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Defining Renewal, redux

A few months ago I tried my hand at defining Jewish Renewal. I'm happy with the definition I offered, and I enjoyed the process of reaching toward that definition.

I'm not alone in the work of attempting to give form to the riotous and joyful phenomenon which is Jewish Renewal, of course. Recently I had the pleasure of reading somebody else's definitional document. This one was written by a group, which included its eventual redactor Rabbi Marcia Prager (author of the terrific book The Path of Blessing, which I blogged about last year).

Here are some excerpts from that document:

Jewish Renewal is a phenomenon, not a denomination. It resembles Reform Judaism in some ways, Reconstructionism in other ways, and even Orthodoxy -- especially Hasidism  -- in some important ways. But it is not a formal denomination with a formal hierarchy or structure. It is the ongoing creative project of a generation of Jews who are seeking to renew Judaism and bring its spiritual and ethical vitality into our lives and communities, and at the same time embrace a global vision of the role of all human beings and spiritual paths in the transformation of life on this precious planet.

Jewish Renewal is a "movement" in the sense of a wave in motion, a grassroots effort to discover the modern meaning of Judaism as a spiritual practice. Jewish-renewalists see "renewal" as a process reaching beyond denominational boundaries and institutional structures, more similar to the multi-centered civil rights or women's movements than to contemporary denominations.

Jewish Renewal is built on the idea that we live in a transformative moment in time, in which a new paradigm for spiritual life is being developed.

Jewish Renewal actively seeks a relationship with God as the immanent reality that suffuses all creation and from time to time calls to us from beyond creation as well.

Jewish Renewal is neither halakhic nor anti-halakhic but neo-halakhic. Just as Rabbinic Judaism involved transcending the halakhah of Temple sacrifice, so Jewish Renewal seeks to go beyond the limitations of traditional Rabbinic Judaism to forge a new halakhah in which Judaism is conscious of its place in an interconnected world.

Jewish Renewal has long been committed to a fully egalitarian approach to Jewish life and welcomes the public and creative input of those who were traditionally excluded from the process of forming the Jewish tradition.

Precisely because Renewal is such a grassroots endeavor no two definitions of Renewal are exactly alike, but this one does a good job of outlining some of Renewal's primary qualities. My deep thanks to Reb Marcia and to the others who worked together to draft this; I hope it helps shed some light on some of the principles that Renewal holds dear.

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Jews kick ass.

My friend Emily brought me a present last night, a T-shirt found at a street kiosk in New York City. Apparently she saw the design and thought immediately of me:

I'm both entertained and honored that her reaction to seeing the shirt was "Rachel needs to own this." I have to confess to a small degree of bafflement, though. I can identify five out of the six important Jewish figures on the shirt, but am hoping one of you can help me figure out who the last one is. L to R, the top row depicts Henry Winkler, Albert Einstein, and Sammy Davis Jr.; the bottom row features Jesus, William Shatner, and...who's the last guy?

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Small prayers

I have heard, more times than I can count, the story of my origins. How my parents made the decision to have a fifth child. How I was born ten weeks early, weighing hardly more than three pounds. How my weight dropped to a pound and a half before, at last, it began to rise.

I remember my mother's sneaky tricks to fatten me up: milkshakes made with ice cream, honey, banana, a raw egg for extra protein. I remember the party that was promised me when I finally broke fifty pounds. I remember being photographed as a nine-year-old for the cover of the neonatal unit newsletter, a success story because I thrived.

Earlier this week I spent some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit praying over a little girl who's one week old. She weighs one pound, and seeing her tiny form helps me understand what it must have been like for my parents to see their daughter weighing so little, trembling and adorned with tubes thin as wires in that glass box.

I spent some time, too, in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit with a weeping mother whose month-old child has never breathed without a respirator. I said prayers over both of them, and cupped this little one's head with my palm, wishing for health and wholeness, and knowing that that particular prayer is unlikely to be answered.

Thinking about the sorrowing parents of these sick infants, I remembered again that there is nothing we should take for granted. My spirits were low until, walking down the long hall, I ran into a nurse I've come to recognize over my nights here. "How you doing, Sister," she asked me, smiling.

"I'm okay, how about you?"

"I'm well, praise the Lord," she said, and we passed and went on our way. And I thought: despite all of the suffering contained within these walls, it's still our responsibility to offer praise.

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Progressive Faith Blog Con

Earlier this year there was a conference called GodBlogCon. I count myself a godblogger, so naturally, I was intrigued...until I poked around their website and discovered that it was focused solely on Christian bloggers. (It also sounds like the political slant of the conference was pretty conservative.) "Oh well," thought I. "Too bad there isn't something like that for people like me."

I'm not sure I would have given the matter much more thought had I not gotten a note a few weeks ago from Thurman Hart, who blogs over at XPatriated Texan. He's a liberal Christian blogger who, you guessed it, originally hails from my birthstate, and he had a question for me: would I be interested in working on a bloggercon for progressive bloggers of faith?

Would I ever!

We've been exchanging emails ever since, and we've gotten a few of our friends and colleagues involved in the early conversation -- Gordon Atkinson of Real Live Preacher, Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptist,  Andrew Schamess of Now we want to involve you, too.

Progressive Faith Blog Con is still in the planning stages, but here's what we know so far: we'd like to hold it in 2006, somewhere in New York or New England. We want to design something that will appeal to liberal bloggers from a variety of faiths and traditions. We're envisioning a weekend of events: optional ecumenical worship, a keynote speaker or two, and panel discussions led by progressive godbloggers, for progressive godbloggers, about subjects we can brainstorm together as the planning coalesces.

What we don't yet have is a place or a date. We've been talking about the weekend of March 3-5, but we're reluctant to set our hearts on any particular weekend until we have a place to congregate. But while we work on those logistics, we'd love to broaden the conversation; we want to know whether this sounds like fun to other folks, and if so, what those other folks want the conference to be.

If you want to learn more, tell us how to find you and we'll be in touch soon. Tell us what would make you want to be there. If this is exciting to you, please help us spread the word; feel free to repost this information far and wide. And hey, if you happen to know of a venue that might want to host something like this -- especially one that might be inclined to let us in for free, given the nobility of our enterprise -- do let us know.

Blogging has many joys, among them the opportunity to form connections across great distances and differences. If you're a liberal blogger of faith, help us create a chance to turn our virtual community into one that exists in the physical world too. I can't wait to see what we can build together.

Progressive Faith Blog-Con 2006

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Scenes from student life

Arguably I had good reasons for dropping the ball. The Hebrew ball, I mean. As I mentioned a while back, what I really wanted was an online course in Biblical or Medieval Hebrew, something that would help me read Torah and Talmud and Rashi more fluently. What I got was a class in Modern, which will no doubt serve me well in some generalized way but which has been a frustratingly slow slog because most of the vocabulary is new to me and I've resented learning it because it isn't making Torah any easier, darn it all!

The last few weeks have also been pretty hectic. There was a trip to Texas to visit my folks; the URJ Biennial, about which I blogged a mighty lot; Thanksgiving and all its attendant happy chaos. I had my first dip into Rashi, and a Torah portion to learn and teach. Top that with a freelance article for a local magazine and a bunch of big deadlines at Inkberry, and it makes some sense that not only did I drop the Hebrew ball, but it rolled away into the corner under a large piece of furniture and started collecting dustbunnies.

What this meant, though, was that I woke up at the start of December and realized that I was four chapters behind the rest of the class. There's nothing quite like recognizing that one is in an enormous hole of one's own making. Dropping the class was tempting -- after all, it hasn't been helpful in the ways I'd hoped it would be, and I'm not taking it for credit, anyway -- but that felt like an admission of failure, and left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

So this morning I woke up early, made myself an enormous pot of Lapsang Souchong tea, and sat down with my textbook, the class website, and a dictionary. And as of this writing, though my eyes are a little bit glazed over and I'm badly in need of a good long stretch, I'm proud to report that I am now caught up -- even a little bit ahead of the game; I've finished the chapter that's due on December 7th, so I'm three days ahead. Ahead. What a delightful word.

This fall has been an exercise in balancing priorities: my preexisting obligations to my arts nonprofit with my desire to immerse in school, the rigors of hospital chaplaincy work with the reading and writing my telecourse has required, one deadline with another. There's never enough time to do everything justice. (It's arguable that, as frustrating as the balancing act has sometimes been, it's excellent training for life as a rabbi. Unless the rabbinate is one of those careers where it's easy to cross everything off the list and one never has the sensation of being needed in a dozen different directions and places at once? Yeah, I thought not.)

I'm getting better at juggling, and that's got to be good for me. That said, it was surprisingly satisfying to be able to dedicate an entire day to one thing, and get it really and truly done. I'd been dreading this pile of work, and the longer I left it alone, the worse it got; it feels great to be in the right place again, with only two chapters left before the end of the year. Maybe now that I'm caught up on Hebrew homework, I'll be able to blog without guilt this week...

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