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A High Holiday Journey for the Heart and Soul

Marcia Falk Continues to Transform Jewish Liturgy

by Rabbi Reba Carmel

Discussed in this essay: The Days Between: Blessings, Poems and Directions of the Heart for the High Holiday Season, by Marcia Falk. Brandeis University, HBI Series on Jewish Women, 214, 260 pages.

Days of AweIN THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD (Brakhot 7a), Rabbi Yohanan, in the name of Rabbi Yossi, asserts that God prays. Isaiah 56:7 states: “I will bring them to my sacred mount and let them rejoice in my house of prayer” [italics added] — that is, the rabbis say, the house where God prays. Without even pausing to consider the theological implications of this notion, they then discuss what it is that God prays for. In a stunning human creation of the divine character, the rabbis voice God’s prayer: “May my compassion overtake my anger and override all my other qualities. May I conduct myself empathetically and kindly towards my people and may I always give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Never do the rabbis dare to ask or suggest to whom God prays. Rather, the rabbis focus on God’s character and perhaps how God can improve God’s self. They present us with a God who is being publicly admitting God’s most singular flaw. Boldly, the rabbis insist that God prays for self-improvement — not perfection, but improvement.

The rabbinic imagination then transports us to God’s shul, where there is always a minyan (a quorum of ten) since the absence of a minyan angers God [BT Brakhot 6:B]. In the shul that God attends, no one sits in the back since that is disrespectful [ibid.]. When ready to daven (pray), God dons tfillin. Inscribed on parchment within each section of divine tfillin is an affirmation of God to God’s people, Israel. Just as Jews affirm God through, “Hear O Israel, our Lord is God, God is One” [Deuteronomy 6:4], so too does God affirm the Jews. So say the rabbis.

This fantastic intrusion into the divine psyche allows us to reimagine prayer as an honest dialogue which demands both human and divine accountability. Said the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (on page 40 of Open Closed Open, poems by Yehuda Amichai, translated By Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld):

I declare with perfect faith

That prayer preceded God.

Prayer created God,

God created human beings,

Human beings create prayers

That create the God that creates human beings.

Yet the rabbinic imagination is self-consciously silent regarding the question of to whom God prays. Who is on the receiving end of these divine calls for compassion? Is God merely confessing divine flaws ‘aloud’ to God’s self in the form of a monologue or soliloquy? And if prayer is nothing more than mindful confession and admission of character flaws, then why pray at all?

51cqON4NSjL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_THESE ARE AMONG the questions that Marcia Falk addresses in her wise and graceful book, The Days Between. Just as the rabbinic imagination sidesteps the question of to whom God prays, Falk leaves God to theologians. She weaves her book with unseen silken threads of holiness, yet leaves God out of the finished product. “There is no God in these pages,” she writes, “but every page, I hope, evokes the sacred. The Days Between is for all those seeking to participate in Jewish civilization and culture without compromising intellectual or spiritual integrity.” Despite this pronounced absence of God, however, Falk tackles some of the most spiritually complex and troubling prayers of the High Holidays and reframes them in a way that is accessible while neither diluting nor compromising their spiritual gravitas. In this, Falk continues her lifelong process, reflected most notably in The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life (1996), to bring to Jewish prayer a new honesty, a contemporary poetic sensibility, an end to gender bias, and alternatives to God-centered words.

Her new book is divided into five sections, beginning with the moment that the New Year, Rosh Hashone, is welcomed into the home, through to the departure of Yom Kippur ten days later. While Falk does not presume traditional synagogue attendance, her poetry-prayers evoke a communal experience. In marking the centuries’ old liturgical sections of Shofarot, Zichronot, Malkhuyot — Call, Recalling, and Callings, as Falk interprets them — she cites biblical passages, as does the traditional liturgy, but adds the following contemporary point of view:

The shofar takes us into the self

that is hidden from the self,

then returns us to the world.

In the silence we hear the voice of the other,

we hear what has gone unheard

In the next section, “Calling,” Falk again relies upon what may be structurally and thematically familiar while creating something new:

Hear O Israel – shma yisrael

The divine abounds everywhere

And dwells in everything

Its faces are infinite,

Its source suffuses all.

The many are One.

—Adapted from Deuteronomy 6:4 [44-45]

FALK USES the spiritual outlines and ritual structure of the traditional prayers as a hiker would the pole markings on a trail, and then creates a ritual path of her own. For example, many of the Rosh Hashone and Yom Kippur prayers are structured as abecedarians, which she notes “were a popular form of liturgical poetry composed for this period.” The abecedarian is intended to be both a liturgical mnemonic device and to be all-inclusive. Falk creates one of her own.

May it Be So

May the year bring abundant blessings —

Beauty, creativity, delight....

May our deepest yearnings be fulfilled,

May we be suffused with zeal for life....

The structure of this slim volume suggests a spiritual travel guide to be used communally and individually. Integral to her roadmap are the meditative rest stops that she creates for each of the ten days between Rosh Hashone and Yom Kippur. Referred to traditionally as the Ten Days of Repentance, these days can make us feel as if we are in a spiritual waiting room, anticipating our communal and individual entry into the divine anteroom on Yom Kippur. Ordinarily, they simply mark time. Falk however, offers thematic meditations for each day premised on the liturgical practice dating back to the Temple Period of reciting a daily psalm for each day of the week.

She entitles her daily psalm/meditation section “Window, Bird, Sky.” Each prayer/poem is accompanied by what she terms a “direction of the heart” intended to steer the spiritual traveler towards a sense of wholeness, gratitude, and deeper well being.

It is said that the measure of one’s happiness is one’s gratitude. The practice of looking for the hidden gifts, within and outside oneself, can bring tranquility and joy, even in darker times.

Falk expends a great deal of literary and spiritual energy crafting liturgy to imprint our souls with goodness and humility. Yet in her quest to give each human being meaning and purpose, the absence of God at times feels forced to me, as if God’s presence might compromise spiritual integrity. At times she seems to take us to the precipice of life and abandons us there feeling both small and purposeless.

For example, in reframing one of our most difficult prayers Un’taneh Tokef k’dushat hayom (“We proclaim the powerful sanctity of this day”), she offers the following as part of that prayer:

Born in nature

And borne by nature,

We die in its lap-and-fold.

The whole lives on,

Infinite in mystery,

Its manifestations numberless.

You Do Not Belong to You

You belong to the universe

and you will be reclaimed

by its constant,

ever-changing heart –

your wise body

and your spacious mind,

when you are joyful

or not,

whether you are ready

or not,

even as you turn away –

to be buffeted

and set aloft,

a twig in the wind.

Declaring at our most spiritual, vulnerable moment that we are nothing more than a twig in the wind or will be carried away by nature, albeit gently, constrains an often deeply felt need at this time of year for catharsis. Falk’s book leaves no room for anger against God. It leaves no space to make God accountable for the wreckage both human and natural that many perceive may have occurred personally, communally, and globally from last Rosh Hashone to this Rosh Hashone. At this time of year, we do not wish to feel abandoned.

IN CONTRAST, Yehuda Amichai serves as God’s chief prosecutor. Drawing from the iconic Rosh Hashone/Yom Kippur prayer Avinu Malkaynu (“Our father, Our king”), Amichai presents (in Creator, Are you Listening? Israeli Poets on God and Prayer, edited by David C. Jacobson, 2007):

Our Father our King. What does a father do

whose children are orphans in his lifetime? What will a father do

whose children died and he’ll be bereaved unto eternity?

He’ll cry and won’t cry, won’t forget and won’t remember.

Our Father our King. What does a king do

in the republic of pain? He will give them

bread and circuses, like every king,

the bread of memory and the circuses of forgetfulness.

Bread and longings. Longings for God

and for a better world. Our Father our King.

Or from the Memorial Prayer, “El Maleh Rachamim” — “God Full of Mercy” —

God Full of Mercy

God Full of mercy,

if God were not so full of mercy

There’d be mercy in the world, not just in Him.

I, who picked flowers on mountains

and observed all the valleys,

I, who brought corpses from the hills,

can say for sure the world is empty of mercy....

I, who must solve riddles against my will,

know that if God were not so full of mercy

there’d be mercy in the world,

not just in Him....

Despite Amichai’s irony, despite his mocking, his anger and demand for justification — and despite the fact that unlike the rabbis, Amichai does not imagine God’s prayer or response — Amichai neither minimizes nor displaces God’s eternal presence and impact.

Footprints of birds in the sand by the sea,

like someone’s handwriting in a note, to remember

things, names, numbers and places.

Footprints of birds in the sand at nighttime

still remain at daytime, but I didn’t see

the bird who made them. God’s like that.

IN HER INTRODUCTION to her Book of Blessings, which re-creates the daily, weekly, and monthly service, Falk asks:

Where is the divine in all of these? Nowhere in particular – yet potentially everywhere that attention is brought to bear. If everything is capable of being made holy, as rabbinic Judaism teaches with its scrupulous attention to the details of ordinary life, then surely we need not – we ought not – localize divinity in a single apt word or phrase. We may find it wherever our hearts and minds, our blood and souls are stirred.

Falk is keenly attuned to the deep mindfulness, the inward journey that this season demands. She deliberately sets out to create authentic nontheistic prayer that captures the season of turning and returning to a pure, authentic self. In doing so, she gives a gift, especially, to secular Jews, and to that large plurality of synagogue-going Jews who approach the High Holidays, and worship in general, with profound ambivalence about God and about the activity of praying: Falk has provided them with a beautiful, spiritually rich liturgy that pushes none of those buttons. But for those of us who are more comfortable with theism, for whom the vocabulary of prayer — of prayer addressed to a “Thou” — is not discomfiting, God’s absence in her work can seem forced and unfortunate. With all the elegance of her verse and subtle word plays in Hebrew, she still leaves unanswered why including “God’ would compromise spiritual integrity.

Throughout The Days Between, Falk provides us the opportunities and the means to actively turn towards and return to our authentic selves with elegance and meaning. However, even Falk seems to struggle to find something more to grab onto other than an imperfect self or an eternal wholeness that is empty:

Nothing. You began with nothing and you will end as

Nothing. And in between – everything, and nothing. In

Between- joy and sorrow, beauty and decay. Everything

Yours to partake of, yours to bear. Yours to see, to know, to

Give birth to – and to let go. None of it yours to have.

Not even you are yours to have. You belong to a wholeness

So great you cannot even conceive of it.

No it is not a belonging; nothing owns you. You are

Simply part of it. You came out of it and you will return to

It. You do not ever leave it, you are part of it forever.

And this is your moment to be alive.

Amichai, by contrast, invades the divine psyche with both guns drawn and ready to fire, but he stops short — perhaps still a theological optimist — in hope that God can redeem God’s self:

Even solitary prayer takes two:

One to sway back and forth

And the one who doesn’t move is God.

But when my father prayed, he would stand in his place,

Erect, motionless, and force God

To sway like a reed and pray to him.

ULTIMATELY EACH LIFE is a solitary journey. For Jews who are attuned to the Ten Days of Repentance, our tradition affords us the opportunity to shape our destiny, to purge all that is impure and unholy from our being, to begin anew and write our own book of life for the coming year. Between Rosh Hashone and Yom Kippur we are given the time and space to declare privately and perhaps communally our flaws, failings, and shortcomings. At these moments, we need an infusion of strength and holiness — and sobering, elegant words — to enable us to pen a new chapter. Falk gives us the enduring quiet strength and sensitivity to move into the coming year.

Closing Hour

May the heart open
even in the hour of its closing
for the day draws to an end.

The day turns, the sun turns away,
and a voice of slender silence
rends the air —

sound of a breaking heart,
sound of the heart
breaking open.

Falk has crafted a colorful, lyrical book deeply invested in Jewish tradition but framed wholly outside a theistic presence. Both her art and deeply nuanced adherence to mood and focus of this season are stunning. I hope to rely upon it for many years to come.

Reba Carmel, an attorney and rabbi, holds a masters degree in Biblical Studies from Jewish Theological Seminary. She served on the advisory board of the Jewish Dialogue Group and works as a writer and speaker on multi-faith issues. She holds Israeli and American citizenship and lived in Israel for ten years.