Wednesday, March 25, 2015


This year, on Friday night, April 3, 2015, Jews all over the world will begin to celebrate Passover with a ritualized meal called Seder, a Hebrew word meaning “order” that refers to the order of the prayers that are recited and the symbolic foods that are eaten prior to a fancy meal. The purpose of the Seder is to tell the story of the liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptian slavery.

Passover is a popular family holiday, primarily observed in the home. Even though rabbinic Judaism portrays the festival solely as the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, its history is complicated and its celebration varies around the Jewish world. This difference is particularly notable between Jews of Ashkenazic background (i.e., of Eastern Europe) and Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and the Middle East. 

Here are some facts about Passover:
1.    The festival appears to be a combination of two different holidays-one day apart from each other: [Hag ha-]Pesah (“Pascal Offering”), reflecting a nomadic life-style, and Hag Ha-Matzot (“The Festival of Unleavened Bread”, representing a sedentary society (Lev. 23:5). After these two were combined, it was historicized and celebrated as the liberation from slavery from ancient Egypt. In Biblical times, Passover was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (to Jerusalem); after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, it became a home festival.
2.    The Bible states that 600,000 men on foot, plus children and other individuals (“a mixed multitude”) left Egypt in haste (Ex. 12: 37). That would translate into a group of refugees of about a million people. This is highly improbable. Most likely, only a few hundred Israelites left, maybe representing only the tribe of Levy.
3.    Recently, scholars have pointed out that the Bible reflects two different traditions, one that knows of the liberation from Egypt and another that appears to ignore it altogether, assuming that Israel emerged in the Sinai desert and not before (1). This would explain why the Levites did not have a tribal territory of their own in the land of Israel among their brothers (Deut. 10:9), because when they arrived, the tribes of Israel were already settled in the Holy Land.
4.    During the recitation of the Story (Hagaddah), Moses, the great liberator, is mentioned only once. The CCAR Hagaddah (Reform) does not mention him at all. How come? Maybe because of the fear that Moses could be given all the glory, and even deified, whereas in Jewish tradition only God is viewed as being responsible for the redemption of the people.
5.    One of the prohibitions during Passover is not to eat hametz (“leaven”) for seven days (2). Instead, one must consume Matzah, unleavened bread. The rationale is that the Israelites left Egypt in haste and prepared unleavened cakes instead (Ex. 12: 19). In reality this type of unleavened bread must have been consumed by the farmers who are in the field during the spring harvest.
6.    In addition to this prohibition, there is the custom among many eastern European Jews not to eat rice or eat different types of legumes (kitniyot) (3). However, Rabbi David Golinkin, an Israeli Rabbi belonging to the Conservative Jewish movement, has already indicated in 1997 that “it is permitted and perhaps even obligatory to eliminate this custom,” because “it is a foolish custom.”(4) In fact, Sephardic Jews have no problem eating these food items during Passover. And I, a Sephardic Jew, do it without any sense of guilt.
7.    In Israel, Passover is celebrated, as the Bible commands, for seven days (Ex. 23:14); outside of Israel, following the rabbinic teachings, it is kept for eight days. In Reform Judaism, however, the practice is to follow Israeli custom and keep Passover for seven days.
8.    Finally, there are many different customs, often reflecting local traditions, about the type of food that is served during Passover, including the kind of Harozet made of chopped fruit, nuts, wine, and spices(5). Some traditional families change all the dishes for the holiday; other Jews do not.
Have a wonderful Passover.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March 25, 2015

1.    See, for ex. the article by David Frankel, “Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past,” , March 2015.
2.    Namely foods made of wheat, oats, rye, barley or spelt.
3.    Such as beans, rice, corn, peas and peanuts.
5.    Sephardic Harozet is spreadable; Ashkenazic-style Harozet tends to be dry.

Friday, March 20, 2015


In the heat of the moment, people say lots of things for which they are sorry later on. We need to watch these individuals carefully, and respond forcefully when they actually begin to act on their harmful words. 

In the Hebrew Bible, we find a strong admonition not to admit the Moabites and Ammonites into the congregation of the Lord, not even their descendants until the tenth generation (Deut. 23: 4). Yet, we know that Boaz, an Israelite, married Ruth the Moabite. Similarly, the Koran teaches, “Do not take the Jews and Christians for friends. They are friends to one another” (Sura 5: 51; transl. by Pickthall). Yet, Islamic scholars are quick to remind us that throughout history many Muslims befriended Jews and Christians. Medieval Spain is a good example of that. Some evangelical Protestants are adamantly opposed to the Catholic Church for religious reasons, yet in interfaith dialogues you see many priests and ministers working together in harmony. More than what we say, it is what we do that really matters. This does not mean that words are insignificant but that acts speak louder.

We are not sure under what circumstances were the original statements quoted above in the Bible or the Koran formulated. The Rabbis justify the marriage of Ruth to Boaz by saying that the prohibition was against a Moabite, not a Moabitess!!!(See, for ex. BT Yeb. 77a).  Some Koranic scholars point out that the term “friends” mentioned in Sura 5:51 should really be understood as “patrons” not “friends” (cf. Sami Zaatari). 

 What we need to do is to look at the historical record, and see how was the law implemented. During peace, people tend to be kinder to one another; during contentious times, relationships between social groups become tense and the divide gets wider. 

Today, as we survey humanity as a whole, we see more and more strife among many social groups. Hindus hate the Muslims living in India; Palestinians and Israelis exchange curses after major conflagrations; the Shiites and Sunnis can’t stand one another; ISIS kills non-Muslims just because they do not share their religious outlook etc.

There are extremists in almost every religious camp. We must carefully watch what these fanatics say and boldly defend ourselves against them when they begin to act, because many of them have no regard for human life (e.g., ISIS today) and are eager to slaughter the other in the name of what they think is God’s word.

No one has the ultimate truth. So, why can’t we get along, with mutual respect for one another? 

R. Sonsino, Ph.D

Sunday, February 22, 2015


In my regular contacts with college students I have come to realize that young people rarely pay attention to the news. Very few read the local papers and seldom do they watch international reports on TV. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey discovered that people, ages 18-34, are less knowledgeable about current events than their elders. The knowledge gap is widest on foreign affairs. This saddens me, because it reflects a lack of interest in the world around us, a world that often needs fixing, and young people are the ones who will be doing the fixing in the future.

Maybe, I am too pessimistic about it. I need to remind myself that most college students are more attuned to pop culture, and the national or the international scene is far away from their radar. When they become seniors in college and start to look for a job or a new professional path, by force, they will need to pay attention to their milieu and to the larger world around them. It is up to us parents, teachers and community leaders to open the eyes of the blind, releasing those who sit in the dark (See, Isa. 42: 7).

Truth to say, the present world community does not appear to be in good shape for young people to note. Muslim fundamentalists are wreaking havoc in places such as Syria, Iraq and even Libya; recently, anti-Semitism has, once again, raised its ugly face in many parts of Europe; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to rage; guns and violence proliferate in our country; Greece’s economy is in shambles and there is a war in the Ukraine. Can you blame the young people for not taking an active role in the workings of our society? We adults have not done a good job in becoming good role models in our dealings with others. 

In spite of this bleak picture, the rabbinic tractate “Ethics of the Fathers” (c. 3rd cent. CE) calls us to civic duty and warns us not to separate ourselves from the wellbeing of the community (2:5 and 4:7). Based on this teaching, the Talmud goes even further and asserts, “He who does not join the community in times of danger and trouble will never enjoy divine blessing” (BT Ta. 11a). 

However, it is clear that we, adults, must prepare the younger generation to be knowledgeable about our community and to take an active role in the pursuit of justice and righteousness in our society. It will be their world and we must turn over the ropes property and with confidence that young people will further the common good. 

To that end, I have been asking my students at Boston College as well as at Framingham State University to read the local papers and to report to class weekly on worthy news as well as about ethically challenging events. For the first time now, I am starting to see some results: they are beginning to find out what is going on in the larger world. My hope is that if they know, they will eventually act, for, as The Ethics of the Fathers also asserts, the acquisition of knowledge is not enough; it must be translated into action (1: 17). 

Your thoughts?

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D


Friday, February 6, 2015


In early February, the media displayed a video of the death of a Jordanian military officer, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive in his jail at the hands of an Islamic terrorist group called ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”). The pictures shocked the conscience of every civilized country around the world. The reaction of the Jordanians was swift. King Abdullah immediately ordered the execution of two ISIS terrorists held in a Jordanian jail, a suicide bomber wanted back by the militants and another top lieutenant of al-Queda. The Jordanian air force also bombed a number of targets in Syria. 

Many people around the globe appeared to support the reaction, including most of my students at the Ethics class I teach at Framingham State University. Their argument: They did it to us; we will do it to them, even in stronger terms. However, the reaction did not sit well with me. I immediately thought of the Biblical command: “You shall not seek revenge or bear a grudge against your neighbor” (Lev. 19: 18). Similarly, the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “Do not say, ‘I will do to him what he did to me; I will pay the man what he deserves’ ” (24: 29).Was it ethical of the Jordanians to react in such a knee-jerk fashion? 

Jewish commentators discuss extensively the implication of the biblical command found in Leviticus, knowing full well that the Bible also recognizes the validity of lex talionis (“tit for tat”) introduced in the ancient Near East by the Code of Hammurabi of the 18th cent. BCE (see, for example, Ex. 21:23-25; in the Code of Hammurabi, #195ff). 

For the biblical commentator David Z. Hoffman of Berlin (d. 1921), “taking vengeance” implies immediate revenge, whereas “bearing a grudge” means nursing hatred in one’s heart, awaiting a later opportunity to inflict damage on the perpetrator. Both are prohibited by biblical and rabbinic law, with some going to extremes, such as Sefer Ha-Hinukh, The Book of Mitzvah Education of the 16th century (Barcelona, Spain), arguing that whatever happens in life is because of God’s doing, and “should a man inflict suffering or pain on him (the victim), let him know in his soul that his bad deeds were the cause” (#241). 

I cannot go that far. I do, however, maintain that revenge does not accomplish anything, except for the immediate satisfaction that one feels in one’s heart. But that is not a civilized answer. If every person who suffers injustice tries to get even, there will be no end to the cycle of violence. As the Talmud states, “He who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut one hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand” (J. Ned. 9:4). 

I understand and appreciate the anger that victims have towards their perpetrators. The question is whether revenge is the best response. In Eleni, a remarkable book written by Nicholas Gage (1983), the author tells the story of how his mother Eleni was executed for arranging the escape of her children from their Communist-occupied village in Greece. Decades later, as an adult, Gage sought out the person responsible for her death. He found the culprit in South America, but when he met him in person, he couldn’t find the strength to take revenge, and moved away. Recently, Martin Greenfield, a tailor who survived the Holocaust has revealed how he came inches away from assassinating a senior Nazi’s wife, but his conscience saved him from stooping to the level of the SS (Daily Mail, Nov. 2014). I think this reaction is difficult but correct. Revenge corrodes the soul and destroys the humanity of the victim. Sometimes, it is better to let things go away. You don’t have to remain friendly with the perpetrator but, from now on, you must be vigilant, and move on. 

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino

Feb.6, 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015


Since the start of the year, I have been teaching an Ethics course at Framingham State University (outside of Boston), and often discuss personal dilemmas we confront regularly.  “Whose Life Comes First?” was one of the topics we covered recently.

Ever since Auguste Compte, the French sociologist, coined the term “altruism” in 1851, thinkers have been debating the issue as to whether or not human nature is fundamentally selfish or other-oriented. Some argue that humans compete with one another all the time, and natural selection has made men and women even more egoistic. Others maintain that humanity could not have survived without charity and social responsibility toward the others.

Ancient Rabbis, too, struggled with the issue of “Whose life comes first?” A Talmudic passage put the dilemma is these words:
"Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a flask of water. If both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank, [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura (a rabbinic scholar) taught: 'Better both should drink and die than that one should see his friend's death,' until Rabbi Akiba (2nd cent. CE) came and taught: [The Bible says:] 'Your brother should live with you' (Lev.25:36) – meaning, ‘your life takes precedence over the life of your friend's' (Baba Metzia 62a). And that is the position of Jewish law today.

We see an application of this rule in the way in which we are expected to act when we fly. As the plane is about to take off, the steward/ess says, “In case the air pressure falls, an air bag will come down from the ceiling. Please put the mask on your face first, and then help your neighbor.” The assumption is that unless you take care of yourself, you are not in a position to help someone else.

Most ethical dilemmas are not so clear cut. Often different situations require a re-evaluation of available options: Let me give you two examples: 

a) What if the other travelling companion is your child? My guess is that most parents would place the mask on his/her child first, or, in the case of the desert, give the bottle of water to his/her son or daughter, and willingly choose death. The ethics of self-sacrifice requires that when you give a gift, you do not expect anything in return, and that the life of the other person is viewed as more important that yours. And, for someone you love, this comes easy. There have been many examples in battle when a soldier sacrificed his/her life by taking a bullet meant for someone else, just because of close friendship or personal loyalty. 

b) What happens if you are not sure that your donation will save someone else’s life, and, in fact, your gift may put you in jeopardy?  Thus, for instance, some rabbinic authorities actually forbid a donor from giving a kidney to a dying patient if it will place the donor in some danger. But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d.1986), the well-known Orthodox legal authority of our time, took a middle position, and stated that even through it is not obligatory to place oneself in questionable danger, you may personally choose to take this risk in order to save a life.
My life experience has taught me that human beings are basically egoistic, and that self-sacrifice does not come easily to many of us. However, altruism can and must be taught. This is often imparted at home and in school. That is why we need loving parents, influential teachers, and alert advisors to help us become more caring, more loving and more sensitive in our dealing with others. 

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
January, 2015