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Lilith Feature

A Foretaste of the Prayer Book to Come

The coming winter will see the publication of Marcia Falk’s long-awaited alternative prayer book. The Book of Blessings [HarperSanFrancisco] which contains, in Falk’s words, “Everything a non- Orthodox Jew (male or female) is going to need for synagogue and home celebration of daily life, the Sabbath and Rosh Hodesh.” This revolutionary siddur, which rewrites both English and Hebrew (and which Falk has been working on for 13 years) is, actually, the first volume of five. Falk’s intention is to write future prayer books for the High Holidays, the major festivals, other holidays and the life cycle.

A Hebrew scholar, linguist and lyric poet, Falk’s informal ‘prayer book committee’ consisted of what she describes as “three hundred talented friends who are Bible and Talmud scholars, philosophers, poets, literary critics and theologians. The privilege of writing this siddur is that I’ve gotten to dialogue with some of the best minds in modern Judaism,” she says. “My prayer book is not one person’s isolated effort. It represents an interaction between me and the Jewish community— its resources, what it needs and wants.”

In these pages LILITH previews five prayers—a foretaste of the prayer book to come:

a personal version of the Sh’ma to be recited at bedtime;

a bedtime blessing following the Sh’ma which is, in Falk’s words, “a way to awaken gratitude;”

Putting on the Prayer Shawl, the first blessing that is uttered in the morning service, in which “directing the heart” (that is, focusing one’s attention on the words one is saying) is brought explicitly to the foreground;

a prayer for two people for use at home on Friday evenings (in place of “A Woman of Valor,” which some women find patronizing), representing, in Falk’s words, “a pause to appreciate others with whom we share our lives.” Falk’s Hebrew version has grammatically correct alternatives for same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples;

“Humble Hour,” a poem by the Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman, to be recited as one of the Psalms of Creation at the Friday evening service. Instead of the traditional Psalms of Creation, which mainly praise the Creator, Falk here substitutes a suite of poetry by Jewish women (in Hebrew, Yiddish and English) that celebrates creation itself, and humans’ empathic connection with the natural world.

As in Falk’s The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation [HarperSanFrancisco, 1990], The Book of Blessings includes the author’s exhaustive scholarly appendices on each prayer, highlighting the linguistic, theological, historical and biblical material that informed each of her literary choices.

“I brought fear and trembling to rewriting these prayers,” explains Falk, “especially to rewriting something like the Sh’ma. I worried—How dare I rewrite a prayer that’s equated with, in myth or fact, centuries of martyrdom? But if we take our liturgy seriously, then this is what we must do: Say prayers that express what we mean, instead of reciting prayers that express what we don’t mean.

“In The Book of Blessings I am attempting to articulate an authentic theology. My experience of life does not take the form of patriarchal images, so I haven’t needed a sexist language. If I needed to talk to a man, then I would need a male image. But theology isn’t about talking to a male or a female; it’s about getting in touch with the potential for the sacred in our lives.”

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