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The night before blog con...

'Twas the night before blog con, and all through the blogosphere...

Okay, nothing rhymes with "blogosphere." But it is the eve of the conference even so. A gathering conceived, in a sense, nine months ago when Thurman emailed to ask whether I thought it was a good idea to hold a convention for liberal bloggers of faith, and if I did, whether I'd be game to get involved in planning it. Endless emails, a ton of weekly conference calls, and a whole lot of planning later, we're actually on the cusp of doing this thing.

That our conference gestated for nine months is largely coincidental. When we started brainstorming and imagining what this project might become, we knew we needed a while to get a plan together. Some of us live by the academic calendar, so midsummer seemed like a fine time to gather. Having a nine-month planning period wasn't intentional, but the symbolism makes me laugh. This has certainly been a labor of love, and at times more work than I think any of us bargained for!

I don't entirely know what to expect. Sure, I know the logistical details: at last count we numbered about thirty confirmed participants, so our numbers will be somewhere in that ballpark. I know we are Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Jews and a couple of Pagans, too. I know we all care about faith -- whatever that term means to each of us -- and about social justice and the public sphere. I know what the panels and breakout sessions will be, and who's offered to run each one. I know who's leading the four different worship experiences. I know, at least in theory, how to find my hotel.

But I don't know what this is going to feel like. I've never run a conference before. I've never led worship for such an explicitly mixed-faith community. And I've never had the experience -- irreducible; un-duplicatable -- of sitting down with this particular group of people, and finding out who they are.

I'm trying to enter the weekend with as few expectations as possible. Expectations get in the way of reality, and I'd like to be fully alert and awake. I know there's a lot of cat-herding to be done, and I know I've probably forgotten something important, and I know it won't be possible for everyone there to have an amazing time every moment of the weekend. But I also know that we're creating something wonderful, something that's never existed before in quite this way, and I think there's a lot of potential here.

It's the eve of the first-ever Progressive Faith Blog Con. Laundry is tumbling in the dryer; my iPod and cellphone are charging. Maybe it's bedtime. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day, and a long one.

To everyone I'll be seeing this weekend: I can't wait to meet you! And to those who won't be joining us, I hope you'll spare a thought for our enterprise, and wish us well.

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J-blogosphere questions

One of the sessions I'm leading this weekend at the blog con (schedule here) is the breakout session on the J-blogosphere. I'm assuming it won't be difficult to get people talking, but figured it would be wise to come up with some questions in advance.

Here's what I've got: a handful of discussion-starters that I hope will spark interesting conversations. What would you add to this list? What interests you about the J-blogosphere? (And if you won't be there on Saturday, do tell: how would you answer these questions?)


Discussion Questions for the J-Blogosphere Breakout:

How would you describe or define the J-blogosphere?

What are the essential or quintessential Judaism blogs?

Who do you read, whose work do you love? (And which blogs do you avoid?)

What defines a J-blog? (This is like "what defines Jewish literature...")

If you wanted to introduce a Jew who is not a blogger to the J-blogosphere, what would you show them?

If you wanted to introduce a blogger who's not Jewish, ditto? (Subtext: would you show a different face of the J-blogosphere to a "member of the tribe" than to an outsider?)

Do you read/comment on J-blogs that espouse opinions very unlike yours? (Why or why not?)

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This week's portion: turning violence into peace

Parashat Pinchas can be difficult for contemporary liberal Jews to read. The story begins at the end of last week's portion, in which we read about a man named Pinchas who speared a pair of lovers at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The two were apparently part of an epidemic of Israelites consorting with outsiders (and making illicit sacrifices to other gods), and as a result of Pinchas' actions a plague God had brought upon the Israelites comes to an end.

That's the prologue. At the start of this week's portion, God gives Pinchas a brit shalom, a "pact of friendship" or covenant of peace, for him and his descendants for all time.

Arguably the central question of the parasha is, was the brit a reward for acting righteously, or a corrective intended to steer Pinchas toward a more righteous path? And what are the implications of each answer, in terms of how we understand violence, peace, and God's will for humanity?

The traditional commentators see the covenant as a reward. In their view, the spearing was absolutely the right call. But other readings are possible -- and maybe helpful to others like me who find the portion's unbridled violence difficult to bear.

That's where my commentary on this portion begins; the rest explores a teaching of the Ishbitzer Rebbe as a path into understanding parashat Pinchas anew. Find it here: Turning violence into peace.

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In the big black Expedition with the "funeral" flags over the headlights, we led the procession to the cemetary, the guy from the funeral home and I.

"How long have you been doing this?" I asked.

"Since eleventh grade," he said, his voice colored by memory. "I've known this was what I wanted to do for a long time."

I considered what I was like at seventeen. "I couldn't have done this in eleventh grade," I acknowledged.

"Actually, in tenth grade I thought I wanted to be a priest," he admitted. "But then..."

"Maybe not so much," I offered, and he smiled. "You know, arguably you're still in the same line of work," I pointed out. "Caring for people in a time of great need. You're just doing it differently."

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Odds and ends

Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner has posted a detailed and gracious review of chaplainbook.Thanks for the kind words, Tom, and for paying the poems such close attention.

It's been a year since our friend Dick died. Last night a riotous plenty of family and friends gathered at the farm for food, conversation, memory, and dancing under the full moon. It was a good way to celebrate him, though a little bittersweet.

Blogging may be light this week, as I prepare for the Progressive Faith Blog Con. I'm excited about it, though I have occasional attacks of butterflies. Then next week, right after the blog con, I'll head to Elat Chayyim to begin the Davvenen' Leadership Training Institute. (Excited, and a little butterflied, about that too...)

VR, on-air

I just recorded a short radio commentary for weekly radio show State of Belief. Their website explains,

State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation.  The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America -– the most religiously diverse country in the world -– while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

The piece I wrote is about the multifaith world of religion blogging; it's also a little bit about the Progressive Faith Blog Con which is coming up soon.

State of Belief is a production of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and Air America Radio. I'm psyched to be able to spread the word about the blog con -- and about the corner of the religious blogosphere I'm proud to inhabit -- across the airwaves. In brief, of course. My commentary is only a few minutes long. But it was fun to write and record, even so.

(As an added bonus, after I recorded my commentary associate producer Thaler Pekar got on the line and told me she loves my haggadah. What an unexpected treat!)

The show will air on Sunday from 5-6pm EST; here's a list of ways you can listen, from tuning in to your local radio station (if Air America is broadcast near you), to streaming the audio on your computer, to downloading the show via iTunes (it should be available by Monday morning). Please do listen, and let me know what you think!

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Mah tovu

I just found the text I want to use in this Shabbat's Torah study: section two of The Gate of Sadness: Jewish and Buddhist teachings on the broken heart by Jay Michaelson.

"Sadness and joy are not opposites," Michaelson writes. "They exist as two notes of a sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, chord of quiet awareness.  Learning to experience and accept one’s sadness as part of the unfolding perfection of Being is to make the darkness visible, and beautiful.  It is a gate into deeply knowing that all is God."

If you have ever wrestled with sadness -- and who among us hasn't? -- you might find this brief text worthwhile. The part I hope to teach is section two, which alludes to the prayer offered by Balaam in this week's Torah portion, now part of our regular liturgy:

In the parallel structure of Balaam's speech, we can see a microcosm of the mind states of gadlut (great mind, when we know we are filled with God) and katnut (small mind, when we do not think we are).  The "tents of Jacob" represent katnut – grasping mind; Ya'akov, whose first act was to grasp the ankle of his twin brother Esau; Jacob, who stole his brother's blessing and tried to live his life; mere tents.  The "dwelling places of Israel" are gadlut; Yisrael, he who wrestles with, embraces God; the person who has become transformed; dwelling places made into mishkenot for the shechinah.

Yet Balaam does not say that only Israel's mishkenot are tov (good).  He does not say how wonderful it is when (and only when) our finite tents are transformed into places for the Infinite.  He says that both sides are good.

I love the way Balaam's verse suggests the tension between katnut (small or grasping mind) and gadlut (great or expansive mind), and I love the idea that a shift in consciousness can transform our plain old tents (or houses, or synagogue buildings) into holy dwelling-places. (I offer that teaching many weeks at the start of our service when we're beginning with "Mah Tovu.")

But even more than that, I'm struck by the reminder that Balaam doesn't necessarily subscribe to binaries the way that we do. As this text reminds me, the prayer doesn't say that gadlut is great and katnut isn't. Balaam suggests that both are good: that even as we strive for expanded consciousness, our contracted consciousness is also okay. That the paradigm which insists on one replacing the other might be flawed.

There's merit, it seems to me, in learning how to lift ourselves out of binaries sometimes. Instead of getting caught in this/that, we can move up a level and see the bigger picture, the whole of which the binary system is a part. We can't live our lives in constant devekut (cleaving-to-God); mystics of every tradition agree (often regretfully) that we seem to need to return to ordinary bounded consciousness in order to live in the world. But we can learn to appreciate the beauty in the whole that contains both individual selfhood and boundless unity. Mah tovu indeed.

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A quick blog con note

Just FYI, if you're planning to come to the Progressive Faith Blog Con and you'd like to take advantage of our special housing option for those who are shomer Shabbat, please tell us today! Tomorrow is our deadline for telling university housing whether or not anyone needs those rooms, so we need to know if you'd like to take advantage of that opportunity.

(As a reminder, the conference center is a few miles from the conference hotel, and the distance isn't really walkable. If you're comfortable driving on Shabbat, you're welcome to drive yourself and/or to take the conference shuttle; if you're not comfortable in motor vehicles on Shabbat, please take advantage of the university housing!)

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This week's portion: on blessings and curses

In parashat Balak we read the story of Balaam, hired by Balak to curse the Israelites who are newly-encamped in the area.

This is a great story. We have an angel of Adonai, a talking ass (seriously -- the donkey talks back to Balaam), some phenomenal poetry (including a few famous lines we recite every Shabbat morning as we begin worship)...and three instances when Balaam opens his mouth to offer curses like his employer asked him to, but the curses don't exactly come out right.

I think Balaam's transformation has something to do with the nature of prophecy, and with what happens when we really open our eyes:

With eyes unveiled, Balaam sees a new reality. Instead of seeing a military threat, a foreign people to be feared -- as Balak had seen -- Balaam looks into the hills and sees a people who travel with the Holy Blessed One in their midst. He sees with mochin d'gadlut, his "big mind" or expanded consciousness, instead of mochin d'katnut, constricted consciousness. And in that moment of seeing, all he can do is offer praise.

Read my Radical Torah post here: On blessings and curses.

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Conference schedule is online!

The ProgFaithBlogCon is almost upon us; it happens in just under two weeks!

I'm delighted to announce that the conference schedule is now online. You can find it here at the conference blog, or here as a downloadable .pdf.

I'm infinitely grateful to everyone who volunteered to lead a panel or three, and I think this is going to be a fantastic experience. I hope to see you there!

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Coming out, in joy

There's a terrific article by Tamar Prager in the current issue of Lilith magazine, which begins:

I never could have imagined a commitment ceremony for me and my partner, or dreamt that our parents would willingly and lovingly host a magnificent celebration for 165 relatives and friends. This would have been, sadly, only a fantasy. Six years earlier I'd thought of ending my life because I was in love with a woman and could not tell a soul. I felt my only other option was to hide, so I reigned in all of my emotions. Arielle and I shut out all family and friends, trapping ourselves in a tiny world closed off from our Jewish communities.

Between that narrow darkness and our day of celebration, we and our Modern Orthodox families took a journey that brought us back to the center of a Jewish universe and -- most importantly -- to ourselves.

The article is online in .pdf format: Coming Out in the Orthodox World. (Or you can view it in html if you prefer.)

Prager's essay resonated with me in a variety of ways. I'm moved by her tale of how she came to terms with her "twice-blessed" identity, and how she and her partner (and their community) grew into a place where they were able to fully celebrate who they are. I'm moved, too, by the image of her father offering the d'var Torah at the final celebration of their union -- it was perhaps not recognized as a sheva brachot ceremony by everyone in their Modern Orthodox community, but it sounds like it was transformative nonetheless.

The battle within the civil/secular world over gay marriage continues to wax and wane. But this story is proof that the value of sanctifying loving partnership is central across the Jewish religious world, from Reform to Renewal to Orthodoxy, and that gladdens me.

If you'd like more information on Jewish celebrations of same-sex marriage, the organization Keshet offers same-sex wedding ceremony resources, including partial liturgies and ceremonies. There's also a terrific archive of articles at the Shalom Center -- my favorite of those is Wedding liturgy for a same-sex marriage by R' Sue Levi Elwell.

Though I don't know Tamar and Arielle, I wish them endless brachot in their life together! May the time come, speedily and in our days, when marriages like theirs are understood to be remarkable only and exactly in the way that all marriages are remarkable. Every time two people take the leap of faith involved in a lifelong covenant, their holy sparks join together and create a joy which reverberates throughout all worlds.

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In 100 words

The new theme at Qarrtsiluni this month is "short shorts" -- vignettes, drabbles, microfiction. (One wonders whether the editors will choose to include haiku?)

The first posting in the theme is "Index of first lies" by beloved once (and future?) blogger Teju Cole. It's wryly hilarious.

Submissions are open; if you have wee works (100 words or fewer!) to share, send them along. Fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are equally welcome, as are images.

I've long enjoyed both reading and writing short-shorts. They require delightfully sparse concision. At their best, these tiny vignettes fling open wide windows into the vasty deep.