Book Review | A Seder Reimagined By A Feminist Poet

By | Apr 04, 2022
Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah

Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggadah
By Marcia Falk with drawings by the author 
Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press, $19.95; 232 pp.

The most formative experience of my college years wasn’t in a classroom. It was the collaborative work of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, which began in 1992. My classmates and I were awakening to the realities of patriarchy and the relative absence of women’s voices in Jewish tradition. We read the works of feminist theologians Judith Plaskow (Standing Again at Sinai) and E.M. Broner (A Weave of Women, The Women’s Haggadah). We rewrote Hebrew blessings one letter at a time backwards because our word processors couldn’t handle text that ran from right to left.

The bricolage that we assembled and staple-bound each year feels clunky to me now. Parts of our Haggadot were more like footnoted arguments than liturgy. And the feminism of the early 1990s lacked an awareness of intersectionality, how axes of oppression intersect and refract each other—not to mention an awareness of gender beyond the male-female binary.

Still, our collaborative work taught me that liturgy could be iterative, evolving to meet the needs of the moment. Looking back, I can see the roots of my rabbinate in the realization that our traditions are living, not set in stone—and that together we can build the spiritual and ritual life that this moment needs.

Looking back at the Feminist Seder Project, what I remember most is the process of revision. Each year our God-language shifted as our understandings changed. One year we edited every “King” reference to “Queen,” feminizing the Hebrew as best we knew how. Another year we scrapped hierarchical metaphors altogether: That year the divinity we needed was neither King nor Queen but Wellspring and Source.

She doesn’t explicitly call the volume a “feminist haggadah,” although that may be because its feminism is so foundational it doesn’t need to be named.

I’m pretty sure that shift was inspired by Marcia Falk’s groundbreaking The Book of Blessings, which came out in 1996. Falk, a noted poet, translator and liturgist known for her beautiful contemporary English versions of the Song of Songs, offered an entirely new approach to brachot, or blessings, which traditionally begin Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe.” Falk’s N’varekh et ein ha-chayyim, “Let us bless the Source of Life [that ripens the fruit of the vine]”—that was unlike anything we had ever prayed before. She gave us a new language.

Enter, this year, Marcia Falk’s Night of Beginnings.

Night of Beginnings is modeled on the basic structure and themes of the traditional haggadah, and, at the same time, it participates in the centuries-long history of transformation and adaptation that yielded today’s haggadot,” Falk writes, claiming this Haggadah’s place in the continued unfolding of Jewish liturgy. She doesn’t explicitly call the volume a “feminist haggadah,” although that may be because its feminism is so foundational it doesn’t need to be named.

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Although the classical Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus slantwise, quoting Talmudic commentaries and rabbinic arguments rather than the tale itself, Falk chooses to include it in plain narrative form—as we did in our collegiate feminist Haggadot, and as I still do in my own evolving Haggadah, The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah, that I have distributed for years on my blog of the same name. And Falk includes the voices and actions of Moses’ mother Yocheved, his sister Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts Moses, and the midwives Shifrah and Pu’ah, repairing the omission of women as an act of restoration and justice. Today in progressive liturgical spaces these shifts have become almost normative.

A reader familiar with the classical Haggadah will find each of its 14 traditional touchstones here—the four cups of wine, the matzah and bitter herbs, the Grace After Meals, the Hallel with its hymns of praise, and so on—though often in abbreviated and/or revised form. It’s a pleasure to immerse in a Haggadah wholly committed to Falk’s mode of blessing. Her formulations “differ from rabbinic prayer in their mode of address,” she explains. “They open with inclusive, active verbs, such as n’varekh (let us bless) and nodeh (let us thank), calling upon us, the human community, to perform the act of blessing.” This is the move that so startled me almost 30 years ago, awakening the pray-er’s awareness of our role in channeling blessing into the world. Today this language has become familiar, but it has not lost its power.

And there are new prayer-poems here that uplift this mode of blessing. For instance, her kiddush:

On this Festival of Freedom,
we cross from wilderness to promise,
from exile to home,
from enslavement to fully lived lives.

We hallow this day and bless
the ever-flowing wellspring,

which sustains us on the way,
nourishing the fruit of the vines.

This short poem could feel insufficient for someone who thrills to the singing of the long Festival Kiddush that opens the traditional seder. It could also open the door to the holiday for someone who doesn’t resonate with what we’ve inherited. For some of us, the answer may be to do both, if our seder-goers will permit. I feel that urge about Falk’s stunning Hallel poem “Hal’lu: beauty of the world,” which I can’t wait to add to my Hallel this year alongside the traditional psalms with their familiar melodies. Or her meditation on the tastes that precede the festival meal, from parsley dipped in salt-water tears to sweet haroset balanced with biting maror:

Sweet: the newborn sprig,
Salt: tears
hardening to rock

Salt: blood
rushing to the heart

Bitter: teeth
biting the earth

Bitter, side by side with sweet—
and the sweet becomes sweeter

Everything and its opposite,

enfolding it all

The words are delicious read aloud, tactile on my teeth and tongue. God is not mentioned in this prayer-poem. Instead Falk subtly evokes what our mystics name as Shechinah, what Christian theologian Paul Tillich calls “the ground of being”: the divinity that holds and enfolds everything.

Night of Beginnings is a physically beautiful volume. The book’s design sets liturgical language apart, using line breaks like poetry, and there is ample open space for each prayer’s visual prosody to flow. Falk approaches liturgy as a poet, and that sensibility informs the Haggadah as a whole. Pages are color-coded: brachot (blessings) on pages she calls apricot, kavanot (meditations) on blueberry pages, Maggid or “telling” on sage-green pages, the Song of Songs on raspberry pages and Hallel on peach-colored pages. Even the words she uses for the color-coding feel intentional, turning the bound volume into a cornucopia of spring’s abundance.

“Every year we tell the same story, but each year we are enjoined to make it new, to bring our own lives into it, to view it as if it had happened to each of us individually. Repetition and newness: together they are the flow,” Falk writes in the introduction. In describing the seder thus, she evokes the work of spiritual life writ large: interweaving the timeless and the timely, the “then” and the “now,” the stories of our ancestors and the call toward transformation in our own day.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the author of several volumes of poetry, and since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. A founding builder at Bayit: Building Jewish, she serves Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. 

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