Book review: New prayers for the High Holidays

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Although attendance at High Holiday services is usually the highest of the year, that doesn’t mean that everyone is emotionally engaged with the proceedings. For many, the liturgy lacks relevance to their lives; one of the most frequent complaints is that the image of God found in the prayer book – whether due to gender issues or theological concepts – doesn’t resonate with worshippers. Some contemporary machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) offer gender-neutral English translations in order to solve this problem, but none offer as radical a solution as Marcia Falk’s new work, “The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season” (Brandeis University Press). Falk, a poet, is best known for her innovative “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival,” which was a major revision of the daily prayer book. Her new work attempts something similar, only for the High Holidays.
Falk hopes to reach a wide audience, including “all those seeking to participate in Jewish civilization and culture without compromising intellectual or spiritual integrity. These include nontheists as well as theists, those who identify as religious or spiritual, as well as those who call themselves secular or humanist.” She notes that even regular service goers can have difficulty with the themes of the holiday “with its emphasis on sin and judgment” and seeks “to bring language and meaning to the seasonal liturgy.” She offers prayers to be used before meals on Rosh Hashanah and the fast on Yom Kippur, in addition to a version of Yizkor (the memorial service done on Yom Kippur and other holidays), the Tashlich ritual (done on Rosh Hashanah to symbolically cast sins into a moving body of water) and readings (psalms and poems) for the 10-day holiday period. Another chapter contains a very short service that can serve as a replacement for those found in the traditional machzor. Many, but not all, of the prayers and readings are offered in Hebrew and English versions.
Those unfamiliar with Falk’s previous work may be surprised at the extensive changes she makes in the traditional prayer formula. For example, in the blessing before the meal, instead of saying, “Blessed are You, Lord (King) of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” she writes, “Let us bless the source of life that brings forth bread from the earth.” In other prayers, she substitutes “flow of life” or “wellspring” for “source of life.” When writing a blessing for lighting the candles for the start of Rosh Hashanah, she moves even further from the traditional version: “May our hearts be lightened / our spirits be born anew / as we light the holiday candles / and greet the new year.” In this case, she not only creates a genderless blessing, but one that speaks directly to the holiday. The same is true for her Yom Kippur candle blessing – “May the mind be clear / the spirit awake / as we light the candles / and begin” – that speaks to the emotional state of the holiday.
Falk’s writing is beautiful: I loved her interpretive version of “Un’taneh Tokef,” particularly the elucidations of the meanings of how we can “diminish the harshness of the decree.” For example, teshuvah (repentance/return) becomes “returning to the inner artistry / that gives each life its form / seeking to become / one’s truest self,” while tefilah (prayer) is “being alive to the unending flow / within and around us / holding dear / the transient beauty.” We do this so “we become present / to the fullness of our lives / and untether ourselves from the fear / of what lies ahead.” Her revision of Tashlich offers poetry (by Falk and others) that will enhance any service and her confession on Kol Nidre does not focus on a list of sins, but rather notes that we need to “give ourselves over / begin to make amends, / begin / to make ourselves whole.”
The only service about which I had misgivings was Yizkor. For me, some of the poems of consolation were meaningful, while others missed the mark. However, since no one grieves the same, others might find the selections more helpful. Her version of the Mourner’s Kaddish echoes the traditional version in that it does not specifically mention death, but it does more to acknowledge the person who is in pain, while noting that intense pain does not last forever: “Praise the moment / when the whole / bursts through pain / and the moment / when the whole / bursts through in joy.”
While I don’t see “The Days Between” replacing the tradition machzor, reading it is a wonderful way to prepare for the holidays, especially for those who struggle to find meaning in the prayers. Falk has wrestled with the liturgy and the result is an inspiring work of art and religion.