James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Posts Tagged ‘minyan

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

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

Posted in judaism, other

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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

Posted in judaism, other

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