Wednesday, October 7, 2015


SONSINO'S BLOG: ABRAHAM THE FANATIC: In the Jewish tradition the “Binding of Isaac” (known in Hebrew as the Akedah ) is read during the High Holidays, usually on the second...

Friday, October 2, 2015


In the Jewish tradition the “Binding of Isaac” (known in Hebrew as the Akedah) is read during the High Holidays, usually on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). It tells the story of how God “tested” Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his beloved son in order to prove his loyalty to the divine. 

This is a very difficult story, some would even say brutal, which is hard to accept as a test of faithfulness today. Even though placed within the book of Genesis (ch. 22), we do not know when it was written and by whom.  Furthermore, it is not clear what was its original purpose. What was the intended message when it was formulated?

There are lots of problems with the text, some literary and others theological: For example, if God is all-knowing and must have known that ultimately Abraham would sacrifice an animal instead of his son, why did he put him through this terrible ordeal? Was God cruel? How come Abraham did not protest the way he did when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (see, Gen 19)?  Furthermore, we do not know where is Mt. Moriah, the location of the near- sacrifice. We are not told how old was Isaac during this ordeal. According to Josephus, he was 25 (Ant.1/13); many ancient rabbis say, he was 37! 

Over the centuries, many commentators had a hard time dealing with this episode. Some Rabbis tried to highlight the fact that Abraham was reluctant to do the deed; others claimed that God only said to “bring him up” to the mountain, but Abraham misunderstood the divine message; some stated that Abraham actually drew some blood and then stopped; also, when Sarah saw that Abraham returned from the mountain alone (Gen. 22: 19, the text does not mention Isaac), she assumed that he had killed their son, and died of a heart attack (about these rabbinic comments, see Tanh. Vayera). According to some modern commentators, the story repudiates the custom of child-sacrifice, which was prevalent in ancient times, but the text itself is totally silent about it. The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) gave up any hope of solving the dilemma, and called the story “a teleological suspension of the ethical” (See his Fear and Trembling). 

For me, reading the text in the 21st century, Abraham comes across as one of those religious fanatics who would do anything, because they claim they heard a divine command. This thinking is not too different from the Taliban and ISIS or other religious extremists of our times, who, in the name of religion, would not hesitate to murder and destroy anything and everything because of the divine will. This is dangerous thinking and must be rejected. Woody Allen, in his comedic commentary on this story (2009), nailed it when he wrote that the message of the story for us is that “some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Oct. 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Jewish law says we are to fast on Yom Kippur. This is based on the biblical law that on the Day of Atonement, “You shall afflict yourselves” (Lev. 23:27), which was interpreted as early as the return from the Babylonian exile as “fasting” (e.g., Isa. 58: 3). Though the original meaning of the Levitical text is not clear, one rationale is that on this particular day, we need to concentrate on the needs of the human spirit rather than the materialistic aspects of life.

But this is not what happened in my childhood synagogue in Turkey.

I came to America in 1961 but grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Istanbul. It was (and still is) predominantly Sephardic, consisting of Jews who originally came from Spain after their expulsion in 1492. There is also a Karaite group that has no connection at all with the Sephardic (Rabbanite) community.

In Istanbul during the High Holidays, it was customary – and I presume it is still is the case today – to “sell” the honors for the Torah service. This was done during the morning services of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The gabbai (administrator) of the synagogue actually stood on the pulpit and conducted an auction: “100 Turkish liras for the petihah [opening of the Ark],” “100 Turkish liras for gelilah [uncovering the Torah],” “100  Turkish liras for the first aliyah,” etc. People raised their hands and increased the price for each honor. When the gabbai felt that the auction had reached its highest point, he would say, “The honor is sold to Mr. Kohen,” or Mr. Levi, or whomever paid the most.

Because it was a holy day, when Jewish law states it is prohibited to record bids, a prominent member of the congregation, standing in the back of the synagogue, would instead turn over a flap of a pre-set card and keep it until the end of the service. Turkish synagogues used these funds to meet their deficit. The interesting corollary of the practice was that the person who won the honor never used it for himself, but always gave it to another as a matter of courtesy.

I remember vividly that one year, when I was a child at Neve Shalom in Galata – the largest synagogue in Istanbul – the gabbai got up and started the auction. Sitting in the congregation, there was a rich man from Georgia by the name of Mr. Chikvashvilli. As was his custom, he began to offer his price, increasing it ever so slowly. In the past, no one challenged him, because he was extremely wealthy and but also very generous. This time, however, there was another Jew sitting in the pews who did not know Mr. Chikvashvilli, and he began to increase the bidding. The congregation was aghast as the two gentleman competed ferociously with one another.

As everyone waited to see who would go higher, Mr. Chikvashvilli got up from his seat and exclaimed, “I will sell the factory, but this honor is mine.” We all stood silently, waiting to see what the other bidder would do. Thankfully, he relented, and the Georgian congregant got his honor.

That particular event became legendary during my youth, but the entire practice left a very bad taste in my mouth. I did not like the selling of “honors” in the synagogue, especially during the High Holidays, and vowed that I would never follow this tradition.

Thankfully, I went on to become a Reform rabbi, and in Reform Jewish practice, honors are not sold during religious services. Still, I cannot forget that momentous day when a whole synagogue in a faraway country stood on its toes for an honor that spoke more about the buyer than the spirit of the religious event that took place in a sacred place.

We can now concentrate on the needs of the spirit, and, at least for one day, stay away from the materialistic world that requires our attention all the time. May you have a meaningful Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Published in : 9/17/2015

Monday, August 24, 2015


The Bible was written a long time ago, and therefore needs to be appreciated within the context of the ancient Near Eastern literature. To assume that the words used then mean the same thing today is wrong, and can often lead to  major misunderstandings. Let’s take the word “heart,” which in our culture is considered to be the seat of human emotions. When we say, “I love you with all my heart,” everyone today gets the message. However, in the past, the heart was not viewed as the seat of emotions, but primarily as the seat of the intellect. In those days, they did not know much about the role of the brain. (Only, secondarily, was the word  used to refer to emotions). 

          Here are a few examples where “heart” (lev or levav in Hebrew) clearly means “mind.” When Laban accused Jacob of taking away his daughters, he said, “Why did you keep me in the dark” (vatignov et levavi, lit. ‘you stole my mind,’ Gen. 31: 26). When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the Bible tells us, “Pharaoh and his courtiers changed their mind” (vayeafeh levav paro va-avadav, Ex. 14: 5). Note: they did not change their “heart.” Here the word lev means “mind.” In biblical Hebrew a wise person is called haham levav (“wise of mind”, Job. 9: 4).  Similarly, the book of Deuteronomy urges the Israelites to love God “with all your mind (levavha), life (nafsheha) and means (meodeha)” (6: 5). Old translations used to render this phrase as “with all your heart, with all your soul and your all your might.” I think this is wrong. levavha means “your intellect;” nafsheha means “your body”  (nefesh coming from the Akkadian napishtu meaning “throat,” symbol of body); and meodeha simply means, muchness, whatever you have. The Hebrew lev or levav corresponds to the Akkadian libbu, meaning “mind.” Thus, for example, in Babylonian language, ul libbi simply means “I do not know;” ina hub libbishu means “of his own free will.” 

          So, if the heart is primarily the seat of the mind, where do the emotions or conscience lie in the human body? In the Bible, they are located in the kidneys!!! Thus, for example, Proverbs says, “my kidneys shall rejoice” (ve-taalozna hilyotay, 23: 16), meaning, “I will be happy.” Psalms complains, “I was pierced through in my kidneys” (ve-hilyotay eshtonan, namely “my feelings were numbed,” (JPS) 73: 21), or “my conscience (namely, “my kidneys,” hilyotay) admonished me at night” (16:7). So, in biblical Hebrew, if someone wanted to say “I love you,” he would probably say, “my kidneys go for you”—not an expression we would recognize or appreciate today.

          Not knowing these subtle differences often leads us to misunderstanding of the language used in those ancient days. The Bible, great as it may be in many areas, reflects its own time and terminology. Though many of its teachings are elevating and timeless, others are primitive and even incomprehensible to us. It was left up to the Rabbis to try to understand the teachings from the perspective of their own time and place. We need to do the same now, always trying to figure out what it meant then, and what it can mean today; keeping some, and ignoring the others.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Aug. 24, 2015.