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A brief but torrential downpour drenched the farm shortly before I arrived, so the paths between the green bean rows were shimmering pools of water. I toed off my sandals, cuffed my capris, and ventured gingerly into the mud.

Crouched between plants I chatted with a woman in a sunhat about pickling, and then with a friend from shul about hoping we have a minyan tomorrow morning. It didn't take long to fill my bag.

As I walked back up to the barn, I realized it had only been a few hours since I took a handful of this same Berkshire earth -- loose and crumbling in my fingers -- to drizzle atop a plain pine coffin, a final act of respect.

It seems right somehow that the same earth in which we bury our dead also gives rise to the glorious cornucopia of produce that sustains us in life.

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Davvenen, redux

As a synonym for a human being, the Mishnah (Bava Kamma 2a) uses the name mav'eh, an unfamiliar word that the Talmud derives from the root בעה, to pray. In other words, the Talmud defines man as 'the creature that prays...' Prayer is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation.

So it is written in the introduction to the Artscroll siddur -- not my favorite variation on the siddur (I'm not crazy about the androcentric language) but an authoritative one nonetheless.

A few years ago I posted a piece called Definitions of Davvenen, exploring some of the tensions between individual and communal prayer, prayer in Hebrew and prayer in the vernacular, and whether or not "davvenen" and "prayer" can be considered synonyms. I want to revisit those same themes now. Having just spent a week in prayer, and in study of prayer, I'm thinking a lot about my prayer life and the prayer-life of my community.

In his book Paradigm Shift, Reb Zalman writes about what he calls davvenology, the art and science of davvenen. And what, he asks rhetorically, is davvenen?

Continue reading "Davvenen, redux" »

This week's Haftarah: exhortations before 9 Av

Verses 1-27 of the book of Isaiah make up the haftarah for Shabbat Hazon, the last Shabbat before Tisha b'Av. In my post this week for Radical Torah, I chose to focus on this prophetic reading rather than the Torah portion with which it is linked.

Isaiah offers strong words about the emptiness of the Israelite religious practice of his day. With empty rituals (and, worse, with wicked lives), he argues, the Israelites made a mockery of worship. He urges teshuvah, repentance, in a way I find deeply thought-provoking. Here are some of the questions his words raise for me:

What might it mean to devote ourselves to justice and to aid the wronged? Are we feeding the hungry, educating those in need, rehabilitating those incarcerated in our prisons? Do we provide affordable health care? Do our poorest cousins receive high-quality educations like our richest ones do?

Less than a year ago Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans and its environs. Did we do all that we could to protect the people of New Orleans, especially those who didn't have the resources to evacuate in time? Have we since done all we can to rebuild their lives? Do we remember them? What about those in ordinary poverty, here and elsewhere: do we remember them? How do we uphold the rights of the poor and powerless? How do we comfort those whose lives have been torn apart by loss?

Toward the end of my post, I link this Shabbat's reading with the holiday we'll commemorate next week:

The crescent moon of Av is waxing, and Tisha b'Av is almost upon us. Next week we will mourn the destruction of the Temple, once the place where we understood ourselves to be in connection with the Source of All. Tisha b'Av marks the beginning of a historical exile, but more than that I think it points to a fundamental condition of exile from God -- one which, as Isaiah notes, we create ourselves when we allow our observances to be empty, and our lives to be marred with wickedness.

Read the whole thing here: Exhortations and obligations.

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Week 1 at DLTI

Last week I began the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute, a two-year training program offered at Elat Chayyim. As the website explains,

DLTI offers a unique learning experience to help those who lead worship in a Jewish context to deepen the quality of communal prayer so that it activates the body, touches the heart, engages the mind, and nourishes spiritual growth and insight. Employing the participatory approach of an intensive master class, this program coaches you in the high art of leadership of public ritual and prayer.

Usually when I spend a week at Elat Chayyim I write one lengthy trip report, like this one from last summer, or this one from the summer before. But this time I'm going to offer a briefer and more crystallized reflection. I'll write more about the experience as I continue to absorb and assimilate the week.

Continue reading "Week 1 at DLTI" »

This week's portion: vows and obligations

Greetings from Elat Chayyim!

No, I'm not online -- I'm on retreat and in-class this week, and don't have 'net access -- but I didn't want to miss a week of posting to Radical Torah, so I queued up this post last week before I left and told TypePad to post it today.

This week's Torah commentary over at RT adapts the post I made here last year about parashat Matot -- my apologies for the duplication. (Between the Blog Con and DLTI, there just wasn't time to come up with new insights on the portion.)

Edited to add: well, I meant for my new d'var to be published while I was on retreat last week, and if that had happened this post would have been useful. As it was, my clever plan didn't quite work. But the post is there now: Vows and obligations. Enjoy!

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PFBC Roundup

At the end of the URJ Biennial, I posted a wrapup of the conference, with links to the seventeen posts I had made while liveblogging the event. I'm doing the same now for the Progressive Faith Blog Con; I'll put a link to this post in the sidebar of my blog, to make it easy for folks to find all of my blog con posts at once. And here they are:


If you're looking for other people's reflections on the experience, we've been aggregating them over at the conference blog. Here are a few posts I know I will cherish: Islamoyankee's Beginnings, Lorianne's Plugging in and The view, part two; Andrew's On Prayer; Alto Artist's Hope, part 1; and Mata H.'s weekend wrapup post and its powerful continuation.

The blog con was amazing. I met some fantastic people, and got to put faces with names and URLs. The panels, the conversations, the interactions, the learning, the teaching: all were great -- as was the worship, and the community we created by making ourselves vulnerable enough to pray together despite our differences. Holy wow. In the words of one of my favorite Shabbat morning songs, Ma nora ha-makom hazeh -- "How truly awesome is this Place!"

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Home again; off again!

Hi all! I'm home safely from the Progressive Faith Blog Con, still reeling at how well it went, how much fun it was, and how glad I am that we made it happen. It was amazing meeting all of y'all, and learning together and talking together and praying together...!

I'm off in the morning to The Davvenen' Leadership Training Institute, a liturgical leadership training program run by my seminary. It sounds amazing; it also sounds intense, overwhelming, and immersive. And I won't be online at all while I'm there.

So I'll be unreachable for a week. If you leave a comment here, or if you email me, I won't know it. Please don't be surprised when I don't respond! I'll do my best to get back to you once I'm home again and once I've finessed the inevitable email triage that follows a week away.

See you on the flipside...

[PFBC] Christian worship, and final remarks

This morning's service was amazing. I don't know why I'm surprised; they've all been amazing. But I didn't expect the Christian worship to surprise me, because Christianity is such a dominant tradition that I presume I know all about it, and yet it did.

Three people had volunteered to create and lead the service: Mata H., Michelle, and Chris. But Chris got stuck in France, so Reverend Bruce graciously stepped in and lent a hand.

The liturgy was beautiful, and intriguing; some familiar language, some unfamiliar language. The calling of the angels, a piece contributed by independent Catholic seminarian Chris, was lovely and put me in mind of an invocational song I've encountered at Elat Chayyim. Michelle gave a fantastic sermon drawing on the story of Amos (this week's Hebrew Scriptures reading in the lectionary), inviting us to be ordinary prophets in the way that he was. [Edited to add:: it's now online here.]

Beforehand, Mata explained how the service had come together and how it would go. She spoke about the eucharist as the central moment in Christian worship, and about how the folks running the service felt about it. Their theology was one of radical inclusion; anyone who felt comfortable partaking was welcome to do so, and anyone who didn't want to partake but wanted a blessing was welcome to that too.

In silence, Reverend Bruce uncovered the bread and the cup of juice. He tore the loaf into pieces. We passed the peace -- which turned out to be hugs all around! -- and then he invited anyone interested to come up for communion, which was simple and startlingly beautiful. I think a lot of us were moved by it, in ways we didn't expect to be.

I want to thank the creators and leaders of the service for putting it together, for leading it with such spirit, and for opening the door to such a deep encounter. I want to thank Reb Arthur too for adding a drash on the relationship between lechem and milchamah, "bread" and "war," and for offering his blessing...


Afterwards, in the closing circle, we each spoke about what we hope to bring away from the weekend, what we will cherish most about our time together. Several people mentioned the worship: how unprecedented they found it that we planned to pray together despite our differences, and how astonished and moved they were when it worked. A few people commented that after the worship we experienced this weekend, they felt hope for the first time that the world really can be repaired.

Having "ecumenical" worship -- which is to say, worship rooted in Judaism, in Buddhism, in Islam, and in Christianity, but open to the greater community which we form together -- was the dream for this weekend that I cherished most...and I don't think I realized how radical an intention it was. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't understand what a crazy idea it was! It required us to take a profound risk together -- the risk of being vulnerable to and with one another, in the presence of what I call God -- and against all odds, we all did, and it was truly transformative.

I will write more about this one of these days. For now -- my deepest and most heartfelt thanks go to everyone who midwifed this gathering into being, and to everyone who joined us in making the dream a reality. This is only a beginning; may we be blessed by our encounters, and go on from here to further beautiful things.

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[PFBC] Roundtable: What Is Progressive Religion?

The evening roundtable featured three fabulous bloggers, teachers, spiritual leaders and mentsches: Rabbi Arthur Waskow from The Shalom Center, Pastor Dan Schultz from Street Prophets, and Reverend Bruce Prescott from Mainstream Baptist. (This is a long post; I didn't manage to transcribe everything but I got as much as I could while still listening intently; their remarks were really powerful, so this is worth a read.)

Reb Arthur offered an opening benediction, and began by explaining first that the word "Torah" comes from the language of archery; it means the process of aiming at wisdom. So we're all aiming toward wisdom, we're all learning and speaking and breathing Torah here. He explained too the metaphor "Breath of Life" which some of us find more truthful or more useful than "Lord." He taught us about how the Tetragrammaton can be "said" simply through breathing; how the trees breathe in what we breathe out and vice versa. And then he offered the bracha, the blessing for Torah study: "Blessed are You, the Breath of Life, who breathes into us the wisdom to know that we become holy by breathing together with You and with all of life; and by shaping our breathing into words; and by shaping our words into words that aim toward wisdom." Amen!

Continue reading "[PFBC] Roundtable: What Is Progressive Religion?" »

[PFBC] Zikr / Muslim worship

Just when I think my day cannot get any cooler, the universe proves me wrong. We just had our third worship experience of the con -- first zikr, then salat, and it moved me deeply. What a tremendously prayerful experience.

Zikr means remembrance (clearly this Arabic word is the cousin of the Hebrew root zkhr), as in remembrance of God. We sat in a circle barefoot while Islamoyankee explained briefly what zikr is and what we would be saying. (The texts and music are listed here at Islamicate.) He chanted the fatiha first, and then we chanted several short texts together, each several times. I closed my eyes and settled in to the repeated sounds and their meaning. "There is no God but God; thanks and praise are due to God; O Compassionate, O Merciful..."

After silent prayer, and listening to some beautiful snippets of sacred music, he asked whether we wanted also to move through a standard cycle of namaz/ salat, and everyone nodded vigorously. So we stood shoulder to shoulder in rows behind him, and he talked us through the prayers in the cycle.

And then he prayed, and we followed him, cupping our hands to our ears to show audition. Some of us managed some of the words. We knelt, and prostrated, and knelt, and prayed, and stood. (And I could not help thinking of the Great Aleinu, the prayer said on the Days of Awe; when we say it on every other day we merely dip our knees and bow to God, but on the Days of Awe it is increasingly customary to actually prostrate ourselves in the aisles of our synagogues...)

And then everyone greeted each other with handshakes and hugs and salaam aleikum / aleikum salaam, and I grinned wildly at everyone. And because it hit me suddenly how amazing this is -- how remarkable that at this moment, with all that's going wrong in the world, Jews and Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Pagans can come together and pray and offer praise together -- I said a shehecheyanu with Reb Arthur, as fervently as I have ever spoken the words before.

I am so grateful to be here tonight offering these prayers in this way. A deep thank you to Islamoyankee, and a heartfelt thankyou to all of y'all.

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[PFBC] Poverty and Hunger breakout

During the final breakout session of the day, I chose the Poverty and hunger in the US session led by Nathan Newman from the Progressive States Network. After we all introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about what kind of work we've done in this arena (I admitted I haven't done much in this realm at all, but I want to learn), Nathan offered some background on some of the issues.

A large majority of the country supports health care for all, getting the country out of the hands of major corporations, and raising the minimum wage. The only group that thinks environmental regulations aren't worth the cost -- that thinks the minimum wage isn't worth raising -- is the 9% that happens to run the country. That's the group that's getting what they want out of national leadership. (Per the Pew Research Center's 2005 Political Typology.)

Continue reading "[PFBC] Poverty and Hunger breakout" »

[PFBC] International Relations breakout

After a break for cookies and coffee and milk (the uber-rich chocolate torte with a glass of milk was absolutely perfect to perk me up midafternoon) we broke into, well, breakout sessions. I went to the International Relations (peace and justice, war on terror, etc) session, led by Andrew ( and David (Faith in Public Life.)

Andrew talked about how he started his blog to put a stake in the ground and to show that there are Jews who don't support the Israeli Occupation. He cited a comment he got on his blog once by a guy who calls himself Buber's Tuber: "For the left, Israel is a divisive issue," this fellow said. Tuber acknowledged that the Jewish community has done great work on the Left, but it's hard for him to talk to Jews about Israel; often coalitions split apart over Israel; the left tends to take hardline positions against Israel, and this causes a real division, and the left is losing a lot of Jewish support for that reason. So what should be done?

"I'm not going to try to answer that question," Andrew said, "but I want to note that this is an explosive question. Blogging in this arena is really difficult...It's easy to offend both sides." Through writing his blog, Andrew said, he's come to understand both the Palestinian perspective, and how heartfelt the support for Israel is in much of the Jewish community. He acknowledged that no major powers read his blog; that his blog doesn't get to impact policy in any way; but at least his blog allows the conversation to happen, allows the dialogue to happen, and he thinks that's a value in itself.

Continue reading "[PFBC] International Relations breakout" »

[PFBC] Faith and politics

The first afternoon session was "Talking Tech," which I'm afraid didn't get my full attention; I was aggregating liveblogged posts for the con website and only kept one ear on the panel. My focus returned to front-and-center for the panel titled Faith and Politics: A Path to Engagement, led by Thurman Hart (XPatriated Texan), Mik Moore (JSpot) and Bruce Wilson (Talk 2 Action.)

"Your mama probably taught you, never talk about faith, politics, or sex," Thurman quipped. But today we're going to talk about the first two, anyway!

You often hear people say that in this country, we have separation of church and state. And then you'll hear someone else reply, "that's never been written in the Constitution." And they're both right. In the good old days a group of Baptists in Danbury, CT, wrote a letter to the President -- they were a religious minority in those days -- requesting a "wall of separation" between church and state...

Once upon a time, Thurman noted, American politicians talked a lot about their faith and how it impacted their lives. Lincoln, for instance, talked about God all the time. John F. Kennedy changed that trend; he had to go on public TV and assure people that if elected he would not let the Pope determine politics in the USA. So the Kennedy administration marks a turning point in the American political scene.

Thurman posited that the new Left doesn't want to hear much about religious stuff, and that's problematic. Kerry struggled to speak cogently about faith during the presidential election... "Politics is the use of collective power, where power is the ability to influence behavior," Thurman said. He continued:

Religion, to me, is the institutions of faith. If you belong to a certain denomination, your faith is your personal relationship to a spiritual universe, and that includes your specific moral and ethical integrity. Your faith is the number-one guideline that you use for making decisions. So for people to tell someone of faith 'I don't have a problem with your faith, but keep it out of politics,' they're telling you that you should take your views of power and social justice and ethics and morality and leave it out of how you interact with power. That's an outright invitation for tyranny, and it betrays a total ignorance of what politics is and what faith is.

Mik picked up here, talking about the recent speech that Barack Obama gave and the brouhaha it caused among both secular and religious folks. (That speech is Call to Renewal.) There's a lot of discussion within the Jewish community about the role of faith in public life, and that community includes a strong secular component as well as a progressive religious component.

He observed that responses to Obama's speech varied widely...Many religious folks feel like a minority within the progressive movement. And here aprominent elected official stood up and said, "it's time for the secular Left to stop telling us to keep our voices out of public life," and a lot of people found inspiration in that.

On the other hand, the secular folks also feel like they are a minority within the progressive movement! An atheist would have a hard time getting elected to public office here. There's overwhelming public sentiment that if you don't believe in God you don't belong in higher office, and people who are secular feel that acutely and feel that they are a minority in this so-called "Christian" nation. So there are two groups which are natural allies on a lot of issues -- worker rights, the environment, and so on -- but each of them feels that they are the minority, there's a lot of frustration there. We need to be careful that the frustration we feel in those roles doesn't undermine the ways that we can become allies.

Then Bruce chimed in. He talked about how the religious right is set against the religious left, and the secular left. Trouble is, the religious and secular left are also set against each other in a certain way. He talked about how problematic he finds the "language of demonization," and retold the story of the Jewish family in Delaware that was effectively hounded out of town because they objected to the promotion of Christianity in the Indian River school district. (Read about that story, if you haven't already, here.

So how can the religious left enter politics? If, for instance, the story of what happened at Indian River distresses us, what can we do? This relates to the issue of hatespeech going on in the American political realm; we perceive that it comes mostly from the Right, but it also can come from the Left. The language of demonization is a habit of thought and mind, and it's something to worry about.

"The size and scope of the Christian Right as a movement hasn't really been paid attention to," he noted. He pointed us to a lengthy and comprehensive list of Christian Right priorities and action items, The Big Picture, and we spent a while scanning that and talking about its implications.

Then the conversation moved into the broader room, and we talked about things like the "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance, the claiming of the language of persecution and victimization by the Religious Right (see the work of Elizabeth Castelli), how it's incumbent upon us to be clear what we mean when we use religious language ("what we talk about when we talk about God?")...

I didn't transcribe what everyone said; if you'd like a more complete writeup of the panel, keep an eye on the con blog, where the irc chat log will eventually be published. But here's a paraphrase of a remark from Reb Arthur, who mentioned that the last time that religious language and secular progressive language cohered was in the days of Martin Luther King. There was an upswelling, then, of the sense that secular/progressive and religious/progressive folks had the same priorities.

He argued too that we need to face that there is a reason why the religious left and the religious right feel victimized; they feel victimized by the culture. In the 60s, the left argued that some aspects of modernity were destructive to human potential, freedom, possibility. "Some pieces of modernity are God's next step!" Like the equality of women -- that's what God intends for us now. But he exhorted us to recognize that there's some validity to the sense of victimization, even though we don't want to go back three centuries to a former age. We, he said, have the harder task: discerning what in modernity is God's hope for us, and what in modernity is disaster. What in modernity is profane, and what in modernity is holy.

And I'll close with a point from Chris (Philocrites), who talked about liberal theology's ambiguous future, and about why his passion lies in revitalizing religious communities and not in fights between liberals and conservatives which don't bring anything new to the table. Good stuff all around.


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[PFBC] Buddhist meditation

The morning began with breakfast at the hotel, and then with a Buddhist meditation experience -- is it appropriate to call it a "service," I wonder? -- led by Lorianne from Hoarded Ordinaries.

She began by offering a few words about Buddhism and meditation. We learned that in Zen meditation, perhaps particularly in the Korean-style Zen she practices, the goal is not to silence the mind but instead to be attentive to the body (sit up straight, maybe be barefoot, relax), the mind (be aware of thoughts as they arise), and the breath which connects them.

She talked also about having a mantra, a phrase (usually a two-part phrase which can be used on inhalation and exhalation) which helps one focus. The mind will run away, will think about the past or the future, and one shouldn't castigate the mind for doing that -- just realize, "oh! Time to bring my attention back," return to the phrase, and keep going. (Arguably this is one definition of what enlightenment is: that moment of "oh!")

She told us that one of her teachers told her that with appropriate mindfulness, even the phrase "Coca-cola; Pepsi" can work in this way. Christians often use the Jesus prayer; Jews often use the Shema; she often recommends the phrase the Buddha is said to have used, "What am I; don't know." (I tend to use the four-letter Name of God -- pause at the letter yud, inhale at the letter hey, full breath at the letter vav, exhale at the second hey.)

Then we sat meditation for 20 minutes, which felt great. I love the energy of sitting with a group of people, and being here in this beautiful room with windows on the world -- and also being here temporally, at the cusp of what I already knew would be a fantastic day -- really helped with that.

And to wrap things up, chanting! First, the Heart Sutra in English  (a really neat text, by the way; I first encountered it in Thich Nhat Hanh's annotated rendering, which introduced me to the notion of "interbeing.") Lorianne explained it a little bit, especially the "no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue" section and how that fits into a larger tradition of the Via Negativa or apophatic discourse, and then we chanted it.

And then we chanted the Great Dharani, which is a string of nonsense syllables even to speakers of Sanskrit. (Here it is translated by Suzuki Roshi if you want to try to make sense of it; here it is in syllabics, like what we used.) Lorianne told us it was created for a disciple who was so in-his-mind that he couldn't sit meditation, so the Buddha gave him something nonsensical to chant as a way of breaking through that kind of over-intellectualization. (How very Abraham Abulafia, eh?) We chanted that, and then read the Four Great Vows together, and then we bowed to each other.

And that was how we began our morning.

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[PFBC] Blogging Scripture

We began this breakout session, led by Rabbi Jill Jacobs from JSpot and Radical Torah, by going around the circle and each talked about blogging sacred texts and what that means for us. (For me, it's blogging the Torah portion of the week regularly at Radical Torah; for others, maybe working within the Christian lectionary, or talking about the Qur'an and its interpretations.)

Rabbi Jill asked, is there a difference between blogging our texts and, say, using texts in a sermon or something like that?

Blogging our texts may allow us to reach a broader audience. Thurman talked about close readings of Scripture; Tim noted that in a sermon one might not go into a close explication of what a word meant, or a sociocultural practice that illuminates the text, whereas in a blog post one might.  He was told in seminary that you can only offer one theological concept per three minutes! But in writing you can offer something chewier.

Islamoyankee talked about how in interfaith work he doesn't necessarily use text in the same way that he does in his own community. "Scripture is a vocabulary that's not present in American society, particularly as it relates to Islam," he said. The Qur'an sees itself as being part of the same revelatory experience as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. But how can we teach that in the broader community?

I suggested that blogging scripture can be a little bit Talmudic, in a way -- it implies what Judaism calls hevruta, paired-study and dialogue. Giving a sermon is top-down, presumes that I'm the Speaker and others are the Listeners; blogging about a text presumes that others are joining in the conversation.

Thurman noted that in blogging we can link, so in talking about our texts we can link not only to those texts but to things we've said about those texts in the past, and things others have said about those texts, and so on.

Rabbi Jill added that blogging is perfect for Jewish text study! Think of how a page of Talmud looks: the central text, the commentaries in the sidebars, the inter-referentiality of the commentators. So what are the possibilities of that kind of discussion, and what are the wise boundaries?

Islamoyankee noted that people look at the Qur'an based on the biases they bring from their own tradition(s). This can be a challenge in interfaith dialogue, or in reading across traditions.

The question was posed, how do we each decide in our blogs how to relate to authority, having the authority to speak about our texts? How do we claim authority, or not?

Reverend Bruce suggested that we might look at the ten commandments as a place for dialogue. Reb Arthur asked, "which version?" (And we all laughed.) Exodus or Deuteronomy? How about the very-similar passage in the Qur'an? How can we use that to build dialogue and community?

And then we broke for lunch. Mmm, lunch.

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[PFBC] J-blogosphere breakout

We began with introductions, the six of us around the J-blogosphere table, going a little deeper than we did last night with our one-line "here's my name and my blog."

The panel was sparked by the questions I posted recently here; we began with the question, what makes a Jewish blog? Midrash, Reb Arthur offered. We draw on the text in order to go forward. The Torah is self-transformative. Demands its own transformation. Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism don't offer the answers we need.

Harriet noted how fascinating it is to read Orthodox blogs. She gets a different perspective on Orthodoxy than what she grew up with! Jewish blogs therefore are a way to see all parts of the spectrum. So the challenge is to comment without alienating, to make connections.

Barbara added that sometimes online we're freer and more tolerant than we are in our RL communities. Or vice versa.

Rabbi Jill noted that the blogosphere makes all the boundaries more permeable. We can say things on our blogs that we can't say within our communities, and then tap into people in other places who feel similarly. Blogs open up the internal chatter; we can see some of the conversations going on in the hareidi world, e.g. And that allows for a deeper relationship, both internally and externally.

Mik offered, you know a Jewish blog because the blogger calls it so! Some blogs don't seem to be about Judaism but the blogger has self-identified as a Jew and tagged the blog in that way. Technorati can't go through and say "you're not Jewish enough, you can't use that tag."

Barbara said that blogs made Judaism accessible to her. They opened the door of Judaism in a certain way.

I told the story about my post about nusach a few years ago, and how I wound up corresponding with a very Orthodox reader who helped me see the tradition in a new way -- and that's a conversation we would never have had in RL, because I don't davven where he davvens and even if I did we wouldn't cross paths in a personal way!

So to what extent do we need to show a "good" face of the Jewish community to the world? And to what extend do we need to be honest, and what does that mean? What about how our blogs are focused -- domestic, political, personal...?

Reb Arthur noted that Israel is the big issue of non-consensus, the big dividing point. We talk about how and why JSpot focuses on domestic issues, and I made the point that my aggregator has a whole lot more posts about Israel and Iraq than about domestic stuff like worker rights. Mik notes that in a way, the Israel conversations can bog down a blog, it gets exhausting. Gay rights is a consensus issue for the Jewish community (unlike maybe the evangelical community), whereas Israel really isn't.

We talked some about who we read. Jewschool came up; sites like and Chabad; Kesher Talk; Radical Torah; Renegade Rebbetzin, Soferet. How being online allows people like Nice Jewish Girl to talk about being shomer negiah.

Reb Arthur asked about differentiating between a blog and a list-serv. People offered points like: on a list, anyone can talk; it's less hierarchical. But on a list one has to sign up to participate, whereas blogs are find-able via google. Reading a blog is less of a commitment. Also anyone can start a blog, so it's more democratic; it's harder to start a list and get people to join. The virtues of regular emails in addition to our blogs, and of crossposting things so that different segments of the community find each other. And that's all we had time for...

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[PFBC] NJ Jewish News

The New Jersey Jewish News ran an article about our con!

Religion, liberalism, and Web savvy are the watchwords of the first Progressive Faith Blog Con, a convention to be held over the July 14 weekend in the Conference Center at Montclair State University.

Jews and Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, and at least one self-proclaimed pagan will gather to continue in person the kinds of conversations they wage on-line as authors of blogs, the Web diaries that range from the queasily personal to the politically influential...

I was one of the folks interviewed, which was fun. Anyway, you can read the article here: On-line religious liberals plan meeting for Montclair.

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[PFBC] Roots and Branches

The first panel of the day, led by Emily, Islamoyankee and me!

Emily Ronald begins by offering a definition of pluralism given by professor Diana Eck. She reads two fantastic quotes, which are available here at Islamicate. She talks about the theological stance of pluralism -- what allows us to engage others of different traditions -- and the citizenship stance of pluralism, e.g. the fact that we live in a diverse world and want to live in harmony. One of these speaks from faith; the other speaks from the interconnectedness of being neighbors in a society.

She digresses to tell us what the Pluralism Project does: tracking both what goes wrong (hate crimes etc.) and what goes right (people working together to help Katrina victims across faith lines.) "The challenges and blessings of pluralism come from its nature as a process," she says.

My question: where are the connections between us, and where we want them to be? Islamoyankee offers that when they started Islamicate, the first commentor was an Episcopalian woman and the second one was me. "While we were trying to figure out who we were and what made our blog different from the other Muslim blogs out there, Rachel picked up something we'd written about the prophet Muhammad (pbuh)...and at that moment we looked at each other and said, this is something we can do that no one else is doing, building these bridges across faiths."

Another question from me: how many of us could say that we only read blogs by our own community -- "I only read Jewish blogs," or so on. No one raised a hand. That seems to me like a sign that none of us is blogging, or reading, in isolation; there are implicit connections forming. And that makes it harder to paint any tradition with a single brush; I don't see "Christianity" writ large, I see individual Christians.

"It seems to me that...we are in a new situation," Reb Arthur says, "Except for maybe the 12-13th century in Andalusia, we're listening to each other more deeply [than ever before]! And going beyond, here's a more theological question: what are the differences through which we can communicate?" He cited Reb Zalman's notion that the different religions are like the different organs in the body. All are different, but all must be connected. "What is the DNA that pervades the universe, what unfolds in all of us?"

Chris from Philocrites asks whether people interact with folks who hold very different idological views; are we all just keeping in touch with progressives? "Do you interact regularly with people who hold very different views than yours?" Hands go up around the room. We agree that's a good sign. "It's easier to talk to a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu than to talk to a Conservative Presbyterian right now," says one blogger. "The lines have been drawn in the sand." "If you're Christian you're nose-to-jowl constantly [with people who define your faith differently than you do,]" says Mata H.

Mik (JSpot) adds, "My experience has been that blogs attract people with very different opinions who maybe show up just to cause trouble, and I don't think that's terribly productive. On the other can we create forums on our blogs such that people are brought there to engage in real dialogue instead of to flame and incite?"

Chris (Philocrates) talks about, a Mormon site which spans the spectrum of Mormon political thought. Their email conversations became the basis for their blog, and it attracts a broad range of Mormon opinion. And because the bloggers are invested in remaining friends, they've obligated the commentors to be civil to each other. In the years since he left the Mormon church, he sees things like this site as a positive sign that creates community.

Steve (CrossLeft) isn't that interested in the conversation between communities because he fears that progressives know what we're against but don't know what we're for, and if we get into dialogue at this point we're not sure what we're saying. "We need to get together ourselves first, progressive Christians but also progressive folks in an interfaith context, and then have those conversations." We're against tax cuts for the rich, but we don't have a clearly-defined way of eliminating poverty. We need to redefine what progressive means.

But Tim Simpson  -- the president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, who blogs as Public Theologian -- who comes out of an evangelical Christian tradition points out that there's value in challenging the status quo for people in that community -- there are people who've never heard a Christian minister champion gay rights or speak against the war. Hearing that kind of thing can be transformational. "The people who are the meanest trolls are the people who are operating out of their deepest fears. They fear their own doubt."

Bruce Prescott notes that it's hard to find a progressive Christian on talk radio. How can we communicate, how can we get our message out, when we're not on the airwaves? What kind of a nation are we going to be -- a pluralistic nation that respects the rights of every person? He offers the point that what we're doing here may be really important work.

Emily asks "if the most important work we can do right now is extending our connections, letting people know that we're out there in all different do we make that go farther than simply pointing? How do we turn a blogroll into a dialogue?" Pearlbear suggests that the work we're doing here, meeting and making connections, isn't in any way opposed to the work of meeting people in our traditions who are more conservative than we. Indeed, these can help each other.

Omar notes that the fact of this gathering suggests that as powerful as our blogs may be, this shows that we need to meet in person. He blogs at MuslimWakeUp and Progressive Muslims Meetup, and considers himself a progressive Muslim. He relates to a lot of what people have been saying: should we bother to engage the religious right? Or should we wait until we're better-organized? (And so on.) He points to two issues that inflame the radical fringe in his community: women's rights and the mixed-gender (and woman-led) Muslim prayer service, and gay rights. And the question became: how do or should we engage these parts of our community?

Islamoyankee adds some thoughts about how charged the term "progressive" is within Islam, and about extremism within Islam. He thinks extremism is happening both on the right and on the left. "The question is, what does it mean to be liberal or progressive?" And this is a big debate within the tradition. "The point is, where do we situate the text, and how do we use the text to move ourselves forward?"

I closed us with the metaphor of roots and branches: if our roots go deep into our traditions, if we're drawing on real sustenance from there, where do we want our branches to grow? And that was all we had time for; the conversation will continue at meals, in our blogs, and in the friendships we make and sustain this weekend and beyond.

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[PFBC] Friday

Lorianne picked me up at noon on Friday. We drove down to Lee, picknicked on Subway sandwiches under a tree, and continued on the road. We got a little bit lost somewhere in the Montclair-Passaic corridor, and drove around some fascinating parts of town, spotting Indian grocery stories alongside kosher markets, Orthodox men in black kippot.

Eventually we found the Wellesley Inn & Suites in Clifton, and as soon as we walked in I recognized David and Alex (from Faith in Public Life) and Thurman ( Xpatriated Texan) -- they looked exactly as I had imagined from their voices in our frequent conference calls! We dropped our bags, changed clothes, and turned around to head to the conference center. That was a wild adventure; we took a few wrong turns and wound up headed for Paterson! But in the end we made it to the conference center just in time for the evening to begin. (Now Lorianne knows that I'm capable of getting lost on my way out of the proverbial paper bag.)

The conference center is gorgeous. We're on the top floor of the building, with enormous windows looking out over campus, town, and ultimately the New York City skyline.

We mingled and met each other and exclaimed as we put faces with names. Harriet and Lorianne and I rearranged some chairs so we could sit in a circle for services. Thurman made some beautiful opening remarks (read them here), and then I led the evening service with able help from Harriet (who has a beautiful singing voice). It was a pleasure to introduce this group to the basics of Jewish worship, which I feel good about. And though we didn't have a minyan for bar'chu (the call to prayer), we were able to pause and look around the circle and see a reflection of God in all of the faces...

Reb Arthur contributed a spur-of-the-moment drash to the mourner's kaddish -- he talked about the custom in the communities he inhabits, of adding words to the last line, so that instead of merely being a prayer that the Holy Blessed One make peace for us and for all Israel, it becomes a prayer that God make peace for us, for all Israel, for the children of Ishmael, and for all who dwell on earth. There's a lot of power in that, especially now, as the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael continue to be at each others' throats... We re-spoke the last line in the way he had taught, which was deeply moving.

And then we sang "Mah Yafeh Hayom," and broke for dinner! We filled three big round tables (eventually a fourth, as more folks arrived late). At my table we talked about Thurman's speech, and the history of abolitionist work in this country; about international travel; about seminaries and scripture interpretation; about how bizarre it is that so many of us are Diaspora Texans; about the Talmud and the parables in the Gospels and how they intersect. It was, in a word, fabulous.

The first (annual?) Progressive Faith Blog Con is a reality! What could be cooler than that?

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[PFBC] Blog Con siddur

Last month I made a post called Planning for pluralism, exploring some of the unique challenges inherent in trying to plan an erev Shabbat service that would be welcoming to, and navigable by, a mixed-faith community -- without losing what makes Shabbat real and meaningful to the Jews in the room.

Whether or not that attempt was successful is perhaps not for me to judge, but I did my best, and I hope the experience was worshipful, educational, and meaningful! All those present at the Prog Faith Blog Con this evening received a copy of a siddur (prayerbook) created specifically for this service; if you'd like to have a copy on your hard drive, or if you weren't there and would like to see what we used in our davvening, here 'tis:

A Siddur for erev Shabbat at the Prog Faith Blog Con [pdf]

I drew on several resources in creating this, including my own shul's Bekol Rinah, the traditional Hebrew text of the classic Shabbat evening service, the forthcoming Mishkan Tefilah, the Pnai Or Siddur for Erev Shabbat, and Marge Piercy's The Art of Blessing the Day. I included a rendering of the kaddish by Reb Daniel Brenner (found here), and an adaptation of the second paragraph of the Shema by Reb Arthur Waskow (found here). (I promised one of the bloggers I met tonight that I would post the poems which are included in the siddur; I'll do that soon, but not tonight.)

It was a pleasure to create; I hope it was a pleasure to use. I welcome feedback of all stripes, so if you have a response to either the prayerbook or the service, please let me know!

Edited to add: the URL for the .pdf file has been fixed, so you should be able to download the siddur now!

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