Monday, January 7, 2019


The more I study famous individuals who had tremendous impact on society, the more I realize that many legends were created about them after their death. Over time, they become super human beings. This happened to many people, including Moses, Jesus, Alexander the Great, Buddha, and others. 

Take the case of Moses, for example. There are no extra biblical sources that refer to him or to the Exodus. The stories about his infancy read like other birth legends of Akkad. Furthermore, was he an Egyptian? A Midianite? A Levite? The Hebrew Bible derives his name from the fact that he was “pulled out” (Ex.2: 10) from the Nile river. In reality, his name comes from an Egyptian word meaning “to give birth” or “son of.”  We do not even know his actual name. Granted, it is difficult to “invent” a personality like Moses. He must have existed but the details of his life are not available to us. He was a great leader about whom various legends were created, in time making him “a prophet…whom YHVH knew face to face” (Deut.34:10), a teacher par excellence (Moshe rabbenu –“Moses our teacher”), but not divine.

What about Jesus? A critical analysis of the New Testament shows that the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels is very different from the Jesus of John. Besides, was he from Bethlehem or Nazareth? Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish-Greek philosopher, and the contemporary of Jesus, does not mention him. Josephus, the Jewish-Greek historian who lived around the same time, has two short references to Jesus (Antiq. 18:3/3 and 20: 9/1) but they are highly controversial. Most scholars agree that Jesus must have been a Jewish charismatic leader who was put to death by the Romans in the 1st cent. CE. The details of his life and his teachings, however, are not known for sure. 

The scholarly search for Jesus, the man, began in the early 18th century with Samuel Reimarus, a German scholar, who stressed the Jewishness of Jesus. Others followed, including Albert Schweitzer, who, in his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, questioned many of the traditions regarding him but emphasized his eschatological teachings. More recently, others proposed some extreme positions, such as Barbara Thiering , who in 1992, argued in her book, Jesus  and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the historical Jesus was the leader of the radical faction of the Essenes, a Jewish group which, during the Roman period, lived in Qumran. It appears that it will be impossible to know exactly who Jesus was. Samuel Sandmel, a New Testament scholar, expressed his frustration when he stated that “the Jesus of history is beyond recovery” (We Jews and Jesus, p. 107). Jesus must have been a noteworthy Jewish personality about whom various legends were created. A charismatic leader, he ended up becoming divine for many. 

What about literary attribution to someone else? In the ancient world it was not uncommon to attribute a book to an outstanding individual who lived in the past. According to Jewish tradition, for example, the first Five Books of the Hebrew Bible, were written by Moses (e.g., Deut.31:9). Modern Biblical scholarship discounts this claim, and maintains that these books were written by scribes representing four different schools of thought (the so-called JEDP) over a long period of time, and then attributed back to the great Moses.

Similarly, the thirteen Pauline epistles in the New Testament present Paul the Apostle as their author. However, scholars agree today that many of these letters (e.g., Colossians, Ephesians) were attributed to Paul, not written by him. In Jewish religious literature we have the case of the Zohar, a medieval kabbalistic book, which, although written by Rabbi Moses de Leon (13th cent. Spain), it was attributed by him to Shimon bar Yohay, a 2nd cent. Tannaitic sage from Galilee, who was active after the destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem in 70.

Moses and Jesus were outstanding individuals who had tremendous impact on their society. Over time, however, many teachings were attributed to them. That says a lot about their teachings but very little about their personal life. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA
Framingham State University, Philosophy/Psychology Dept.

Monday, November 26, 2018


This week, the Boston Magazine (Dec. 2018), published a powerful article by Erick Trickey, entitled “Has Boston Given up on God?” This is a devastating piece against old time religion. The author points out that “Religion’s importance in people’s lives is on the decline across the country,” evidenced by the fact that so many religious institutions are simply shutting down their operations. He also states that “people who say they are not affiliated with any religion, [is] at 32 percent of residents.” To counter this negative trend, Trickey points out, new belief systems are emerging based on “higher education’s critical thinking, science’s demands for evidence, technology’s drive for results, liberal politics’ notion of progress and social justice.” 

That is what I want from my Judaism. We have a long tradition and we want to preserve it by adapting it to the needs of the time, just as Rabbinic Judaism radically transformed biblical Judaism, and medieval Jews started to view Judaism through the prism of their time and place. Reform Judaism is one of the modern answers. I would argue that even Orthodox Judaism today has had to change since its medieval practices.
I grew up Orthodox, and was in fact the Hazan Kavua (permanent prayer leader) of my Junior congregation, but, after I went to law school, I simply could not abide by the theology and practice of my religious community in Istanbul, and chose Reform Judaism as my new path. It has been my salvation. 

In our time, we, too, need to stress the rationalistic elements of our Jewish tradition, because I believe most of our people now are demanding it.  We, too, must look at our religious patterns critically, and search for reliable evidence regarding our religious beliefs. Otherwise, we will lose our constituency that will go elsewhere for its spiritual needs.
Soon, in the Jewish community, we will be celebrating Hanukah. Pray, let us not retell the story of the so-called “Hanukah miracle,” that kept the candles lighting for 8 days, but, discounting this improbable rabbinic teaching in the Talmud (TB, Shabbat, 21 b), let us concentrate on the importance of the holiday as a festival of lights that figuratively opens the blind eyes, and deaf ears; and as the holyday that celebrates religious liberty.
Spirituality is the study of ultimate concerns, and there is plenty to discuss it within a rationalistic frame of mind.

Happy Hanukah.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 27, 2018.

Friday, November 16, 2018


Yoram Hazony wrote a great book entitled The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge, 2012), in which he argued that the Bible could be “more readily understood if read as works of reason rather than works of revelation” (p.66). Being a religious naturalist, this line of thought suits me better. 

Very often, the Hebrew Bible states, “The Lord spoke to me,” or simply, “God told me.” If, as I maintain, God is the impersonal energy of the universe, these expressions for me could simply mean, “I have got a new insight,” or “a new idea came to my mind.” Here, “insight” simply means, the ability to have a clean, deep and often sudden intuitive understanding of a complicated problem or issue. This does not diminish the importance of the message, but it places it within the naturalistic realm. The new quandary for us then would be to try to find out the source of the new insight. Most people would say that we get it from the combination of our reasoning mind and our natural inquisitive personality. 

I have a hard time comprehending the meaning of the expression, “God said.” In other words, I do not know how divine verbal revelation really works. For example, when the Bible states, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea” (Hos.1:1), what exactly took place in that dialogue? Did God speak with a human voice, in Biblical Hebrew? Did the prophet hear articulated sounds? Similarly, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the text reads: “God spoke all these words, saying” (Ex.20:1), many thinkers throughout history had a hard time imagining the format of the conversation. According to some ancient Rabbis, when God gave the Torah, “the whole world hushed into breathless silence, and the voice went forth” (Sh’mot Rabba, 29:9). For Philo of Alexandria, during the giving of the Decalogue, “an invisible sound” was created (Decalogue,9-10). In the Middle Ages, Maimonides, the rationalist, had to agree that the Israelites only heard “inarticulate words” (Guide, 2:33). Even Mendel of Romanov, a Hasidic teacher of the 18th cent. maintained that the people only heard the letter ALEF, the first letter of the Decalogue (Zera Kodesh, II, 40). Assuming that the entire episode is historical, which is hardly so, wouldn’t it be better to understand that Moses simply had a remarkable insight, and shared it with others?

Using reason, instead of revelation, would make the sacred text, more relatable to many who are not ready to accept mysterious and unverifiable divine articulations?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Nov. 15, 2018