Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Each generation deals with its own issues and challenges with the tools that are available to it. As the Talmud states, “Jephthah [the so-called “Judge”] in his generation was like Samuel in his” (RH 25b). Jewish history records many institutional and religious transformations, and how local communities dealt with them. Rabbinic Judaism significantly altered biblical Judaism. Medieval philosophy, influenced by Greek and Arab thinkers, redefined Judaism for many (e.g., Maimonides, Ibn Ezra). Modern thought allowed liberal Jews to raise new questions and respond with novel answers.

Judaism is now facing a significant theological crisis, as the gap between fundamentalist Orthodox and progressive Jews keeps getting bigger. And the liberals seem to be paying the price.

A few examples will point to the problem at hand.

1   The emphasis on spirituality is gone:

There was a time, maybe 10-15 years ago, that everyone was gravitating to a “spiritual” interpretation of Judaism. Lectures, seminars, and books were dedicated to the discussion of “spirituality” in Judaism. In the year, 2000, I, too, wrote a book on spirituality called Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (JL), which, at the time, was very well received. Now you can get it for $3 each. Most people cannot relate to “spirituality” anymore. They don’t know what it is, and furthermore, many don’t even care.

2   Synagogue affiliation is in trouble:

When I began my rabbinate in 1966 (I just celebrated my Jubilee year), synagogue affiliation was de rigueur. True, some people could not afford or did not want to belong to a temple, but the community ethics insisted on membership in a shul for most Jews. Today, many quit after a Bar/t Mitzvah, attendance at regular services is going down and fewer people actively participate in synagogue leadership. Some temples in the Boston area where I live are closing down (e.g., a major Conservative congregation, Mishkan Tefillah, with 1200 families at its height, folded recently); others are merging because of financial needs, or sharing their facilities with other institutions.(On the other hand, a few synagogues, e.g., Needham, Wellesley and others are doing very well).

3   Emphasis on Youth; What about adults?

During my active rabbinate, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), with its regional offices everywhere in the country, had many programs for adults and youth. Recently, with the closing of the local offices, the URJ seems to redirect its attention to the youth, through camps and Israel trips, in the hope of raising a new generation of committed Jews. This is wonderful but what happens to the adults among us? I don’t see too many programs addressing their needs.

Is there a solution to our dilemma?

There is not a magic wand that will cure all ills, but there are things that we can and should do. Many people do want a religious outlook that they can adopt for their emotional and intellectual needs, but are looking for something they can hold on to, and rationally accept. With spirituality gone, I suggest, we could emphasize the ethical dicta of the sages, both ancient and modern. After all, we have a long tradition of ethical teachings in Judaism: the prophets did it (e.g., Amos 5:14-15; Micah 6:8), the Rabbis wrote about it (e.g., Pirke Avot), the medievalists pondered on their implications (e.g., Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim). We also need to stop repeating beliefs that are hard to take seriously now, such as miracles, life after death, petitionary prayers or the Messiah, and concentrate on ideas and facts that are empirically verifiable.

In my case, I grew up Orthodox in Istanbul, was the hazzan kavua of my synagogue for many years, and then discovered Reform Judaism. Now, I realize that for many people theism does not work anymore and that we could look at God, not as a Personal God (because the concept does not have a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil), but conceive of the divine as a non-anthropomorphic energy or force of the universe. That, I believe, many people would accept. Obviously that would require that we begin to redefine our religious vocabulary on prayer, revelation, miracles, holiness and others (Note 1).

Recently, I gave a lecture on “The critical approach to the Bible” to the faculty and staff of my University. Afterwards, one Jewish professor told me, If I had you as my Rabbi when I was younger, I would have certainly kept the faith now!


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

Framingham State University

Note 1: See my article “Theists and Non Theists” in the Reform Jewish Quarterly-CCAR Journal, Spring, 2016, 99-108, for an example. 

For my other books, see

On the Ten Commandments: And God Spoke These Words:
Did Moses Really Have Horns:
Modern Judaism: (search by author and/or title)
Vivir Como Judio: (search by author and/or title).

(Co-authored with Rabbi Daniel Syme):

Thursday, May 12, 2016


A miracle is usually understood as an intervention by God who suspends the laws of nature for a purpose. The rabbinic and modern Hebrew term for it is “NES.” However, this is not what it meant in biblical times. 

The term NES, deriving from the Hebrew root NSS, simply means an ensign, a signal, a pole, as in “The Lord said to Moses, ‘make a seraph [meaning uncertain, some say, a winged snake] figure and mount it on a standard (NES)” (Num. 21:8). Or, by extension, it may refer to an example: the rebellious Korah’s band disappeared when the earth opened up, thus becoming a NES (“an example’) (Num. 26:10).

 In the ancient Near East, the belief in miracles was based on the assumption that God is omnipotent, and, consequently, He [in the Bible it is always a masculine figure] can interrupt the flow of nature at will. Various Hebrew expressions are used for this phenomenon, such as, GEDOLOT (“great things”) and NIFLAOT (“marvelous works”). In the early rabbinic literature, the word NES refers to miraculous signs, such as: “One who sees a place where miracles (NISIM) happened to Israel should say, ‘Blessed is he who performed miracles for our fathers in this place” (Ber. 9: 1). 

It is important to note, however, that neither the Bible nor early rabbinic texts have a systematic understanding of miracles. In those days, people believed that God acted like humans, but considerably stronger and with incredible results. Only during the medieval period did the Jewish philosophers start to interpret the ancient miracles according to the prevailing thinking of their time, without, however, reaching unanimity of opinion. Even though many professed a belief in miracles, others came up with novel interpretations. For instance, Nahmanides (13th cent. Spain) and Hasdai Crescas (14th cent. Spain) believed that miracles were immutable supernatural realities, but others, like Maimonides (d. 1204, Spain and Egypt), argued, in accordance with their rationalistic Aristotelian philosophy, that the so-called miracles were built into the structure of the universe, and when circumstances become favorable they emerge as something new (See, Maimonides, Eight Chapters, ch.8; Guide, 2: 29), and others, like Spinoza (17th cent., Holland) and , later on, Mordecai Kaplan (d. 1983, USA) totally rejected all beliefs in the creditability of the biblical miracles. 

There is no doubt that many people in ancient times took miracles for granted, but, even then, there were some who discounted the idea. Thus, for instance, in the biblical times, according to one source, miracles cannot be used to prove a religious truth: The Book of Deuteronomy teaches us that if a prophet gives you a sign, asking you to follow another god, do not do it, “even if the sign or portent (OT or MOFET) that he named to you comes true” (Deut. 13: 3). Similarly, in the rabbinic literature, the sages stressed that no one should pray for something that would alter the past, for it cannot be undone. Thus, “To cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9:3). 

In our time, it is incumbent upon us to remind people that miracles do not happen. God, as the energy of the universe, does not interrupt the flow of nature for the benefit of anyone, no matter how sincere or hopeful. It is always good to hope for the best, but one cannot depend on it. As one rabbi said in the Talmud: “Never depend on a miracle” (Sab. 32a).
The Universe is a wonderful place. Every moment is a “miracle.” As Walt Whitman (d. 1892) once wrote, “To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle; Every cubit inch of space is a miracle.” As we observe nature, we realize that many of life’s secrets still need to be discovered. And when something incredible does occur, it is because we have not as yet learned how the world really operates and how the laws of nature make this possible. New knowledge enriches us and gives us a better perspective on life. We cannot pray so that the world outside will bend to our purposes, but we can pray so that we can have a better understanding of ourselves and learn how to deal with nature’s surprises. In that respect, the Gates of Prayer, hit the right note when it stated, “Who rise from prayers better persons, their prayer is answered” (1975, p.127). 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


It is difficult to define the word “holy” or “sacred.” Philosophers have a hard time clarifying the totality of what this word tries to convey. It certainly has to do something with religion, with God, with the otherness of things, or with the numinous quality of being. In modern life today, however, the word does not have a great appeal. The question is whether the concept behind the word is worth preserving.

In the ancient Near East holiness implied separation. In Akkadian the verb qadashu means to become pure. In Mari a qadishtu was a priestess. In the Hebrew Bible qadosh refers to whatever is set aside for a purpose. The Rabbis, too, understood the word in the same manner. Whereas Lev. 19:2 states, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” [qadosh], the SIFRA, a legal commentary on the book of Leviticus, states that this means, “You shall be separate [perushim] (from others or sinful acts).” The opposite of holy is profane, impure and ordinary. 

In traditional Hebrew texts, the term qadosh is applied to various spheres:
a)    Holiness can be applied to people, and especially to the people of Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20: 26). Priests also are considered holy because they were separated from other individuals in the community (Lev. 21: 6).
b)    Objects can be holy: Thus, all priestly clothing is considered holy (Ex. 28:2,4), because only priests can wear them. 
c)     Time can be set aside as holy:  For example, the Sabbath day is viewed as holy, because it is set aside from all other days as a day of worship and rest (Ex. 20:8).
d)    Places can be considered as sacred: Within the ancient temple of Jerusalem, there was a section designated as “Holy of Holies” where presumably the divine dwelled (Ex. 25: 8). Similarly, a sanctuary is called a miqdash (“sacred place’), for, it has been set aside as a special place of worship.
e)    Occasions can be viewed as holy: In the rabbinic literature, the marriage ceremony is called qiddushin (from the same root as qadosh), since both husband and wife set themselves apart for a unique relationship.
f)      The Israelite God, whose personal name, YHVH, we do not know how to pronounce, is viewed as holy, because He has been set aside for an exclusive worship from all other gods in the universe: “Who is like you, O Lord [YHVH], among the gods; Who is like you, majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15: 11). Similarly, in the temple of Jerusalem the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts” (Isa. 6: 3).  

In the Biblical view, holiness is regarded as being gradual from the most sacred to the least sacred; as one gets closer to God, it becomes more holy.  Some individuals, for example, are holier than others. Thus, the High priest is the most sacred; then come the ordinary priests, then the Levites, and finally the Israelites and the resident aliens. Foreign nations appear at the very bottom. In the same vein, when it comes to places, after the “Holy of Holies” in the temple of Jerusalem, you have the temple compound, then the city of Jerusalem, then the Land of Israel, and finally, the least sacred are all other lands outside of Israel. 

            How was God’s holiness understood? Primarily by way of copying divine deeds. For instance, when Lev. 19: 2 states, “You [meaning, the Israelites] shall be holy, because, I, the Lord your God, am holy,” the SIFRA adds that the proper meaning is: “If you sanctify yourselves, then I [God] would consider as if you have sanctified me.” Similarly, Nahmanides (Girona, Spain, b.1194-1270, Israel) comments on the same verse saying, “That means, by being holy we can cling to God”.  In other words, holiness is based on imitatio dei, acting as God would: i.e., If you act in a godly matter, then, God is sanctified. 

The comments above reflect a theistic view of God where God appears as a Person who knows, responds and reacts to human activity. How can holiness be construed within a non-theistic, religious naturalistic point of view (My approach)? I believe that the Biblical concept of “holy” as referring to something that is separate and being set aside for a special purpose is still valid. However, I would argue that nothing is intrinsically sacred. Holiness is a quality that we bestow upon others because we consider them as special, such as historical sites (e.g., the city of Jerusalem, my synagogue in Needham, MA), human relationships (e.g. spouses, parents), the environment (e.g. respect for nature).  [You create your own list].  As to God, which in a non-theistic religious naturalism stands for the energy that animates the universe, divine holiness is based on the life-affirming qualities that we, humans, attribute to all existence that surrounds us, for without that energy we would not exist.
I agree with Michael Benedict who wrote:
“Nothing is holy expect that we sanctify it;
and thus everything is potentially holy
      except cruelty, disease, and untimely death.” (1)

To life!
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
April 2016

1.    Michael Benedikt, God is the Good We Do. Botting Books, NY, 2007, 10.