Taking a Fresh Look at Sacred Texts
The New York Times, June 7, 1997
By Gustav Niebuhr
New translations of Scripture and new editions of prayerbooks tend to be the work of committees, bodies appointed by some larger organization or higher authority. King James I, to cite a famous example, rounded up 47 scholars who spent nearly a decade translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into what has become its most enduring English version.
But sometimes a single individual feels moved to undertake production of a sacred text, bringing his or her powers of creativity to bear on its language.
For example, in 1995, Schocken Books published The Five Books of Moses, a strikingly poetic translation of the books Genesis through Deuteronomy by an associate professor of Judaica at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., Everett Fox, who spent many years at the task.
And last year, HarperCollins brought out The Book of Blessings, a Jewish prayerbook by Marcia Falk, a poet who lives in Berkeley, Calif.
Dr. Falk's work had its roots in a series of liturgical blessings, in English and Hebrew, which she wrote from 1982 to 1996. The book has a contemporary and feminist appeal, in that it replaces traditional masculine terminology for God (i.e., Lord and King) with what Dr. Falk calls "new images for divinity."
Since it was published, The Book of Blessings has sold modestly, nearly 11,000 copies in a $50 hardback edition, according to the publisher. But its influence is being felt in some interesting places. One Manhattan synagogue got Dr. Falk's permission to etch a passage from her book (along with biblical verses) into the decorative windows it will put up later this year in its sanctuary. Some other passages have been adopted by individual synagogues in their prayerbooks or set to music by cantors, who lead the singing of prayers in synagogues.
In their brevity, traditional Hebrew blessings have "the potential for lyric and spiritual intensity," writes Dr. Falk, a former Fulbright scholar with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Brandeis University and a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Stanford University. But she said she wanted to get away from using traditional language for God that either lends the deity masculine attributes or separates God from worshipers.
The sh'ma, Judaism's essential declaration of faith, is typically rendered, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Dr. Falk has written a version that begins, "Hear, O Israel— / The divine abounds everywhere / and dwells in everything; / the many are One."
In a telephone interview from her home, Dr. Falk said her work had often produced "a very intense reaction," not least when she spoke to synagogue groups and university audiences. Many people, particularly women who have felt alienated from the traditional language of prayer, have welcomed her formulas, sometimes quite emotionally, she said.
She has also heard criticism, including the occasional argument that her writing suggests she is a pantheist or even an atheist—accusations that would seem contradictory of each other. "I call myself a monotheist," Dr. Falk said, adding that she defined monotheism as "the embracing of diversity within the unity of the greater whole."
Rabbi Avi Winokur, spiritual head of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation in Manhattan, admires Dr. Falk's work. "She's having a tremendous impact on how we image God," Rabbi Winokur said, adding that he credited Dr. Falk with helping make feminist theological concepts more accessible to a wider audience through her blessings.
West End will incorporate a passage from Dr. Falk's book into its windows. "Tradition," it reads, "is not just what we receive; it is also what we create."
Two weeks ago, Dr. Falk discussed her work at the annual meeting of the Cantors Assembly, the national organization for cantors in Judaism's Conservative movement. "I know a lot of people were very intrigued by what she had to say," said Henry R. Rosenblum, who was elected the assembly's president at the meeting. There is enough theological diversity within the Conservative movement, he said, that some of its congregations would feel comfortable with an approach to prayer like Dr. Falk's, while others would not.
Dr. Falk, who is married and the mother of a young son, said she wanted next to write a liturgy for the High Holidays, not a complete prayerbook, but selections for synagogue or home.
In the meantime, as word of her work has spread, she has gotten calls from synagogues that want to use some passage of her writings and from individuals wondering if she can offer them a nontraditional blessing for a special event, like a bar mitzvah or a wedding.
"It's odd," Dr. Falk said. "I've been a poet all my life, and poets are used to—it's not seclusion, but nobody knows you exist except other poets. This is so different."
© Marcia Lee Falk.