James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Archive for July 2010

Muslims and strippers …

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What do these two places have in common?

Strippers

A strip joint near the WTC.

The answer is that they are both within a short distance of the World Trade Center site. Indeed, it is easy to stand on the street and see both the massive construction project at the WTC and one of these sites.

Muslims

The future site of an Islamic Center near the WTC.

However, there is one thing that is very different. Only one has provoked intense controversy because of its location near “sacred ground.” The sacrilege is not men paying naked women for their sexually explicit performances. It is the one where people will be praying to God.

To be clear, I have reservations about each that I will explain at another time. However, neither should be barred because of their controversy.  This is a free country.  Even when people take offense we favor freedom over protecting people from their sensitivities.

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Written by JamesEJ

Friday, July 30, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Posted in liberty

A complimentary business …

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Here’s a business idea – free rental, but you have to consent when they take out a life insurance policy on you.

Written by JamesEJ

Friday, July 30, 2010 at 2:38 pm

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Wrapped tefillin in the airport.

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The earliest Shema meant I wrapped tefillin in the small Illinois airport in Moline. I wonder if the conspicuous Star of David helped me avoid unwanted attention – since I obviously was not a Muslim. Only one guy – on the left – greeted me after I was done. No questions.

Written by JamesEJ

Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 6:32 am

Posted in judaism

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From Iowa City to New York City.

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My blogging format for the coming seven days will shift.  I’ll be in New York City on Thursday and will probably write quick highlights as I see or do things that are interesting … stay tuned …

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 1:45 pm

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This Shabbat in Iowa City … The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland (3 of 3)

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Devra the Davener?

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

Judaism cleaves largely between liberal Judaism and orthodox Judaism.  Within each there are many subcategories, but these are the two most significant groupings.  The principal difference is the role of Jewish law, known as halacha.  Orthodox Judaism accepts very few modifications to halacha and those modifications are grounded heavily in major historical realities, like the destruction of the Temples.  Liberal Judaism revises halacha to better suit Judaism to modern life.  Even orthodox halacha  allows adaptations to modern life, but those adaptations tend to be oriented towards practical solutions that allow adherents to both obey halacha and live a modern life without any direct modification of halacha.

Iowa City’s synagogue is affiliated with two liberal streams of Judaism.  There is also a Chabad House in Iowa City  that observes orthodox halacha.

A few innovations implemented by most streams of liberal Judaism have helped Iowa City have minyanim far more regularly:

First, driving (which is generally forbidden on Shabbat) is permitted for the purpose of attending religious services.  Driving involves creating a spark or fire, which is prohibited in orthodox Judaism, but liberal Judaism creates an exception for the purpose of attending services.

Second, conversion to Judaism under liberal Jewish auspices is recognized in liberal congregations, but not orthodox congregations.  In a place like Iowa City, where there are many mixed marriages that lead to conversion for the originally non-Jewish spouse.  The broader rule is helpful here because many of those conversions are not orthodox conversions.

Third, and most importantly, liberal Jewish congregations, with very few exceptions, count women for the minyan.  Traditionally, only men counted.  There were many reasons for this, some of which were more legitimate than others, but all of which had the practical effect of excluding women from minyanim.   Obviously, counting women doubles the number of potential people who are available for a minyan.

On this past Shabbat, counting women was critical.  Without the women, there would have been no minyan.  We would not have read from the Torah.

If you need a male-only orthodox minyan, it can be obtained in Iowa City, but it is much more difficult.  Chabad will be of tremendous help in such a case, but it is wise to seek such a minyan well in advance.  Certainly, expecting an orthodox minyan to appear on a weekly basis (let alone at weekday times for mourners’ and others’ needs), is foolish in Iowa City … particularly in the summer.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 26, 2010 at 5:30 pm

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This Shabbat in Iowa City … Getting a minyan (2 of 3)

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Agudas Achim Congregation in Iowa City, Iowa.

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

A minyan is an assembly of ten Jews.  Who counts in determining if you have ten will be considered in the next post.  The focus here is the number ten.

Certain religious activities require a minyan.  One is reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer.  Another is reciting the Torah in the morning service.  Both of these are routinely important reasons to gather a minyan – even among more liberal Jews.

The problem that some communities in Iowa have is that there aren’t ten Jews in town …  or at least not ten who are healthy enough to regularly make it to the synagogue.  There are a fair number of dwindling and aging communities.  A handful of Iowa City Jews make a periodic trip to Ottumwa, an Iowa town experiencing this problem, just to bring a minyan to them.

Iowa City is the sort of place that should not have this problem.  There are at least a couple hundred Jewish families here.  Unfortunately, this is also a University town and that means people are gone a lot in the summer (not to mention that many are apathetic year-round).  On Friday evenings during the academic year there is usually a minyan at both the one synagogue and Hillel.  But, in the summer it is not surprising if a Shabbat morning service fails to get its required ten.

On this past Shabbat, it looked like we might fail to get a minyan about an hour after the service was scheduled to begin (services often run over two hours, but they start late and the minyan really matters about an hour or so into the service).  In Iowa City, it is routine that someone will leave  services and start making calls (Jews reading this should consider the Halachic implications) to gather the last few of a minyan.  I work about two blocks from the synagogue and, for occasional non-Shabbat services, I have received such a call and made the minyan.

This Shabbat turned out to be ok.  We actually had twelve Jews gathered together by the time we read from the Torah.  If we had been missing just three of them we would not have read it.  That is a small margin upon which to rely.

Many Jews in more densely Jewish areas never have this experience.  In Iowa, one in 500 people are Jewish; in New York, one in eleven are Jewish. Many places that are more Jewish than Iowa have many minyanim throughout the week.  It is a unique challenge to be a Jew in Iowa and this is a big part of that challenge.  Jews in places like this have to be proportionately more active just to meet basic religious needs.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

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This Shabbat in Iowa City … The Torah portion – Va-ethannan (1 of 3)

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Mezuzah

A mezuzah, which is affixed to the door posts of Jewish homes, contains a scroll with the Hebrew words of the Shema.

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

On every Shabbat morning, Jews read a part of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, at morning services.  On the Jewish calendar, we read a section of the Torah each week such that we read the entire Torah every year.  This week, we read Va-ethannan, which is the second portion of Deuteronomy, or in transliterated Hebrew, Devarim.

This portion is unusually significant.  It contains two passages that are of major importance.  The first, which is recognizable to Jews and Christians alike, is that the portion contains one of the recitations of the Ten Commandments.

While Jews have 613 commandments in the Torah, there is no doubt that these ten are of elevated importance.  They appear in Jewish iconography and, as tablets, were the material representation of the entire Torah covenant between God and the Jewish people.    While today synagogues have arks to hold their Torah scrolls, the original ark in the Tabernacle and later in the First Temple contained these tablets.

Hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in the synagogue in Hebrew is an important experience that happens only twice a year.  They are read first in Exodus, or in transliterated Hebrew, Shemot.  This week was their second reading.

The other passage of tremendous importance this week was the recitation of the Shema.  In English it reads, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  In transliterated Hebrew, it reads, “Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.”  This is the only time it is recited in the Torah and if there is a single passage of Hebrew that a Jew knows, it is this one.  Observant Jews recite it every morning and every night and at every service.  According to the command following this verse, they bind the words in little boxes on their arms and forehead each morning, and affix them in little containers to their door posts.  If able, Jews should try to make these their last words.  Even very non-observant Jews do some of these.  There is no other verse that receives even remotely this level of attention.

In short, if one is compelled to come to services based on the content of the portion, this week was uniquely compelling.  It is interesting, therefore, that in Iowa City, there was a risk that we would be unable to read it.  And, indeed, in many Iowa towns, they probably did not read it.  That will be the subject of the next part.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Posted in judaism, other

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