Falk, Marcia. “The Book of Blessings”, RJP, CCAR Press, 2017, 20th Anniversary Edition.
Blessings, Poems and Meditations
I received a beautiful surprise in today’s mail, Marcia Falk’s “The Book of the Blessings”. I have loved that book for some time and had once had a copy of it that ended up floating away with Hurricane Katrina. Not only was it good to have it back, but this was the 20th Anniversary Edition with a new preface by Falk herself and new afterwords by four rabbis. The book is subtitled, “New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival”. As I thumbed through it before going page by page, I saw that Jews seem to have a blessing for everything and it is so nice to have them all in one place. What Marcia Falk has done here is to poetically re-create Jewish prayer by giving us new blessings, poems, and meditations for the holidays, Shabbat and daily observance. I was still living in Israel when the original was published twenty years ago but I remember the controversy that came with the book. Here God is gender-neutral and if that was not enough, Falk implied that God was not a transcendent power but was everywhere and that includes our daily lives.
Prayers that are included here and offered both in English and Hebrew from a feminist perspective. I suppose we can call it a collection of alternative prayers for those who felt marginalized in Judaism twenty years ago. In Reform and Conservative Judaism so much has changed since then and I firmly believe that this book played a role in those changes. I do not mean to say that Marcia Falk is Harriet Beecher Stowe but I do feel that role is felt here. Each of the Reform and Conservative moments have new prayer books and in them is the gender neutrality of God.
This new edition has twenty-five pages of new material; essays written by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Naamah Kelman and Rabbi Dahlia Marx especially for this special edition.
Rereading this now, I still marvel at the way the sacred is portrayed to us. There are still questions to be answered, of course; questions of theology, gender, our relationship to the Divine and language. (I wondered to myself if there will ever come a time when God, the word and name will ever be written with a small “g” for example.).
Not all of us are comfortable with the traditional liturgy and while it can be beautiful it is not inclusive. Some of us want a more contemporary, egalitarian approach to that traditional liturgy. Having been born and raised an Orthodox Jew, I fell away from religion when I moved to live in Israel. I did not need prayer because the Divine was everywhere and we felt that by living in the country that God gave to us was enough acknowledgement. In Israel, I was an American/Israeli and it was understood that I came from a Jewish background otherwise my move there was suspect. In the beginning (and I was there for many years), I saw and participated in a secular Jewish society that had no need for houses of worship. Coming back to the States was difficult because I was then an Israeli/American and for those of you know other Israeli/Americans you know that there are those who do not know much about Judaism. To be part of a Jewish community like the one I left thirty-five years earlier meant a return to what I had shed when living in Israel and I was surprised to see how much it had changed. I am not religious or even observant but I love my faith and my life revolves around it now. I am sure that Marcia Falk’s writings has had something to do with that. In fact, I cannot imagine myself missing a service on Sabbath and holidays and that is because the changes in the religion have made me feel at home.
“Marcia Falk’s Hebrew blessings are beautiful and innovative” and we realize we want to use them. She has managed to keep the regality of tradition and unite that with the contemporary. There is a poet’s passion here and I love it. I am not new to Falk, I depend upon her collection for the High Holidays to get me through a difficult period for many Jews and I loved her work on “The Song of Songs”.
In the preface to the first edition (which is here as well), Falk explains how her original prayers, and her translations into English of poems written by Jewish women in Hebrew and Yiddish, are intended as alternatives to the patriarchal nature of traditional Jewish prayers. She has arranged the blessings into three sections, each with its own introduction and suggestions for prayer services. The Daily Cycle includes blessings for such activities as awakening and meals, as well as psalms for daily reflection; the Weekly Cycle offers prayers for havdalah, the ritual separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week; and the Monthly Cycle focuses on liturgies for Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the New Moon. There is also a section of commentary that explains each prayer’s relationship to the traditional liturgy.
The blessings come from a Jewish spirit at its most welcoming and its most tentative. I say tentative because one can only say what can be backed up by experience and since none of us can say that we have experienced the Divine, we must accept the tentative. Personally I cannot imagine anything much better than poetry and spirituality tied together as it is here.