March 24, 2023

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 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)

Overseas Report: Experiencing Orthodox Feminism at University of Cambridge

By Ranana Dine

Before I arrived here, I was warned that I might be disappointed by the state of Jewish Orthodox feminism in England. Sure, there’s JOFA UK and a small partnership minyan in London, but the great strides that have been taken recently in the U.S. just haven’t made it across the pond, I was told. There’s no Yeshivat Hadar or Drisha Institute, nor Yeshivat Maharat ordaining women to be female religious authorities in the Orthodox community. I assumed that for the six months that I would be spending in England, studying at Cambridge, I would survive in a more traditional setting, if gritting my teeth at times when I felt that women were undervalued in the Jewish community.

When I first stepped into the synagogue in Cambridge, I thought I should try and keep my feminist leanings a bit under wraps. Stay quiet for a little while; abstain from mentioning my experiences gabbaying or reading Torah. This plan worked for maybe a grand total of 24 hours, if that. My cover was quickly grown blown as I discussed Ethan Tucker’s teshuva on Egalitarian services over coffee at The Buttery, and made jokes about being the tenth person in shul for daily shacharit. My concerns about not being accepted because of my views regarding a woman’s place in the synagogue and within religious Judaism were unfounded, I quickly discovered. Even though not all my friends in the Cambridge Jewish community agree with me about whether a woman can get an aliyah or should count for a minyan, all treated my opinions with respect, understanding and a good dose of humor as well.

During my time in Cambridge, I swapped books with friends about Jewish feminism, the pages getting dog-eared as they passed through many hands and filling up with coffee stains as we argued about the merits of Susannah Heschel, Judith Plaskow, and Tova Hartman over kosher dinners and mugs of hot chocolate. Together, we read about the Belz ban on women driving; expressed our anger over the decision; and, then moved on with humor and laughter.

This is not to say that at points in my six-month stay in England my feminist instincts were not troubled. Coming from a college in the U.S. where I am expected to layn and lead services regularly, I have found myself missing the chance to read directly from the Torah and play a role in synagogue ritual. Over Shavuot and Passover, I did not get to layn Megillat Ruth and Shir HaShirim, two books I have taken much pleasure in reading for others over the last few years. Although there is a vibrant egalitarian service on Friday nights (which I must honestly admit I did not regularly attend in favor of praying with the traditional Orthodox service), opportunities for women to read Torah and lead services during the week and on Shabbat mornings were limited. At times, the conversation regarding women’s issues in Judaism took on a less than pleasant tone – like when I was told by someone who attends shul far less frequently than I do that women cannot call for access to leadership roles without expecting to take on the other “masculine” mitzvot, like coming to shul regularly. And, I vividly remember the parting of a large group of black-clad Haredi men as my friend and I walked by them in London over Passover, as if we bore some contagious disease.

But, overall my experience in England as a Jewish feminist has been quite different than what I expected when I arrived. I’ve been impressed with people’s knowledge and caring. I’ve felt respected, acknowledged and appreciated while in services, even if I cannot count for the minyan itself. I was given the chance to study Talmud in both female only and mixed settings without anyone batting an eyelid. I’ve enjoyed the humor people bring to this important subject, that matches their thoughtfulness and desire to learn more. My friends, here, are quick to point out that not all of English Jewry is like the community in Cambridge and that the Jewish community in this small college town is more knowledgeable and thoughtful on this subject than in other parts of the UK. Although this may very well be true, I cannot help but think that the Cambridge community must, in some small way, be representative of larger trends in English Jewry.

When I arrived in England, I learned quickly that I could not hide my feminist instincts, even for a short while. At the same time, I also learned that I had no need to. The conversations about women’s place in Orthodox Judaism are happening here too, and cannot be avoided. I am glad to report that in Cambridge, at least, just like in Jewish college communities in the U.S., the conversation is taking place with grace, respect, knowledge and quite a healthy amount of humor.

Ranana Dine is a former HBI intern and a rising senior at Williams College. She recently spent a semester abroad at the University of Cambridge.

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