James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Posts Tagged ‘religious

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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Evangelical Christians show more tolerance than the Left.

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John Hagee

Pastor John Hagee at the 'Night to Honor Israel' in the Quad Cities.

On Thursday, I went to the Christians United for Israel ‘Night to Honor Israel’ in Davenport. The 2,400 seat Adler Theater was filled nearly to capacity with conservative evangelical Christians. This is not typically my sort of crowd.  Conservative preacher Pastor John Hagee, who is among the best known conservative evangelicals in America, was the keynote speaker.  The crowd was filled with people who have a strict view of a different faith than mine and who have fairly severe differences with me on a wide range of social policies.

And yet, I was warmly welcomed, as a Jew, among these people.  Hagee made clear that his love and support for the Jewish people is not based on any expectation that we convert to Christianity or any other sort of compromise of our beliefs.  The crowd echoed that view.

And so, I wonder, why is it that among the supposedly tolerant and accepting people on the left here in Iowa City, I feel no tolerance; while among the typically less tolerant and conservative Christians, I feel real tolerance … even acceptance?

By way of example, a far-left Democrat from here in Johnson County, told me at the state Democratic Convention that I was a disloyal American and that I should leave and move to Israel.  I feared nothing like that on Thursday evening.  In fact, I experienced the opposite … my Jewish identity was seen as a patriotic expression of my American heritage.  God bless these people for showing me real acceptance.


Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, October 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

The Atlantic covers Persian Jews in America.

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Cyrus the Great allowing Hebrew pilgrims to return to and rebuild Jerusalem

Cyrus the Great allowing Hebrew pilgrims to return to and rebuild Jerusalem

Jews can trace their history in Persia back at least 2,500 years to the time of Cyrus the Great, who restored the Jews to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile.  Sadly, in the last several decades, the Jews in Persia have been reduced to one tenth their previous size.  Most Jews fled Iran because of the rising antisemitism and persecution that accompanied the Islamic Revolution and went to Israel.  A very large number also fled to the United States.

The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Weingarten has an amazing piece discussing the recent history of Persian Jews in the United States.  Here is what she reports on Persian Jewish thought on the possibility of a military strike on Iran:

“Its very difficult for us,” explains Hooshang Nemat, the executive vice president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. “You dont want to see your nation destroyed, and you dont want to see a conflict between your country of birth and the country that you sympathize with because of religion and because of shared history.” Nemat, a 67-year-old Mashadi Jew an small, ancient group from the Iranian city of Mashad, came to America in 1961 as a student at the University of Miami. He returned to Iran in 1972, and came back to the United States because of the revolution.

Like Nemat, most Iranian American Jews are against a military strike on Iran — whether it is from Israel or from the United States. But while theyd prefer a diplomatic solution, others say they would still support Israel in defending itself against a virulently anti-Semitic, and potentially dangerous, regime. Sam Kermanian, the former secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, believes that an Israeli strike “would be viewed as a justifiable act of defense,” adding that “the reaction of the Iranian American Jewish community wont be much different than the reaction of the majority of the people of Iran, who view the current regime as oppressive, and in conflict with the interests of the people of Iran.”

via Iranian Jews in America: Torn Between Homelands – International – The Atlantic.

This is just a small sample of what Weingarten shares.  The entire piece is worth reading and provides valuable insight on the views of religious minorities from Iran.

cross-posted at The View From Damavand

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 2:23 am

CUFI, Grassley, and being pro-Israel.

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Grassley @ CUFI

Senator Charles Grassley addresses Christians United For Israel on August 19 in Clive, Iowa.

On Thursday, I had the privilege of meeting with a lot of Christian supporters of Israel affiliated with CUFI, Christians United for Israel.  The degree of love and support I felt from these people presents a challenge to the center-left.

I am a Democrat and a liberal on a large number of social policies.  But, even when I acknowledged this fact, I was answered by the recognition that it makes our mutual interest in supporting Israel all the more awesome.

Christians for Israel support Israel and the Jewish people because of their Christian faith.  The believe they honor God by honoring Jews and Israel.  Unlike some Christians, they do not merely see Jews as part of some end-times story or desire dragging Jews into a war in order to provoke Armageddon.  They pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the security of Israel and the Jewish people.

Senator Charles Grassley addressed the group of at least a few hundred people in Clive, Iowa.  His expression of support for Israel and the Jewish people is a challenge.  It is a challenge because, as a Democrat, I do not experience such expressions of support in my own party.  I hear support, but it is often explicitly narrow support.  In offering his unyielding support (not necessarily uncritical – but certainly unyielding), Grassley challenges Democrats like me to do better.

And, indeed, we must do better.  Current polling shows that Jews are increasingly Republican.  Indeed, one third of Jews report being Republican today compared to 20% in 2008 and 26% in 2006.  Weakness on Israel among Democrats must be a factor in this shift.

How many of my fellow Democrats, for example would say, as Grassley did, that, “God commands me that I must pray for Jerusalem’s peace”?  How many would say that, “Judaism can stand alone without Christianity but Christianity cannot stand alone without Judaism”?  Among Democrats, would that line about Christian dependence on Judaism get the tremendous applause that these overwhelmingly Republican Christians gave?  How many Democrats would join the echoes of Isaiah 62 that, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet”?

Now, I know people who work with Grassley’s general election opponent in November, Democrat Roxanne Conlin.  They have assured me that she stands with Israel.  But, when Grassley expresses his support with such passion, it makes voting with my party a little more difficult.  For less active Democratic Jews, it might make standing with the Democratic Party much more difficult.

We Democrats must meet this challenge.  It is a strategic necessity that we not allow Republicans to capture voters on this issue.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, August 21, 2010 at 8:00 pm

My column in the Press-Citizen: No valid objection to Park 51

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My column on the Park 51 project (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”) is in today’s Iowa City Press-Citizen.  Here is the opening:

The so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is not planned for anywhere on the 16-acre World Trade Center site in Manhattan. It is in the Financial District, but it is at least two blocks from WTC 7 — the nearest part of the massive WTC site.

via No valid objection to Park 51 | press-citizen.com | Iowa City Press Citizen.

Read the whole thing.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 12:08 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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