Less God, More Feminism: A New Haggadah by Acclaimed Poet Marcia Falk


“Talking to God as lord and king – I was way beyond that as a feminist,” Falk said. “As someone who took prayer seriously in both Hebrew and English, I couldn’t pronounce those words anymore, in either language.”

In 1996, she published “The Book of Blessings”, her groundbreaking recreation of the Hebrew liturgy, which offered a new understanding of the relationship between the human and the divine. Gone is God the patriarch, replaced by God as the “source of life”.

Now, just in time for Passover, comes Falk’s new Haggadah, “Night of Beginnings.”

Marcia Falk (Courtesy of Brian Miller)

Published in March and funded in part by a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute research grant, it is a sweeping reinterpretation of the seder with its own prayers, illustrations, and kavanot, prose poems intended to deepen the meaning of the blessings and rituals of the seder. (Kavanot is the plural of kavanawhich means “intention” or “direction of prayer” in Hebrew.)

“Night of Beginnings” features a full retelling of the Exodus story, complete with Falk’s commentary highlighting the role of women, especially Moses’ sister, Miriam.

In his New Blessings, Falk transforms the Haggadah’s traditional conception of God, envisioning the divine as, in his words, “the ineffable, the sacred – a greater whole of which we are an inseparable part”.

The title of the book has several meanings, referring to the rebirth of the Jewish people as told in the story of Exodus, the renewal of spring and the new year (in the Bible, the month in which the feast takes place Passover is one of the four).

Below are examples of Falk’s modifications to the traditional Passover service.

Shehecheyanu (The prayer for novelty and special occasions)

Like other rabbinical blessings in the standard liturgy, the traditional Shehecheyanu opens with “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe”, invoking a patriarchal God, which Falk finds stereotypical and out of touch with today’s sensibilities.

Falk’s version of the prayer envisions the divine as neither “masculine nor feminine, nor abstract, but drawn largely from the natural world”.

Here is Falk’s version:

Bless the flow of life
that brings us back to life,
supports us,
and brings us to that time.

Afikoman breaking

During the ritual of yahatzthe matzo is broken in half, and the larger half, the afikomanis hidden away, setting up a scavenger hunt for the kids after the meal.

Falk sees the afikoman the ritual as representing a key Passover theme – brokenness as an inevitable human condition.

His kavana for yahatz reflects on the possibility of finding wholeness, either through our connections with others or through a deeper self-awareness – an “inner connection” – that restores self-integrity.

This is Falk kavana:

Loss, pain, despair: broken spirit, broken me. Our lives are shattered by death. The human condition is broken.
But there is also another type of rupture, the opening of the heart which puts us in touch with our inner self and which can even serve as a gateway to wholeness.
What is self-fulfillment? Does it depend on external connections—connections between self and others, between self and the world? Is it the feeling of being part of a bigger whole?
Or is it an inner connection? An awareness, a sustained knowledge of the interior, an awareness of the hidden parts of oneself? And could this deeper awareness offer a path to freedom?
Or is wholeness all of these things – and maybe more?
We live in a broken world, but we yearn and yearn for wholeness. It’s elusive, but it’s our birthright.
The pursuit of wholeness is the human vocation.

The story of the Passover story

Over the centuries, as the traditional Haggadah accumulated more and more rabbinic commentary and tradition, it failed to tell the story of the Exodus itself.

Falk asks us to see the story in a new way, to focus not only on Moses but also on his sister, Miriam.

We first meet Miriam in the book of Exodus as a nameless onlooker watching over her little brother, Moses, hidden in a basket in the reeds of the Nile by his mother. At the end of the Exodus story, Miriam is portrayed as a prophetess, standing with other women in a celebration of the Israelites’ freedom.

Falk writes of Miriam:

The Passover story has come full circle. Moshe’s sister [Moses in Hebrew] and Aaron was given a name – not just a name but an appellation: Miriam the Prophetess. She emerged from a half-hidden place into prominence, just as the Israelites emerged from confinement into freedom and promise. At the height of history, at the moment of the triumph of the Israelites, she is at the center of a community of celebrants. She takes the lead; she deserved it.

This article first appeared on The Jewish Experience, Brandeis University’s website dedicated to Jewish issues. Subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

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