Friday, October 13, 2017


These days I am going through a phase commonly called “nostalgia.” This word is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in various villages, as my parents moved from Kuzguncuk, in the Asian side of the Bosphorous, to Galata and then to Sisli, both in the European part of the maritime divide. When I look at my old pictures in Istanbul, I remember the places and smells of my childhood neighborhoods, the foods my mother cooked or those we ate at the local restaurants, the places I visited with my family and friends, the music I used to sing at the synagogue, and I get teary-eyed for a  moment, only to realize that these memories are just memories of an age long gone by.

But I have done something: Recently, I have reconnected with some old friends , now living in Israel, Europe or Canada, and have made new friends on Facebook with some Turkish Jews who still live in Istanbul and also in many parts of the world. We share the same cultural background and speak the same language (Ladino, Judeo-Spanish of the 15th century). I have also asked my wife, Ines (born in Argentina), to cook meals based on old Turkish recipes that I was able to get online, and have dragged her to Armenian stores in the greater Boston area where we live, in order to get typical pastries of the old world. Is this typical? Or I am going through a phase in my life, now that I am 79 years old?

The word “nostalgia” is derived from two different Greek words, “nostos” (meaning, homecoming) and “algos” (meaning, pain). In the past, it was considered a psychological disorder, and ever since the 17th century, a Swiss physician, Johannes Hoffer, called it “a soldiers disease,” attributing it to their longing for their return home after a long battle. In Spanish, it is still referred to as “el mal de Corazon” (heart pain). Some people even think that it is caused by demons. However, there is a new attitude regarding nostalgia today. Based on investigations done by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and others, nostalgia is now recognized as a powerful tool in the battle against anxiety and depression. 

In my case, I don’t feel I am anxious about anything in particular or depressed by any means; only the recognition that my life is slipping away much faster than I expected. The reality is that if I were to go back and visit the places of my childhood, I will certainly be disappointed, because they would not look the way I remembered them. In fact, about a dozen years ago, when I went to Istanbul and roamed the main street of Kuzguncuk, I could not believe how narrow it was!

So, now I taste anew some of the delicacies I can find in my neighborhood in Boston (e.g., baklava, muhallebi, and others), look at old pictures to refresh my memories of events of the past, and am grateful that I can still recall them in my mind, singing quietly the old melodies that shaped my personality. O tempora, O mores, as Cicero, the old Latin politician of the 1st cent. BCE, would have said!

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Oct. 2017

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).