Jewish feminism ‘foremother’ Marcia Falk publishes lyrical haggadah

Pathbreaking poet and liturgist offers innovative take on text by highlighting biblical Exodus over rabbinic commentary. Here, she discusses her feminist and spiritual awakenings

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Poet, translator and liturgist Marcia Falk (Cathleen Maclearie)
Poet, translator and liturgist Marcia Falk (Cathleen Maclearie)

Admirers of poet Marcia Falk‘s bold and evocative feminist rewriting of Jewish liturgy have long hoped she would produce a work they could read at the Seder table. Their wish is now a reality, with the recent publication of Falk’s “Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah.”

As would be expected from the Jewish feminism foremother, her book is a clear departure from the traditional haggadah text. Using her poetic voice, Falk replaces obscure ancient rabbinic passages with an emphasis on the biblical Exodus narrative, and reflective readings and commentary focusing on the themes and metaphors of this central founding myth of the Jewish people.

In an interview from her home in Berkeley, California, Falk told The Times of Israel that she is proud of her contribution to Jewish feminism through her creation of new liturgy — in Hebrew and English — that is based on a feminist theology.

“I remain a devoted feminist Jew and to be considered as someone who launched this movement is an honor and a compliment,” Falk said.

Falk’s haggadah is the third example of her feminist liturgy, following the publication of her two previous groundbreaking works, “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival”(1996), and “The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season” (2014).

“Falk, with her rewriting of liturgy, was among those who reimagined what Judaism would have been like if women had historically had access to and shaped Judaism, by bringing in women’s perspectives and reconceptualizing religious texts like prayer and midrash,” said Dr. Jennifer Sartori, editor of the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.

“She’s done the most daring, bold and beautiful thing,” Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of The Taube Family Campus, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem, remarked about Falk’s re-crafting of Jewish prayer using accessible and non-gendered metaphorical language.

A Bible and Hebrew literature scholar, Falk said she had not originally thought to produce a haggadah. Rather, it emerged over time with the encouragement of those moved by her previous works.

‘Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah’ by Marcia Falk (Jewish Publication Society in association with the University of Nebraska Press)

“I guess you could say that it took me 30 years to write this book, from start to finish, although there were other books that came along while this one was percolating in the background,” Falk explained.

The seeds for “Night of Beginnings” can be found in a booklet that she produced in the 1990s for her own Seders. The haggadah also contains some blessings readers familiar with her previous liturgical works will recognize. Although some texts in this new book are traditional and canonic, the majority of what appears in “Night of Beginnings” is original  poetic language in the form of b’rakhot (blessings), kavanot (prose poems), and the maggid (telling of the Exodus story).

“This is a poet’s Passover, and as we read aloud from it, we all partake in poetry’s power to reveal. In this sense, tonight we are all poets,” Falk writes in the book’s introduction.

Her haggadah is primarily aimed at English-speakers, with Hebrew texts also appearing in English translation and transliteration.

“But it must be noted that her Hebrew is so good and right that her work has long appealed to Israeli Jews, especially those who are non-denominational,” Kelman said.

Falk, 75, also a successful translator and an artist, filled her haggadah with her own colorful illustrations of spring flowers.

The Times of Israel was curious to know Falk’s thought processes behind “Night of Beginnings,” and how the haggadah fits in with her overall approach to Jewish feminism and feminist liturgy. The following are excerpts from our conversation with her.

Your approach to Jewish liturgical language is feminist, but not in a way that many people think of as “feminist.” You don’t simply change God from “He” to “She.” How do you explain your feminist approach to people?

I’m glad you asked me this. For me, feminism has always been about more than confronting sexism — although, of course, that’s where it began. It is about the larger questions, everything that flows from patriarchal culture, all the hierarchical dualisms: Racism, classism, and more. I believe that you can’t combat one of these without challenging them all. That’s my definition of feminism, that’s what I identify with: A challenge to patriarchy in all its manifestations.

Without getting into a deep theological discussion here, I just want to add that I believe that the model of a transcendent God supports all these “isms.” The idea of unity, of connectedness among all that inhabit our world, is what I believe in and relate to. That’s what I try to convey with my term “the Greater Whole.”

So the language you use is more inclusive?

It is definitely more inclusive, primarily because it is not male-nominated. The traditional liturgy talks to a male god and presumes that all the talkers are men. Whenever the community is referred to, women are not really present in it. It goes back to God giving the Torah at Sinai, when the men are told to stay away from their wives so they can receive the law. Well, who is being spoken to there? The guys.

Illustrations by Marcia Falk from her ‘Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah’ (Jewish Publication Society in association with the University of Nebraska Press)

Have you always identified as a feminist?

When second wave feminism came along in the 1960s, it was like duh, of course. Where have we all been? It was probably the biggest conversion in my life. But it didn’t convert me away from Judaism. It was a conversion in my whole worldview, as it was for many women. It made me want to make Judaism compatible with feminism.

In the early 1980s, I admitted to myself that I was done with the traditional liturgy. It wasn’t meaningful to me, but I never saw my project to rewrite Jewish liturgy as abandoning Judaism.

What do you say to your critics who say you diverge too far from tradition?

If you can’t relate to my work, you can’t. I wrote it for people who will get something from it. I’m not burning books. I’m not getting rid of the siddur [traditional prayer book]. I’m contributing something.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman once wrote in an article that everything thing I do derives from our classical texts, that it’s always anchored to the traditional. I was very gratified by that. I am not trying to create yesh me’ayin [something from nothing]. I am trying to be a link in the chain between the past and the future.

I have been blessed because many, many people have said that the liturgy I have created has saved Judaism for them. They had left Judaism, or were going to leave Judaism, and they found this as a way in.

You put the Exodus narrative at the center of your haggadah, and ground so much of the book with biblical quotations and summaries of biblical passages. Why was it important for you? 

Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] is the foundational text of Jewish civilization. The oral tradition — rabbinic commentary — derives from Tanakh. And the Tanakh is the source of the Passover holiday. How odd, then, that the traditional haggadah does not tell the biblical story of our Exodus from Egypt in a continuous narrative. Instead it contains bits and pieces of rabbinic teachings and anecdotes, many of which do not feel directly connected to the Exodus story.

The word “maggid,” which means the one who tells, is listed as one of the key elements in the traditional Seder. For the maggid portion of my haggadah I’ve condensed and commented on the biblical narrative and made it the centerpiece, because that’s where it belongs — at the center of the festival. I’ve added biblical verses as epigraphs to my blessings, to anchor the blessings to our most ancient text. For these epigraphs, I’ve chosen lines that I find especially beautiful, lines that inspire me. I hope they will add an element of beauty and meaning to the Seder.

Illustrations by Marcia Falk from her ‘Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah’ (Jewish Publication Society in association with the University of Nebraska Press)

You emphasize the personal journeys and transformations of the characters of the Exodus story — especially with respect to themes of concealment and revealment — as a way of prompting those at the Seder to reflect on their own journeys and transformations. What was your thought process in using the kavanot (prose poems) to get these themes across?

I wanted in this haggadah to engage Seder participants on a personal level, to enrich the communal experience. I intend with the kavanot to deepen the resonances of the Passover themes and to inspire us to think about them with a fresh perspective.

As for the particular theme of concealment and revealment — this too is anchored in Tanakh. The Exodus story begins with Moshe [Moses] being hidden in the reeds of the river; it ends with the opening-up of the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to cross over and begin a new life as a freed people. The motif of hiding, of closing and opening — both physical and psychological — recurs throughout the narrative… I felt it could be meaningful to relate this key element in the narrative to our lives today.

What would you say are the advantages of being a poet and translator of poetry when it comes to reimagining the haggadah? 

I believe that all prayer should be a form of poetry — language that speaks to the heart and not just to the mind. So much prayer in the traditional siddur and mahzorim (prayer books for the holidays) is uninspired and uninspiring, much of it clunky, repetitive, boring. I believe that poetry, when done well, has the power to awaken, to touch and lift the spirit, and to engage the senses. I don’t think I would have taken on the challenge of writing prayer had I not been a poet. But then, if I were not a poet, I wouldn’t be me, so who can say?

Print copies of “Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah” are also available for purchase in Israel.

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