of millennia ago by the rabbis, rather than the day before, by me. I offered no apology or explanation (I didn’t dare to), and, to my puzzlement and disbelief, the community said, Amen.”

In March of 1985, Falk published an essay in Moment Magazine, in which she presented some of her new blessings, which would eventually become part of her path-breaking Book of Blessings, published in 1996. The article engendered strong and voluminous reactions across the spectrum; Falk received fan mail as well as attack mail. While there were many Jews, especially Jewish women, who had been waiting for an alternative to the patriarchal imagery of the prayer book and who were thrilled that Falk had met the challenge, there were also people who insisted that she did not have the right to make changes, especially to the Hebrew. But, Falk says, Jewish liturgy has always changed over time. “If it doesn’t evolve, it ossifies.” And Falk believes it is not enough to change the English. Her work is unique in that it offers new prayers in Hebrew poetic language.

“Many Jews want a liturgy that expresses their values and concerns. Keeping it alive in a fresh way has always been part of Jewish tradition,” she says.

It has been 20 years since the publication of The Book of Blessings, and Falk’s readers have waited long for its sequel. Now, it’s here with new essays by scholars Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Rabbi Dalia Marx, and Rabbi David Ellenson that reflect on the impact over the past 20 years.

Rabbi David Ellenson, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University said in one of the afterwords,  “It is not too much to say that the publication of The Book of Blessings in the last decade of the twentieth century revolutionized and revivified the foundations of Jewish liturgy.”

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell noted in another afterword,  “All who want to sing a new song to God are in Marcia Falk’s debt.”

***

Join us as Marcia Falk, author of the Book of Blessings and The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season presents, “The Book of Blessings: A Feminist Liturgy for Our Times.”

Monday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 6, 7:30 p.m., International Lounge, Usdan, Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham

Co-sponsored with the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, JFAB

Join us Nov. 7, noon, online for a webinar, Conversations with Extraordinary Women.

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, S.J.D, Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute interviews Marcia Falk.

Click here to register.

Co-sponsored with the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Amy Powell is the Assistant Director of HBI for Communications. (portions of this blog were adapted from an 2013 blog in this space)

Reflections for the High Holy Days

Editor’s Note: To prepare for the High Holy Days, Fresh Ideas reprints three prayers, unique to the Rosh Hashanah service, from Marcia Falk’s book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, published in the HBI Series on Jewish Women. In her book, Falk recreates the holiday’s key prayers from an inclusive perspective. – 

thedaysbetween_MarciaFalk

Introduction to Skofarot, Zikhronot, Malkhuyot: Calls, Recalling, Callings

Unique to the Rosh Hashanah service are three extended liturgical passages — Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot— each comprising a rabbinic poetic prologue, ten biblical verses, and a concluding petition and blessing. After the reading of each passage, the shofar is sounded.

The themes of the traditional passages, in their original order, are as follows:

Malkhuyot (literally, “sovereignty”): God as ruler and creator; God’s power over all creation and, by extension, His role as judge of our actions.* The tenth biblical verse of Malkhuyot is Judaism’s keynote, commonly referred to as the Sh’ma: Sh’ma, yisra’eyl, adonay elohe’ynu, adonay ehad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), emphasizing God’s singular dominion over all.

Zikhronot (literally, “remembrances”): God’s remembering (taking account of, being attentive to) all creatures, and His fidelity to His covenant with the people of Israel.

Shofarot (literally, “rams’ horns”): The shofar calls out, and we hark to it. Some of the biblical verses describe with dramatic force God’s revelation of Himself to the world and His giving of the Ten Commandments to Israel. Other verses proclaim the advent of the festivals, including the New Moon and Rosh Hashanah.

*References to God as personified or gendered reflect the language and theology of the texts being quoted or paraphrased, not the perspective of this book.

The re-creation offered here reorders the sequence to create a progression of awareness. Each section is interpreted afresh, emphasizing the twin focus of the holiday: looking inward, to better know oneself, and looking outward, to strengthen one’s relations with others. I have distilled the liturgical text to a few of its key biblical verses (the Sh’ma is adapted), augmenting them with brief reflections. To these elements I have added Deuteronomy 30:12-14 and a poem.

The themes are re-visioned as follows:

Shofarot (Calls): The call to awakening the self and to hearing others.

Zikhronot (Recalling): Memory, imagination, and the forming of the self; the emergence of relationships.

Malkhuyot (Callings): The values we hold above all else. The Sh’ma is reframed: finding our place in the greater one-ness.

Shofarot: Calls

HEARING AND ATTENDING

Sound the shofar on the New Moon,

on our holiday, when the moon is still hidden.

–Psalms 81:4

The shofar calls, the crescent rises.

The new year is upon us.

O inhabitants of the world,

you who dwell upon the earth:

When the flag is raised on the mountain–look!

When the shofar is sounded–listen!

–Isaiah 18:3

The shofar quiets us, wakening us

to the silence within.

In the clearing, where the mind flowers

and the world sprouts up at every side,

listen

for the sound in the bushes,

behind the grass.

The shofar takes us into the self

that is hidden from the self,

then returns us to the world.

In the silence we hear the voice of the other,

we hear what has gone unheard.

Zikhronot: Recalling

MEMORY, SELF, AND OTHER

Recollections shape us, remind us who we are.

Imagination brings what is buried

to light.

With each moment recalled,

the kaleidoscope turns,

patterns change, colors shift places.

The selves within the self come into view.

I remember the lovingkindness of your youthful days,

your love when you were betrothed,

when you followed me in the wilderness,

in the land barren of seed.

–Jeremiah 2:2

From youth to age,

our bonds with others deepen,

become more truthful.

I will remember my covenant with you

from the days of your youth

and I will establish that covenant for eternity.

–Ezekiel 16:60

Reciprocity, fidelity:

the grounding of relationship.

Malkhuyot: Callings

SELF AND ONE

Lift up high, O gates,

lift the eternal portals!

–Psalms 24:7

The gates are open, portals

to possibilities:

What is it that reigns for us supreme?

It is not in the heavens, such that you might say:

Who among us can go up and get it for us and let us hear it so that we may do it?

 And it is not across the sea, such that you might say:

Who will cross the sea for us and get it for us and let us hear it so that we may do it?

No, it is something very close to you,

in your mouth and in your heart,

for you to do.

–Deuteronomy 30:12-14

We turn back to ourselves,

listen for our callings.

Hear, O Israel—

The divine abounds everywhere

and dwells in everything.

Its faces are infinite,

its source suffuses all.

The many are One.

–Adapted from Deuteronomy 6:4

Marcia Falk is the author of The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

A Dose of Inspiring Courage – and “Thinks” – For the New Year

by Michelle Cove

“What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.” – Buddha

140811_cover_v8_i5When I ran across that quote this week, it stopped me in my tracks. It’s not that I don’t like what or where I have been, although I, like many, sure would have done things differently at certain points of my life if I knew then what I know now. But, that said, I wouldn’t change much because all roadseven the ones lined with glaring and oh-so-humbling mistakesled me right here. Still, there is power in this idea of taking time to reflect on the choices we are making right now because they determine what we will become.

That’s what I cherish about Rosh Hashanah. It stops us all in our tracks every year and requires us to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and what changes we’d like to make for the upcoming year. It’s kind of like an Oprah-retreat, Jewish-style. It’s all too easy to avoid this self-reflection and grappling and stay put. We can easily go through the motions again that we did yesterday and the day before that: eat the same cereal, tell the same jokes, talk to the same people, crank out the same work. There’s a comfort in that sometimes, and the rituals can even be nourishing. But how many of us take the time to ask, “Is this really where I want to be right now?”

That’s why I am excited to present our newest issue of 614: New Year Special: 5 Inspiring Tales of Starting Over.

In this issue, you’ll find five tales of Jewish women who made a major life transformation and jump-started their Jewish identity. Author Leah Vincent, for example, talks about how she separated from ultra-Orthodoxy and trekked into the unknown. Former HBI intern Fabulous Flores (best name ever, right? Yes, it’s real.) writes about why she was so determined to convert to Judaism at the age of 16.  Ornat Turin, a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute recently, explains how traveling to America from Israel made her fall in love with Shabbat.

We hope this issue will inspire you to consider where you are in your life, as a Jewish woman and in general, and whether it’s where you want to be. If it is, fantastic, this is something to be honored and celebrated. If it’s not, we hope the stories will give you the extra dose of courage you may need to head towards where you’d rather be. It all starts right now. You may just have to look at your life from a few new angles. To quote Dr. Seuss: Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!

To a sweet and bold new year filled with thinks you can think up,

Michelle Cove, is the editor of 614, the HBI ezine.

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