James Edward Johnson

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Archive for the ‘judaism’ Category

The Irony of Today in Jewish History

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Today marks great tragedy and great triumph for the Jewish people.

Seventy years ago today, for two days in 1941, pro-Nazi Arabs rioted against the Jews of Baghdad.  In a wave of violence, the Jews of Iraq were destroyed on a shocking scale – even in the context of the developing Holocaust. In the Farhud, which means “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”, approximately twice as many Jews were killed in Iraq as were killed during Kristallnacht in Germany.   The only reason the Nazis did not succeed in exterminating the Jews of Iraq is that the British regained control shortly after the Farhud.  Even still, Baghdad would be nearly Jew-free within the next ten years.  One of the major centers of Jewish life for approximately 2,500 years was destroyed.

Forty three years ago today (on the Hebrew calendar), another center of Jewish life was restored.  In 1967, Jews had been barred from their holiest sites in Jerusalem for 20 years – during the Jordanian occupation of the city.  Although day-to-day control of the Temple mount, Judaism’s holiest site, remains under the authority of the Islamic Waqf, it and the Kotel, or Western Wall, was opened to the Jewish people under the sovereignty of the Jewish state.  The return of this area to Jewish hands is marked by Yom Yerushalayim.

So, while on this day we remember a terrible tragedy and the destruction of a center of Jewish life, we also remember a great victory and the restoration of a center of Jewish life.


Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 6:13 am

Posted in history, israel, judaism

How gay is this story?

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I was sitting in a fairly religious  environment yesterday. The group I was with was a little over 10 people. Because we had a group of 10, one person decided that they needed to tell this story. I think it’s one of the gayer stories I have heard in a pretty long time.

Here it is …

Jon and his dad run a family business. One of Jon’s coworkers, Dave, is their top worker. In fact, he’s so good that he can literally kill the competition 10 times as well as can Jon’s dad.

Now, Jon’s dad was a little jealous about this. In fact, he learned that Jon admired Dave quite a lot, and because of this, Jon’s dad was out to get Dave.

I mentioned that Jon admired Dave, but that might not be sufficiently strong description. Jon so admired Dave that he actually proclaimed that he loved him as much as he loved his own soul.

So, Jon and Dave make a plan to determine what Jon’s dad is actually intending to do. Jon finds out that his dad is planning to summon Dave in order to bury him.

Jon sends a message to Dave that Dave is at serious risk of losing everything. Dave is hurt by this. And when he next sees Jon, he runs up to him, they kiss, and then they weep together. When Jon tells Dave that he must go, the two of them swear (before God!) an eternal bond.

… pretty gay, no?

I mentioned that the group that I was with while hearing this story was pretty conservative. And yet, they demanded everyone’s attention for the telling of this story.

What I have not noted is that this all happened at the synagogue during morning services. The 10 people were a minyan, and the story was read in Hebrew. Yesterday was Shabbat, and today is Rosh Chodesh. On such a day as yesterday, we read a special Haftarah portion. That portion is from I Samuel 20, Jon is Jonathan son of King Saul, Dave is to become King David, and the family business is the Kingdom of Israel. Of course I and II Samuel contain several such stories of the intense love between David and Jonathan. These stories are replete with multiple expressions of a covenantal relationship between the two and even describe their souls as being intertwined using language as strong as any that describes a marital relationship. Upon Jonathan’s death, David goes so far as to proclaim that Jonathan’s love was more wondrous to him than the love of women.

This is particularly timely given the judicial retention vote in Iowa. In a bizarre retention election, voters threw out three judges who were part of the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision to end marriage inequality. Of course, much of the rhetoric against marriage equality is based on the moral offense that many people find in sodomy and their presumption that gay marriage is based on sodomy. I don’t know if any of the gay married couples I know engage in such conduct any more than I know whether married straight couples obey the sexual purity laws of niddah.

But, if you ever meet a married gay couple, such rhetoric is divorced from reality. The gay married couples I know reflect the love of David and Jonathan much more than they reflect the immoral sexual violence of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible gives us a way to model and celebrate such bonds, and yet my fellow residents of Iowa seem to remain committed to a voyeuristic and sexually obsessive view of gay couples. What a shame. They should read this Haftarah portion.

postscript … I ran across this site that specifically deals with these issues from a more Christian point of view.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm

The meditating Jews of Fairfield, Iowa …

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… is the topic of my recent piece in PresenTense magazine (available here).  The community is very unique and I hope people find the piece worthwhile.

However, there was also much that I was unfortunately unable to include in the piece due to space limitations.  Here just a few of them:

One of Fairfield’s residents is Emo Baer.  You can buy his self-published autobiography through resellers at Amazon.  It is an interesting book that follows a diary-like story written by Emo later in life, but recalling the earlier events in his life.  It illustrates his life fleeing Nazi Germany, settling in pre-state British Palestine, serving in various wars, and, eventually, following his family into Transcendental Meditation (TM) and half-way around the globe to Fairfield.

Haim Menashehoff is briefly mentioned in my PresenTense piece, but his story is much more interesting than I had room to describe.  He got tired of “running from Muslims” in the streets of Tehran, even during the time of the Shah.  After making aliyah to Israel, he traveled the world as an artist and settled in South Africa for a while before eventually being more fully drawn to TM.  That interest eventually pulled him to Fairfield.

An issue I could not explore in the article is something that our Orthodox Jewish friends would find familiar.  I mentioned the golden domes (note the plural) in Fairfield, but never explored why there was more than one.  TM is, presumably for reasons not dissimilar to Orthodox davening, practiced in gender separated environments.  There is a men’s dome and a women’s dome in Fairfield.  This is just one of a few more traditional aspects of a practice that is seen as non-traditional by many outsiders.

Fairfield is a very interesting place and it is worth visiting if you want to get a picture of one of Iowa’s more diverse communities.  Congregation Beth Shalom has a nice background on the Fairfield Jewish community on their website if you are interested.

One more thing.  I also was unable to properly recognize Ben Winkler and Yael Yaar for their help on the story.  Ben spent a fair deal of time with me helping me get a feel for Fairfield.  Yael was indespensible for helping me understand the intellectual, ideological, and religious dynamics at play.  Even though they were not mentioned in the final edited draft, both played a huge part in the story.

Written by JamesEJ

Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Posted in judaism

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Reflections on Yom Kippur.

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This year, during the Yom Kippur service, this passage in the morning service Haftarah portion (beginning at Isaiah 58:4) stuck out for me:

Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. Do not fast like this day, to make your voice heard on high.

Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?

Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate.

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide.

Then your light shall break forth as the dawn, and your healing shall quickly sprout, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall gather you in.

The point of this passage is part of what is essential to understanding much of the ritual and practice of Judaism.  On Yom Kippur, no one can avoid seeing the self-deprivation that marks its observance.  Fasting for 25 hours with no food or drink or many other pleasures of life is an unpleasant thing to endure.

And yet, this passage makes clear that such observance is not really what God wants from us.  How ironic it is that we read this passage on such a day!  By this point in the service, most of us have had no water or food for 13 hours and we read that such affliction is not what God desires … and yet we keep fasting.

That irony underlies much of what we do as Jews.  It is rarely the case that the fast itself or what we eat or what sorts of attire we wear actually matters to God.  We observe these rules as laws unto themselves, but also as a way of being mindful in what we do.  I know that, for me, when I am fasting or wearing a kippah I am loathe to do anything wrong and strive to do more that is right.

And so, while I honor these mitzvot for their own sake, they are even more important because they help me to honor far more difficult and complicated mitzvot.  Fasting may seem difficult, but it can be done.  Repairing the world seems like an impossible task, but by doing things like fasting, it seems a little more possible and it certainly makes me mindful about my responsibility.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Posted in judaism

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שבת שלום

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שבת שלום! My apologies for not posting more this week. It has been a busy one and I have earned my Shabbat rest. I will, however, have a new post on Sunday.

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Friday, August 27, 2010 at 5:00 pm

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Kippah and tzitzit.

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One week ago today, I began wearing tzizit. Jewish men (as well as women who accept the mitzvot or Jewish laws) are required to wear garments with fringes on the corners. The fringes are the tzitzit and the garment is a tallit katan, or small prayer shawl. It is really just a rectangular piece of cloth with a hole that can serve as a collar. Mine are mesh fabric and are extremely breathable.

When I wear my tzitzit, I tuck them into my pants in the custom of the Sephardim. I don’t like to wear my piety outwardly because I do not pretend that my observance is at the level it ought to be.

I do not, however, always wear a kippah, or yarmulke, the small hat that observant Jews wear. If I have cause to wear one in public I do not remove it quickly, but I do not wear one for its own sake.

What many do not know is that, unlike the requirement of tzitzit, there is no general command in Jewish law, or halacha, to wear the kippah. One must wear it when praying or making a blessing, but it is not commanded at other times.

For me, the core issue is that I do not like public piety. Wearing a kippah is easy. Wearing tzitzit is easy. Following all the other mitzvot is not easy. Most people know that I am Jewish. If they think I am a good Jew, I want it to be because they see me perform mitzvot that are not easy. I don’t want it to be because of the outward symbols of piety.

Written by JamesEJ

Friday, August 6, 2010 at 9:46 am

Posted in judaism

Science and Judaism …

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Rabbi Natan Slifkin at the Bronx Zoo.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin at the Bronx Zoo.

… are absolutely compatible.  Mostly, that is because the Torah is not a science book.  Rabbi Natan Slifkin wrote an excellent book dealing with the subject and has an excellent blog.

Today, I had the wonderful privilege of receiving a tour of The Bronx Zoo led by Rabbi Slifkin, who is also known ans the Zoo Rabbi.  He does his tours of the Bronx Zoo about twice a year and occasionally visits other zoos to do tours as well.

If you ever have the opportunity, take it.  He is an entertaining and intelligent Rabbi who can tie together the issues that are relevant in science and Judaism.  The rationalist and scientist will be pleased with his presentation and will enjoy it if they enjoy hearing about how the natural world interacts with Judaism.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Posted in judaism