Sunday, October 19, 2014


Many people turn away from prayer because they realize that it can rarely produce concrete results. Therefore, it is important to understand what prayer can do and what it cannot accomplish. For me, this is the scope of prayer:

1.    One should not pray for the impossible. Nature will not respond just because we pray with reverence. Our rabbinic sages already knew that “to cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9: 3). They even give a few examples: for instance, a person whose wife is pregnant should not say, “May it be Your will that my wife should have a boy” (idem). Such a prayer is “vain,” they add, because the sex of the child was already determined at the time of conception, and no prayer, however sincere and heartfelt, will change it. Similarly, they taught that if a person, coming home from a journey, hears crises of distress in his town, he should not say, “(God) grant that this not be in my house,” for this, too, is a vain prayer (idem), here  for two reasons: a) if the problem is in his house, it is too late for this type of prayer; b) then, the prayer implies that the distress should be in someone else’s house; and that is unethical.   

2.    Prayer alone does not modify the course of nature. It can, however, affect the worshiping individuals. It can give them a new insight; it can deepen their understanding of how the world operates; and both can prepare them to face the world with courage and clarity of mind.

3.    We often worry about the acceptance of our prayers when we should be more concerned about our ability the express them with a certain sense of realism. Mordecai Kaplan once wrote: “Religious prayer is the utterance of those thoughts that imply either the actual awareness of God, or the desire to attain such awareness” (The Meaning of God, 1962, 33). The key word here is “utterance.” High expectations can lead to disappointment. By expressing our hopes and aspirations properly and within reason, we can take the first step towards their realization. Every prayer becomes a program of action, motivating us to work towards its fulfillment.

4.    We must remember that the main goal of public worship is to strengthen the bonds that unite the community engaged in prayer. When we get together for worship, even though some of us may not be in the mood, we are still given the opportunity to identify with the hopes, aspirations and goals of the congregation. By joining the worshiping community, we strengthen the group as we strengthen ourselves.

5.    We have come a long way from the ancient days when worship in the ancient Near East meant taking care of the individual needs of the gods. The challenge today is not only to ground the prayers in an acceptable rationale but also to formulate them in such an equivocal language that they will reflect the different theologies of the praying individuals, and thus unite us in our endeavors to create a society in which everyone has the maximum opportunity for self-realization. Regrettably, we are not there yet.

Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2014

PS. For more and other details on prayer, see my 6 Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VM: Jewish Lights), 2002, 72-92.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


In confronting daily struggles, some people remain apathetic and ignore them, hoping the problems will go away; others, confront the issues with full force, at times, even acting blindly and with anger; however, the best way is to take the middle road and resolve them by learning how to live with the ambiguities of life.

Thus, for example, the prophet Ezekiel criticizes those people “who have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not” (12: 2). Biblical law decries this uncaring attitude and, in fact, states, “You shall not stand (idly) by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19: 16; cf. Rashi based on the Sifra). 

At the other extreme, the zealot is characterized in the biblical tradition by the hot-blooded Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, who attacked and killed a non-Jewish woman and her Jewish husband in their tent, presumably because of some idolatrous practice, thus putting an end to a plague. For this act, Phineas received God’s “pact of friendship” (beriti shalom) as well as “a pact of priesthood” (berit kehunat olam) for all time (Num. 25:12). Later rabbinic tradition shows a great deal of ambivalence regarding Phineas, some considering him a hero, while others view him as  a dangerous fanatic who needs to be contained (See, for ex., “Coping with Zeal,” N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, 328.ff). I still remember Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention of 1964 when he said: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I disagree: extremism is always a vice. 

Between these two poles, the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, suggests a third option. He calls it “the middle road,” or “the happy medium” (midah benonit). He says this is the most desirable path, as it requires the individual “to be angry only for a grave cause that rightly calls for indignation, so that the like shall not be done again” (Mishneh Torah, Knowledge: 1: 4). 

I admit that the “middle road” is not an easy path, because it requires the individual to learn how to live with lack of precision and within the shades of gray. Some people simply cannot handle it. They want clear and cut answers. It is “yes” or “no.” Life, however, is never “black and white.”  It is not always an uphill road. It meanders; there are low points followed by great achievements. As we become more mature, we all need to learn how to live with uncertainties, with sudden deviations, with momentary greatness, with long range goals and broad perspectives, so that when we look back, we can say, “Not bad; I did all right.”

Apathy is inhuman. Extremism is easy but dangerous; it is even arrogant. The middle road, though far from being smooth, is wholesome. Thus, Maimonides suggests that those who follow it should not be “tight-fisted nor a spendthrift…neither frivolous and given to jesting, not mournful and melancholy” (idem). He ends by saying that those who follow the “middle road” are termed “wise.” 

Regrettably in our time, especially in the political scene, many people choose an extreme path. They view themselves as saints and consider others as villains. It is regrettable that the social and political agendas of many societies have now been high jacked by narrow-minded fanatics. Many countries in the world (e.g. the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe) are suffering because of this malaise. This is not helpful. It is simply wrong. 

So, don’t be an apathetic person, ignoring what is going on around you. On the other hand, stay away from intolerance, because it only leads to mental blindness. The middle road is the wholesome road.

Rifat Sonsino

Oct. 2014

Monday, September 1, 2014


Recently I learned that Perfection Valley is a fictional place in Nevada where the ex-silver mining town of Perfection was located. It served as the primary setting for the 1990 film called Tremors. It does not exist—just as perfection itself. Hebrew does not have a good word for perfection. The closest one, shlemut, means “wholeness.”

I have reached a point in my life where I no longer expect or seek perfection in anything or anyone. Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish/Catalan painter once said: “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it.” Human beings, being fallible, make mistakes, either small or big, and need to learn how to deal with their consequences. I only try to do better, and hope that my errors are rather benign or correctible. 

Everything we do and have in life ends up being short of the ideal. Examples:

1. There is no perfect joy. It is always tinged with some shade of darkness. During the Jewish wedding ceremony, it is customary to break a glass. Rabbinic sources provide various interpretations for this act. According to one, this is a reminder that even at the height of our happiness we need to remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE and then in 70 CE. For me, it means that the bride and groom must acknowledge that they will experience moments of joy as well as times of sorrow in their lives. However, the love they have for each other will enable them to meet the future challenges together with optimism and hopefully with success. 

2. There is no perfect friend or spouse. What we need in life is not a perfect partner, but a good one; one who has a kind heart and an empathetic soul. One cannot live with someone who claims to be beyond reproach. This would drive you crazy, because you would always feel that you cannot meet that person’s expectations. And that is not a good recipe for friendship. Better accept each other for who you are, and complement each other lovingly.

3. There is no perfect job. I don’t know of anyone who is totally happy with his/her work. Every profession has its highs and lows. We frequently overlook the difficulties in our work because we derive so many other benefits by doing what we love best. 

The realization that there is no such a thing as perfection does not mean that we should lower our standards. That is simple laziness and would represent a personal let down. We should acknowledge our limitations, do our best, and make the necessary corrections as we go along.  And if we do that for ourselves, shouldn’t we also tolerate and, at times, even overlook other people’s imperfections? 

According to a rabbinic text, everything that was created at the beginning of time needs “fixing,” such as, “The mustard seed needs to be sweetened, the wheat needs to be ground, the lupine needs to be soaked and man needs to be repaired (tzarikh tikun, i.e. circumcised) (Gen. R. 11: 6). The Hebrew Bible tells us that only God’s deeds are perfect (tamim in Hebrew, meaning, wholesome, pure, complete, perfect; cf. Deut. 32: 4; Ps. 18: 30; 19: 8), whereas human beings are limited creatures who can and should improve themselves. That’s all we need to do.
Rifat Sonsino 
Sept. 1, 2014

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Are you clear about your priorities in life?

As people mature, they begin to formulate achievable goals. Then one can look back and evaluate what was accomplished and what was missed.  According to the Babylonian Talmud (the repository of Jewish wisdom compiled in the 6th cent. CE), at the final judgment one is asked three basic questions: Did you conduct your business with integrity? Did you set aside fixed times for study? Did you hope for better things to come? (Shab. 31a). Each one is worth thinking about. 

1.Carry out your business with Integrity:

It is good to be ambitious in life, because it encourages one to get better. However, excessive craving is dangerous. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once wrote, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever achieving satisfaction.” Vaulting ambition often leads to vanity and disappointment. It is better, as one ancient Rabbi suggested, to reach a point where one is content with one’s own lot (Mishnah, Avot 4: 1). Everyone is entitled to make a living, but for the sake of one’s peace of mind, this should be done with integrity, honesty and without covetousness.

2. Set up a fixed time to study:

“None is poor but he who lacks knowledge,” said an ancient sage (Ned. 41a). The ancient Rabbis knew the value of study, not only because it stimulates the mind and provides answers to many unknowns in life, but also because it often leads to correct behavior. The final goal in life is not mental gymnastics but carrying out deed of loving-kindness towards others. 

3.Hope for better things to come:

There is a Hebrew term that can refer to this hopeful outlook: yeshuah, literally meaning “salvation”. Even though this word has been understood differently throughout the ages, for me, it means self-realization, namely, to reach one’s highest potential in life. To become better, you need to keep the flame of hope alive. Some people tend to be worriers. They see the cup half-empty. Others are more open-minded and hopeful. They see the cup half-full. The ideal is to develop a balanced approach that is based on a healthy optimism and a sense of reality, which will enable us to go forward with courage, and reach the best of what we can.

So, in order to live a life of blessing, ask yourself what is most important for me, and how to achieve it. Do it now. It is a worthy endeavor.

Rifat Sonsino

August, 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


People are often affected by transformative words. What my High School French teacher once told me gave me a new perspective on life that stayed with me until now. Here is the story. But first, a word of introduction.

In ancient times, it was believed that words by themselves have the power of action. Thus, according to the biblical text, various components of our world came into being by the creative energy of God’s word: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1: 3). Similarly, in the ancient Near East, treaties between countries as well as law collections were often concluded with a list of eloquent blessings and terrifying curses; blessings to reward those who fulfilled the requirements of the laws and treaties, and curses to bring down the punishment of the gods upon those who transgress them. Even borders were secured by placing signs that contained curses. (Today we say, ‘beware of dog’). Now we understand why the book of Proverbs emphasizes that, “Death and life are within the power of the tongue” (18: 21).

Words still have power of action, even though their impact is less than cosmic. When we say to someone, “I love you” or “I hate you”, we establish a new level of relationship. When we propose to our sweetheart by asking, “Will you marry me?,” And he/she says, “Yes,” we change the nature of our bond. Similarly, when the police officer says, “You are under arrest,” you better stay put where you are. When the boss says, “You are fired,” that is the end of your employment in that office. And, God forbid, when the doctor tells you “You have cancer,” the verdict falls on you like a bomb. So, watch what you say, and how you say it, because words do count.

When I was a teen-ager in Istanbul, Turkey, my life changed dramatically after my High Scholl French teacher, Miss Fernandez, a petite old lady, told me something that remained with me for the rest of my life. As I was growing up, I realized that, even though my classmates were getting taller, I was not. And that was beginning to bother me.  (I am still not very tall; only 5.5”). So, during one of our private conversations, I shared my concern with her. In response, she told me that being tall is not always a measure of success but that in reality “height is measured from the shoulders up.” That was a revelation. To me it meant that in order to grow in stature I had to develop my mind and overcome my shortness through various types of intellectual pursuits. 

It is this new insight that led me to the study of law, to the rabbinate, to graduate school, and ultimately to an academic life. My French teacher’s insight gave me a new direction in life, and I am who I am today because of what she taught me. Her memory is a blessing.

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2014.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


                                                                    Ina Glasberg 

During my congregational rabbinate, I was fortunate to work with dedicated leaders and board members. However, among them Ina Glasberg occupies a very especial place.

I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of her wisdom and kindness. In 1991, during her presidency, Ines and I took a three-month Sabbatical in Israel. This was during the Gulf War with Iraq when Saddam Hussein was launching his rockets into Israel. Securely living in Jerusalem, I remember seeing the Scud missiles flying over our heads in the direction of Tel Aviv. Ina was beside herself. She kept calling us making sure we were safe and gently implying that we return. We assured her that we were safe, based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein would not be foolish enough to bomb Jerusalem and accidentally destroy the sacred Muslim shrines.

Presidents and rabbis meet regularly to discuss temple matters and strategies to achieve the goals of the synagogue. It is during these private meetings that Ina could tell me, in a very subtle way, the things that I either overlooked or ignored. She did that out of love and concern for my family and me, and I responded in kind. Ever since, I believe that every Rabbi deserves an Ina, and I was blessed to have her as a dear friend, for which I am eternally grateful.  

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Rabbi Emeritus,
Temple Beth Shalom, MA
 July 6, 2014