Falk to release 20th anniversary edition of “The Book of Blessings”

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Marcia Falk (Photo by Cathleen MacLearie)
The CCAR press is releasing a 20th anniversary edition of Marcia Falk’s “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival” in September. When first introduced, critics called her creative liturgy “groundbreaking” because her book was among the first prayer books to use gender-neutral God language. The anniversary edition features a new preface by the author and afterwards by four rabbis, looking at how the book has affected Jewish liturgy. Below is an e-mail interview with Falk.
Rabbi Rachel Esserman: What do you feel has been the impact of “The Book of Blessings”? Did you have a specific goal for the book and, if so, did its publication accomplish that?
Marcia Falk: I’ve been told that “The Book of Blessings” has changed the landscape of Jewish prayer and given individuals and communities “permission” to create new liturgies of their own. I did not have such a grand purpose in mind when I began writing the book. I only wanted to create alternatives to the patriarchal language and imagery of traditional Jewish prayer – alternatives that would be honest and moving – alternatives that would have integrity and beauty. I hoped the book would prove useful and meaningful to those who, like myself, felt the need for it – that is, those who wanted to maintain a connection to the tradition, but could no longer speak words they did not believe. I hope the book has accomplished that goal.
Esserman: You wrote in the new introduction that you returned to your artwork after finishing this book and then began to use your blessings in your artwork. How do you see that as connecting to what you were trying to accomplish in “The Book of Blessings”? Do you see it as a different or a complementary approach to prayer?
Falk: When I began to put together paintings with words from my books, I saw it as a way to encourage another mode of contemplative – or “prayerlike” – experience. The combination of genres creates a kind of dialogue – between color and music, sight and sound, vision and silence. A deepening, perhaps, of the verbal experience. A place of quiet focus, where the heart can find itself, open and speak.
Esserman: How do you think the book has stood up to its 20 years? Would you have done something different or do you feel it’s still relevant to spiritual seekers today?
The cover of “The book of Blessings”
Falk: It’s a challenge to look back on one’s work of decades ago. I wrote the book I needed to write at the time, and, after 13 years in creation, I was fortunate to see it find a home in the hands of many readers and seekers. The book I would write today would, of course, be different, because I’m different – I’m two decades older, for one. My last book – “The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season,” which was published in 2014 – parallels “The Book of Blessings” in many ways, but expresses, I think, a slightly different sensibility.
I’m happy with the book that was published in 1996, but I leave it to others to say whether it has stood the test of time.
Esserman: Do you have particular prayers/poems in the book that you find speak to you more as you age?
Falk: “Hal’lu: Praise” has always been particularly close to me, and I find that it only becomes more so as I age. It speaks of the essential connection between beauty and transience, beauty and dying, and these days I probably think of nothing more than the subject of aging – which is to say, dying.
“Hal’lu: Praise”
“Praise the world – /praise its fullness / and its longing / its beauty and its grief.
“Praise stone and fire, lilac and river / and the solitary bird / at the window.
“Praise the moment / when the whole / burst through pain.
“and the moment / when the whole / burst through in joy.
“Praise the dying beauty / with all your breath / and praising, see
“the beauty of the world / is your own.”
Esserman: How do you feel about the changes in other prayer books in the way they speak of approaching God, for example, using gender-neutral language or other words, such as Spirit, Eternal One, etc., instead of male-centered language.
Falk: I am glad for all the changes and experiments of the past two decades. The more voices and choices we have, the more inclusive the community becomes. I would caution, however, about making easy or automatic changes. It may seem preferable to speak of “Spirit” rather than “Lord” – but does “Spirit” really convey what we mean? What does calling God “Spirit” tell us about our attitude toward the body? I don’t believe one can write authentic liturgy without digging deep into theology, and the questions one must confront there are not often easy ones.
Esserman: You mention interest in writing new prayers/poems for holidays in addition to the book you published for the High Holidays. Can you speak a little to what you envision your approach to that would be?
Falk: I wish I could answer your question more directly, but I’m afraid I never know ahead what to expect from my work. I don’t sit down to plan it, at least not in the initial stages; rather, I let it emerge and only later do I develop an “approach” to bring it to completion. (Which is one of the reasons my books take so long to write!)