Tuesday, September 5, 2017


I have been teaching Ethics at Framingham State University (in the greater Boston area) for a few years. This course is for one semester only. I usually teach in the Fall and in the Spring, but not during the Summer. I am in the Psychology/Philosophy department, and have created my own approach to this academic discipline. 

I start with theoretical issues, such as, How free are we? Where do we get our ethics from? What are Virtue Ethics?  Then, I move to classical material that deal with ethics. We read and study in class a number of texts taken from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls, Koran, Greek literature, rabbinic material, medieval philosophy and contemporary literature. The third component of my course is dedicated to the discussion of modern issues, such as legal ethics, racial prejudice, environmental ethics, and sexual ethics. During the fourth and last part, I ask my students to debate a particular issue before the class, such as a specific death penalty case, an extortion issue, or gender identity dilemma. 

The response of my students has been positive. I love to engage them in ethical debates, and want them to take a position, however uncomfortable. One of my favorite cases comes from the rabbinic literature (Sifra on Lev. 25: 36): Two people are in the desert. They have only one flask of water. If both drink, both will die; if one of them drinks, he/she will survive. You carry the flask. What would you do? Then, I make the case even more complicated: I say, the other person is your child. Here, most participants vote to give the bottle to the child. But, if I say, the other person is your hated brother-in-law, opinions change.

What do I want to achieve?
a)    I want my students to think, and to think logically, and weigh the outcome of the issues at hand in a rational way, without, however, ignoring the needs of the heart. I don’t want them to act impulsively, but to look at both sides of the issue before making a decision.
b)    I want my students to realize that we make ethical decisions all the time, and we need to develop a sensitivity in this area. 
c)    I stress that certain things are clearly wrong: to be a Nazi is despicable; there is no other side. To be a racist, is bad; there is no justification for it. But, at times, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. To save a life, your own or someone else’s, people often behave in an “unethical” way.  For example, a woman who willingly commits adultery with a terrorist in order to save her life. Her behavior is understandable, and justifiable, even if it is not totally moral.
d)    Finally, I want my students to have empathy. This is more than caring about another individual. Empathy requires that you put yourself in that person’s shoes, almost to be that person. When you show empathy, you are more likely to behave in a humane way. And, that is good.

What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Sept. 5, 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. updated bio

Ashland, MA. 01721

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, Ma.  and a member of the faculty at Framingham State University. In the past, he has also taught at Boston College for 15 years.

Born in l938, Rabbi Sonsino attended the University of Istanbul, Turkey, and graduated in 1959 with a degree in law. After serving in the Turkish army as a tank commander, he went to Paris, France to study at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques. In 1961 he entered the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati from which he received his rabbinic ordination in 1966 with a Masters degree in Hebrew literature. In the meantime, he held student pulpits in McGehee, Ark., Jonesboro, Ark. and Kokomo, Ind.

After ordination, the World Union for Progressive Judaism sent Rabbi Sonsino to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to become the Rabbi of the only Reform Temple in the country, Temple Emanu-El (1966-1969). From 1969 to 1975 Rabbi Sonsino served at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pa. (a suburb of Philadelphia), and from 1975 to 1980 at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. (a suburb of Chicago). From 1980 to 2003, he became the sole Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, a suburb of Boston. He retired in June of 2003.

Rabbi Sonsino, a past president of the Boston Area Reform Rabbis (BARR), has taken an active role in a number of community programs. He has chaired the North Shore Interfaith Housing Council (Chicago), the North Shore Fellowship of Rabbis (Chicago), the Program Committee of the UAHC Eisner camp, the Needham Clergy Association, the Joint Committee on Reform Jewish Education (Chicago and Boston) and the North East Region of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (NER/CCAR). He has also served on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

Rabbi Sonsino holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1975) in Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies. His articles on Bible and Judaica have appeared in a number of scholarly journals. His book, Motive Clauses in Hebrew Law, was published in 1980 by Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature. It was reissued in 2004. He is the co-author of Finding God: Selected Responses  (Daniel B. Syme, co-author) (NY: UAHC, 2002, Revised Edition), What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death (Daniel B. Syme, co-author) (NY: UAHC, 1990), Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, Nov. 2000), The Many Faces of God; A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies (NY: URJ Press, 2004) and Did Moses Really Have Horns? And Other Myths About Jews and Judaism (NY: URJ Press, 2009); Vivir Como Judio (Palibrio, 2012); Modern Judaism (San Diego: Cognella, 2013); And God Spoke These Words: The Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics (NY: URJ Press, 2014).  From 1997 to 2001, Rabbi Sonsino was the editor of the CCAR Journal-The Reform Jewish Quarterly.

In 1991 the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion bestowed upon Rabbi Sonsino an honorary doctorate in recognition of his 25 years in the Rabbinate. In 2016, he celebrated his 50th year in the rabbinate.

Married to Ines V. Goldstein in 1967, he and Ines have two children, Daniel Sonsino and Deborah Seri Sonsino, and four grandchildren (Ariella and Dalia Sonsino, and Avi and Talya Seri).  

Sunday, May 7, 2017


In the history of the world literature, many essays have been written on the purposes of marriage in our society. Some of the rationales include that it is the will of God, that it provides the couples fellowship, companionship, mutual help and comfort, that it is an expression of love, and is based on a commitment to share life's joys and sorrows. The biblical rationale for marriage is expressed in Gen. 2:18: "it is not good for man to be alone; I [God] will make a fitting helper for him." The Rabbis add, "he who has no wife is without goodness, without a helpmate, without joy without blessing and without atonement" (Gen. R. 17:2). 

Recently, I have been perusing through a classic commentary on the Pentateuch, written in the 18th century by Rabbi Jacob Culli of Turkey, which reflects the thinking of his time. The text was composed in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish spoken by Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and who lived in different parts of the Ottoman Empire . Commenting on the Genesis text above, "it is not good for  man to be alone," the author identifies four reasons for marriage that are charming and unique.

First of all, he stated that whoever refuses to marry remains without blessings, and that the ideal age of marriage is 18 but that it is better at the age of 13, however not before. And woe to him who marries only for money (p.150/1). 

The main benefits of marriage for men are: (I am translating the most important parts of the discussion):
1. God will take care of them, because of the friendship, peace and love that exist between the husband and wife.

2. Because he (the husband) will have someone to take good care of the house.
3. To avoid the sin of wasting semen. (Here, he mentions the case of a certain Rabbi who remained married , even though the wife was mean to him. The Rabbi stayed married, because she helped him avoid the greatest sin of wasting semen).
4. When he comes home from the store, he will find the meal prepared on the table, so he will have time to fulfill the divine commandments and he will be able to read for about an hour before going to sleep.

For the peace and tranquility of the house, the author also recommends that "the man should play dumb when it comes to the management of the house by his wife, and he should rather pretend to be sleeping , instead of pointing out to his beloved one what is wrong by shouting or quarreling with her for every mistake she makes" (p.263). 

Obviously, most of Rabbi Culli's list  of benefits and suggestions are patriarchal in nature and do not apply to our time. However, for the sake of tranquility of the house, he is not totally mistaken when he suggests that, once in a while, the husband should state, "Whatever you say, honey!"

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
May 7, 2017 

Friday, April 21, 2017

WHO WROTE THE PENTATEUCH? (The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, attributed to Moses)--A SUMMARY

Since ancient times, many people believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. After all, the Bible claims it (e.g., Ex.24:2); Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, affirmed it (Ant. IV, 8:48) and the ancient Rabbis supported it (BB 14b). 

Yet, critics noticed a number of difficulties: The text includes a number of doublets (e.g., two covenants with Abraham, Gen. 15 and 17) and contradictions (e.g., Gen I vs. Gen.2). It also contains some events that could not have been known by Moses (e.g. references to kings in Israel, in Gen. 36:31). 

Throughout the centuries, various solutions have been offered: Some argued that there is no chronological order to the Bible (e.g., Pes. 6b). Others maintained that the whole text was written by divine inspiration. And there were others, like the medieval rabbinic scholar Ibn Ezra, who suggested that there is a secret here and we need to keep quiet about it.

Modern textual criticism began in the 18th century with critics such as Richard Simon and Jean Astruct. However, the one scholar who offered the first complete reconstruction was Julius Wellhausen in 1884. According to his theory, the Pentateuch is made up of four documents: J (that uses the term YHVH for God) was composed in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 9th cent. BCE; E (that uses Elohim for God) was composed in the northern part of Israel in the 8th cent. BCE. These two were combined by a redactor in the middle of the 7th cent. BCE. To this combined text, was added a text called D (for Deuteronomy) in 621 BCE. Finally, the priests (P) composed their own texts during and after the Babylonian exile and completed the Pentateuch. 

Many modern scholars have slightly amended this reconstruction. Today, critics do not talk about “compositions” produced by individuals but “schools of thought” that generated the texts throughout many years. In fact, scholars like Herman Gunkel (1862-1932) argued that many texts in the Pentateuch were orally transmitted for a long period before they were written down. Around the mid-3rd cent. BCE, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint) by Jewish scholars of Alexandria, Egypt.

To the Pentateuch, later on, were added two major components, namely the prophetic books and Writings. According to the Jewish tradition, the Rabbis finalized the entire canon in the city of Yavneh, in the central district of modern Israel, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70CE. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
April, 2017