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An Interview with Marcia Falk

Reshaping Prayer

Feminists have, for years, skirred gingerly around the edges of Jewish prayer, changing a word here (“forefathers” to “and fore mothers”), a word there (“Lord” to “Shekhina”), but otherwise leaving the traditional texts intact. More recently, some feminists have abandoned the traditional prayers altogether, creating new ones from scratch or borrowing from non-Jewish sources. Marcia Falk, however, chooses neither of these approaches. Rather, she roundly takes the patriarchal liturgy by the trunk, shakes off its dirt, prunes it violently and lovingly back, does the necessary grafts, and, in the re-planting, she creates — magically — entire new species. She is both radical and conservation minded; courageous and ecological.

Generally, new liturgies de-fenestrate themselves in dimestore ways: hokey neologisms; bourgeois awkwardnesses; language that is overwrought, overly-privatized, self-conscious, banal; sentiments that range from the fuzzy to the false. Falk, however, throws nothing out the window that isn’t already dead. There is no smoke in her spare-as-a-haiku prayers and services; all of us can reach the burning bush. I mean, the burning bushes. For, there are, of course, more than one.

Marcia Falk is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University. She is the author of several books of poetry and translations, including This Year in Jerusalem, (Brockport, NY: State Street Press, 1986); Love Lyrics from the Bible: A Translation and Literary Study of the Song of Songs (Decatur, GA: Almond Press, 1982); Am I Also You? (translations from the Yiddish of Malka Heifitz Tussman, Berkeley CA: Tree Books, 1977); and The Spectacular Difference (translations from the Hebrew of Zelda, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society forthcoming, 1988). She is now writing The Book of Blessings: A Feminist- Jewish Reconstruction of Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, forthcoming, 1989).

SUSAN SCHNUR: Marcia, the quotes by the architect Mies van der Rohe —”less is more” and “God is in the details” — make me think of your work, not only because I think of you as a fastidious writer, but because I think of you as an architect, too — an architect of time.

I also think of you in relation to the feminist theologian Mary Daly’s quote: “The work of fostering religious consciousness which is explicitly incompatible with sexism will require an extraordinary degree of creative rage, love and hope.” Your example of this has meant so much to me — to a lot of us — because you’ve given us the permission to be bold ourselves, to stick to our visions, to feel entitled to make changes. A lot of us thank you for this.

Give us — if you can — a developmental sense of yourself and your work.

FALK: I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home on Long Island, where we went to shul [synagogue] every week. I was always conscious in a positive way of being Jewish. I had two loves in my childhood: First, I fell in love with Hebrew at a very young age. I was very deeply moved by Hebrew poetry. Second, the Art Students League — which is right across the street from where we’re sitting now — is where I took art lessons on Saturdays as a kid. I would go to shul in the morning and then take the bus and subway into Manhattan and paint all afternoon. [Jewish law prohibits painting on the Sabbath.] To this day I thank my parents for their wisdom in not depriving me of painting, which would have turned me off to Judaism.

But then I went away to Camp Ramah, and I came back and decided to be halachic [observant of Jewish law]. I did not go to the Art Students League for a whole year And I was so miserable. At the end of that year, I was really at a crisis. I remember talking to one of my uncles, who said, “Religion’s not supposed to make you miserable.” I went back to the Art Students League.

So even early on, I had to find a way to reconcile my religion with my creativity. The spiritual meaning in my life was coming through painting. Being Jewish had to do with feeling my “place” in the world — but I couldn’t really feel “in place” if I wasn’t also an artist.

The blessings that I write today for example, emerge from inside me the way that poems or paintings do. They’re not “political” work; they’re gifts of my neshamah [soul]. They let me tell the truth in my language.

SCHNUR: When did you start writing poetry?

FALK: I began as a child, continued through adolescence, then stopped in college — I went to Brandeis — where I was a philosophy major. But I returned to poetry in graduate school — Stanford — where I studied English and Comparative Literature. I was supposed to be studying the great “Judeo-Christian” tradition, which, at the time — 1968 — was essentially the literature of white. Christian men. This was very disappointing to me. I came back to feeling myself as a Jewish woman. I started studying American women poets. And then — this is the part that every time I tell this story, I feel the forces of mystery operating — it was like some old song from childhood rose to the surface of my consciousness, and I realized that I needed to study the Song of Songs. I don’t know where that came from. In 1970,I did my first translations of the Song of Songs. That was the most important project in my life, prior to the work I’m now doing on liturgy, and, in addition, it returned me to writing my own poetry. With the Song of Songs, I started reintegrating all the parts of myself that had been kept separate. There was myself as a Jew, myself as a woman. Song of Songs, as you know, is the only text in the Bible in which we really hear from women more than from men. I sense there that women’s thoughts and speech are not filtered through a male voice, through male experience. I think that the Song of Songs was originally folk poetry, composed in community. It expresses a pre sexist vision. It’s a remnant of something earlier than other books in the Bible; it’s a pre-patriarchal text. Don’t you feel the difference? It’s a very surprising little text — so sensual, so connected. Not just female and male, but human and the rest of creation, the natural world, the celebration of the body in wonderfully freeways, the mutual relationship between body and soul. And, of course, there is no God in the Song of Songs, which makes it unique.

SCHNUR: How did you begin working on the next project, your new blessings?

FALK: In 1978, my father died, and I started — for the first time — to ask basic questions about God, about death, about the meaning of life. I was in Israel when my father died, and I flew to New York for his funeral, and spent a month home with my mother I hung out in minyans [prayer groups] on the Upper West Side, and I tried to talk to people about God. No one wanted to talk about God. I realized then that God was our most taboo subject.

In 1980, I went off to an artists’ colony for the summer with the idea that I was going to translate a sequence of psalms as my next project. But I kept getting stuck. The way in which I had been able to make the Song of Songs come alive in my own voice, I wasn’t able to do for the psalms. I kept coming up against the same hard place: the Lord God King of the Universe. Here were these wonderful passages where the rivers were applauding and the mountains were singing — and then there’d be the Lord God King of the Universe presiding over it all. It was a real boulder for me; I couldn’t get beyond it. But I didn’t have the language to articulate exactly what the problem was, yet.

Then in 1981, a group formed called B’not Eysh [Daughters of Fire]. It was 24 women from around the country who came together for five days to talk about our feelings as Jews about spirituality. I began to give myself permission to be uncomfortable with the words in the Hebrew prayerbook, words that I understood only too well. Why was everything in the masculine? So back home in synagogue, I would stand up for the Amidah prayer and I would translate the whole thing into the feminine. And of course, it would take me twice as long to finish the Amidah as anybody else, and suddenly I was standing after the whole congregation was sitting. That was very symbolic — because I was no longer a part of the tsibur [congregation]. But I persisted, because I was traditional. And at one point — and I can’t even tell you what point it was — I realized that I couldn’t say those words at all anymore.

The next significant event was at a Havurah Institute in 1983 when Art Waskow asked me if I would create kavvanot [meditations] for the brachot [blessings] of the Havdalah [ceremony for the end of the Sabbath]. I said, “No.” And he said, “What do you mean, ‘no?’ Why no?” And I said, “I don’t say those brachot anymore.” That was the first time I admitted that, even to myself. And he said, “So say your own brachot!” Of course, I didn’t admit to Art that I didn’t have my own brachot. I had 24 hours to come up with my own brachot.

SCHNUR: What did you come up with?

FALK: What hit me very powerfully — instead of “Baruch atah adonai” [Blessed are You, Lord] — was to substitute “Nevarech” [“Let us bless”]. Not “Bruchah at” [“Blessed are You” in the feminine], because I wanted to be inclusive, and the only person that’s inclusive in the Hebrew is the first person.

The next question was — Nevarech what? And what came to me at that stage was m’kor ha-chayyim [the source of life]. I came up with “Nevarech et m’kor ha-chayyim.” [“Let us bless the source of life”] as the opening phrase of those first blessings. I no longer remember exactly how those blessings ended, but probably they were pretty close to the original Hebrew blessings. That was my first real breakthrough in writing feminist Hebrew prayer

SCHNUR: Were you excited?

FALK: I was very excited. In the ensuing year, I started to experiment more. I searched for grammatically feminine images, so that I could start hearing language in the feminine. I started reading Biblical texts again. My love of the landscape of Israel came back to me very powerfully. Landscape is always very important to me. And at some point, the grammatically feminine image of eyn ha-chayyim, [fountain or wellspring of life] evolved. As soon as I got it, I realized that it was right. It pointed towards divinity which didn’t come down from above, but which welled up from under

Then in the fall of 1984,I gave a talk at a conference in Los Angeles called “Illuminating the Unwritten Scrolls: Women’s Spirituality and Jewish Tradition.” That was when I created my first wholly new blessing: “Nevarech et eyn ha-chayyim / matzmichat pri hagafen. / venishzor et serigei chayyenu / h’masoret ha-am” (“Let us bless the wellspring of life / that ripens fruit on the vines / as we weave the branches of our lives / into the tradition”). It was intended to celebrate new holidays for women.

SCHNUR: Talk to me a little about your theology.

FALK: I feel very moved along by feminist spirituality from a lot of different traditions. My own theology evolves with practice — with the practice of writing and using new liturgy. I experiment a lot. I choose my metaphors to point towards divinity from all aspects of creation — not just the human realm. Because I think the biggest danger right now is the survival of the planet, and I think that our “speciesism” — our elevating of our human species above all other species — is dangerous. It’s important to get beyond using only human images for God or Goddess. I would also like to get beyond assigning immanence to Goddess and transcendence to God, because I think that’s the old patriarchal dualism — immanence as female, transcendence as male. We have to ask, are there ways in which we can still speak about transcendence helpfully?

SCHNUR: Are there?

FALK: Well, there’s the idea of transcendence with mutality. That is, you and I are transcending right now by talking to each other I’m going beyond myself to talk to you and to listen to you, and you are going beyond yourself to talk and listen to me. But the problem is that when transcendence is a one-way thing, where you have a hierarchical dualism and God is not just out there but up there and we’re down here, it’s entirely different.

We have such a terrible imbalance in our theological language — transcendence is overwhelmingly dominant. So the first thing I’m interested in doing is finding more images of immanence. See, I’m much more interested in images than concepts! My deep belief is that we should not have any single image for an all-inclusive concept like monotheism. The only way to express monotheism — which I see as the ultimate, embracing unity of reality — is to have a multiplicity of images, as many as we need to express the diversity of our lives.

Monotheism in the vulgar sense in which it’s often understood — which is to say, the head dude in the pantheon is the real God — that’s not the monotheism I’m interested in. But I think the monotheism that Jewish feminists are trying to reclaim today is extremely profound. For me, it has to do with the fact that ultimately I am more like you than I am unlike you, that we are part of the same creation, the same source. Of course, in feminist spirituality, there are many different languages, metaphor systems. I’m interested in speaking through a Jewish metaphor system, through a Jewish language.

SCHNUR: But, as you know, you’ve got detractors within Judaism who would claim that what you’re doing is not Jewish.

FALK: Why should I let them define what Judaism is and place myself outside of it? I use Jewish sources, Jewish language, Jewish experience. I call myself a Jew.

SCHNUR: There are a lot of us who feel as you do, but many of us feel lonely and isolated.

FALK: I have a fantasy of creating the Feminist Institute of Life and Learning, where all of us are gathered together in one place. And we really live our lives — with a kind of integrity that radiates out into the world and changes the world. But we’re in close enough contact that we’re continually resources for each other

I am very much moved by any women’s authentic journey. Buddhist women. Goddess women. I learned about silence as a resource from a Christian woman who said, “Silence is an aesthetic self-indulgence, because in silence everything reverberates. You’re polishing a floor in silence, and you really experience the shine on the floor.”

SCHNUR: Do you think Judaism uses silence as this kind of resource?

FALK: Not enough. One of the things I did when I created a Friday evening Amidah for the new Reconstructionist prayerbook was to analyze the themes of the traditional seven sections. I created a three-part collage for each theme: poetry, brachah [blessing], and kavvanah [meditation]. But when I got to the section on gratitude, I realized that what I wanted there was not more words, but silence. And I wrote it in. I mean, I wrote in blank space, because, visually, words indicate noise and white space means silence. By silence I don’t mean what we call, in traditional services, “silent reading”— when you mumble the words, don’t say them quite out loud. I mean, no words, just silence, and let what happens happen.

Part of life that Judaism does not seem to emphasize is receptivity, the “wait and see” approach. Buber says, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” — a line I love — but there’s a feminist hymn by Ruth Duck that says, “The journey is our home,” which goes even beyond Buber’s statement.

As a child and a teenager, I wanted more of this, more silence in prayer, more time to let my own words, my own thoughts and feelings happen. I experienced distrust, among my teachers and camp counselors, of young people as individuals. They were afraid to let us be ourselves in prayer, afraid to let us be alone. But this lack of trust in individuals can only hurt the community. The community has to be fed by authentic individuals, and community only exists when individuals are validated. It has to be a back and forth thing.

SCHNUR: I have a question about living with the contradictions, feeling alienated by the traditional texts. Not long ago, it struck me that nearly every Biblical story felt odd to me in some way. For example, the creation story, which is very hierarchical and speciesist and has humans “subduing” the earth — this is not a creation story I would have written. Or, say, the akedah [Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac]. I’m interested in an astonishingly different trip: the one that Sarah and her daughter took. Or even the most basic notion of covenant, which has a strong quid pro quo quality: God did this for us, and so we do this back for Him — though I appreciate its historical function. So my question is: At what point can we simply not open the book anymore? What happens after we reclaim Shifra or Vashti?

FALK: You know the saying about Torah —”Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it”? Well, everything is not in it. And at the same time, it’s very hard for me to cut myself adrift from Torah entirely. It has had profound influence; it represents where we’ve come from. I think that everything that has ever emerged for me in my life has emerged out of some tension, some creative tension.

SCHNUR: You know Starhawk’s version of the Sh’ma — “Listen, people, the universe is a song of multiple harmonies and voices.” That’s pretty different from “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” What do you do with the Sh’ma.?

FALK: I like what Starhawk does. I do something similar: I reinterpret the basic theme of unity to embrace the diversity and wholeness and integrity of creation.

SCHNUR: But, I mean, the Sh’ma is our central prayer. Doesn’t it unnerve you not to use it?

FALK: I think I am using it.

SCHNUR: Tell me what it means to you to have a feminist critique.

FALK: If I had to reduce it to a few words, I would say it’s a deep suspicion of hierarchy and a constant questioning of authority. For me, feminism has been a lot about listening, about “hearing each other into speech,” to use a phrase of the feminist theologian Nelle Morton. In my classroom, for example, I encourage my students to listen to each other and to trust themselves, rather than constantly looking to authority figures for their answers. The whole structure of academic institutions, in general, is hierarchical, with everything that that means: wisdom and knowledge coming from outside in. For me, the whole process of feminist education has to do with getting in touch with the truth that wisdom comes from within.

SCHNUR: Does this insight relate to your theology?

FALK: I think it’s extremely important that we take back the power that is really ours but which we have disguised as residing someplace else. The power of naming is our power; the power of metaphor-making is our power. The power of human consciousness resides within us. I think that we have to start seeing ourselves in relation to the planet much more as adults and less as children, because, in fact, as a species we are responsible for having brought the planet to this terrible brink. And if as a species we don’t claim our adulthood and our responsibility to repair the planet, we may just see it go up in smoke

SCHNUR: Some people equate this adulthood with arrogance — that, for example, “Nevarech” [Let us bless] instead of “Baruch atah” [Blessed are You] lacks humility.

FALK: I think this phenomenon is similar to the child who hasn’t sufficiently separated from her or his parent, and is afraid. As a people, we’re on a journey and we’ve been stuck in a childhood relationship with a parental God figure, but we can’t afford to be there anymore. Far from being arrogance, what this means is taking responsibility, so that we can really deeply celebrate divinity. Which is a better gift to your parent? To fulfill your own life and to care for the lives around you which are dependent on you, or to remain in constant dependency? The sick parent will prefer the latter, but that’s not my notion of divinity; I don’t want a sick parent for God.

SCHNUR: Let me ask you a question about prayer and physical space. I’ve always wanted synagogues to have gardens, grottos, courtyards — magic places that offer an intuition of ties to the earth. What’s your feeling about prayer-space?

FALK: I think that the way we structure space is extremely important. I think that aesthetics is very important. And I think that a little glimpse of what’s beyond the window is extremely important. For example, I can’t teach in a classroom that has no windows — it’s too insular In a windowless room, how can you make deep connections with the world you live in?

And the same thing is true for the synagogue. A synagogue needs space and light, but, you know, darkness is also a great resource.

Another thing that’s important is direction. One of the things that’s terribly wrong with the traditional American synagogue is that all eyes face forward to the rabbi and cantor on the bimah [podium]. Now in Havurah-style davvening [praying], which takes place in a circle, you’re able to face the community But there’s something else too, even beyond that. Sometimes, you need not to be looking at other faces at all, but into blank space. It would be nice to have that little grotto that you talked about as a resting place for the eye.

SCHNUR: Does feminist spirituality have a different understanding of finitude and death, of control, change, of death not as an enemy but as implicit in life?

FALK: Let me tell you about creating one of the blessings for my new Amidah. The original version of the Amidah praises God for reviving the dead. Traditionally, this is understood as an apocalyptic experience that happens after the messiah comes. It’s interesting to me that so few changes have been made in the liturgy by either the Reform or the Reconstructionist movement, yet this particular phrase bothered both movements enough to make them change it. Rather than speak of God who revives the dead [“m’chayyei ha-meitim“], they praise a God who revives everything [“m’chayyei hakol“], thereby eliminating any explicit mention of death.

I looked at the phrase “m^’chayyei ha-meitim” anew when I was trying to create my own version of the Amidah. And I said: Here’s the one moment in this whole long prayer that directly addresses death. I don’t want to kick out the word “death” here. On the contrary, I want to take this seriously. It struck me that the original Hebrew context joined life and death in a relationship, and that this relationship still has meaning. For everything that lives, dies. And everything that dies returns to the earth to be born again into new life. We need a way to affirm and embrace this process. And so, the section I created for this part of the Amidah is made of poems having to do with death and our relationship to our living through our mortality. I felt that celebration of mortality was a kind of healing.

SCHNUR: What you are saying reminds me of other feminist writers. Susan Griffin, for example, re-writes Plato’s cave without the dualism, without the mind/body split, without the idea that we see only shadows, live a second-class life. She has us simply being the cave! In the same way that I see myself not saying a prayer, but trying to be a prayer

FALK: Beautiful, what both of you are saying.

I really wish you were in the same community with me. You know?

SCHNUR: I know.

Susan SchnurLilith’s Special Projects Editor, is a writer and rabbi.