High Holidays without God
“The Days Between” by Dr. Marcia Falk is thought provoking even if one disagrees with what the author writes. She presents an inward, contemplative approach to the High Holiday services. Her versions of the principle traditional holiday prayers omit all references to God, and offer a non-patriarchal theology that focuses on the well-being and improvement of people. She is an acclaimed translator and commentator of the Bible and prayer books and is the author of nine volumes, including “The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible.”
This book is divided into an extensive introduction followed by five parts. The first focuses on the New Year Holiday, Rosh Hashanah. It includes many innovative prayers such as for lighting holiday candles, blessing children, washing hands, blessings before and after the meal, and new versions for Un’taneh Tokef, Shofarit, Zickhronot, Malkhuyot, Tahlickh, and over a dozen other items, including introductions to Un’taneh Tokef and to Shofarot, Zikhronot, Malkhuyot, and to Tashlikh.Her innovated versions are designed to prompt readers to think and act rather than feel they are involved in a ceremony that will somehow change them. Her prayer for washing hands before eating, for example, is:
Washing the hands,
we call to mind
the holiness of body.
Part two focuses on the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It has an introduction and prayers for each of the ten days. These ten days are called in Hebrew Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah, which is customarily translated “Ten Days of Repentance,” but which Dr. Falk calls “ten days of meeting oneself face to face, opening the heart to change.” She devotes five pages to the concept of “repentance” where she points out that the word is not very informative or helpful. It is related to the word “penitentiary,” a place of punishment, and suggests instead that we translate it “turning (inward)” or “returning (to one’s self),” which is more informative.
Part three deals with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Among much else, there is an introduction to the problematic Kol Nidrey and a new version of it, an introduction to the memorial service, Yizkor, which turns the prayer into a meaningful personal act of memory and rededication, and Falk’s version of Kaddish and N’ilah. The Yizkor prayer of 15 lines begins:
I call her/him to mind and heart,
the texture of her/his life,
its presence in mine.
Images rise up
and fall away,
moments in the current of time –
Part four contains a forty page alternative to the traditional synagogue service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some of the elements are indicated as appropriate for both days and some for just one of the two holidays.
Part five has a twelve page discussion on the prayer Un’taneh Tokef, containing an overview of its structure, content, and theology. The traditional version of this prayer was originally composed in Israel during the Byzantine period for Rosh Hashanah, but it became so popular and so meaningful to people that it was later introduced into the Yom Kippur liturgy as well.
The following are some other short samples:
In lighting Rosh Hashanah candles, one says:
May our hearts be lightened,
our spirits born anew
as we light the holiday candles
and greet the newborn year.
To bless children:
Be who you are,
and may you be blessed
in all that you are.
All vows –
and promises and pledges –
that we have made to ourselves
and that no longer serve
for the good –
may their grip be loosened
that we be present of mind and heart
to the urgency of the hour.
 The spellings in the transliterations are by Dr. Falk.