Thursday, February 4, 2016


SONSINO'S BLOG: TORAH FOR ALL; A COMMENT ON EXODUS 21: 1: Laws are promulgated today with the intention that they will be binding on all people, irrespective of their social and economic positi...

Monday, February 1, 2016


Laws are promulgated today with the intention that they will be binding on all people, irrespective of their social and economic position in society. In the past, however, most of the law collections were wisdom texts that were compiled by sages and attributed to the rulers of their time. These “laws” were not used in the courts. We do not have a single legal case that was resolved according to them. People simply followed local custom. The same applies to biblical laws. We do not know to what extent biblical laws guided local judges in their daily cases, if ever, but, as wisdom sayings, they do display certain characteristics that are unique within the context of the ancient Near Eastern traditions.

Take, for example, the first statement of the so-called Covenant Code in the Book of Exodus: “These are the mishpatim that you shall place before them “(Ex. 21: 1).

We have two major issues with this text:
1. What are mishpatim? We don’t know exactly what they were. Originally, they seem to refer to court rulings. Most people now translate them as rules, regulations, judgments or statutes. The Aramaic translations of the Bible render them as “laws.” The Septuagint calls them “ordinances.”
2. The “laws” are to be placed “before them.” Who are “them”? According to a late rabbinic text, the Tanhuma (9th cent. CE?), this meant “before the Israelites but not the idolaters” (Mishpatim, 3). A 13th cent. Spanish-Jewish scholar, Nahmanides, understood it as “before the judges” who will implement the laws. A straight reading of the text, however, implies that “them” are all the Israelites. In other words, the laws have to be placed before the entire people for study and practice. Now, this is unparalleled in the past.

In the ancient Near East, law collections, such as the one by Hammurabi (17th cent. BCE) or Lipit Ishtar (19th cent. BCE), were primarily put together by wisdom teachers on behalf of the rulers, to indicate that they, the kings, were carrying out their civic responsibilities to the gods of administering justice in society, and thus deserving of divine favors. Laws were carved on stones and placed before the statues of the gods, and studied primarily by scholars in scribal schools. Most people were not even aware of these regulations and followed customary law. Furthermore, whereas in the Bible, the mishpatim are meant for all the Israelites, the laws of Hammurabi, for example, were restricted to those aggrieved parties who needed to know what the gods had revealed to the king and, by reading them, each victim could “set his mind at ease”  (see, CH, Epilogue, lines 10-19).  

The biblical injunction to place the regulations before the entire people of Israel made possible to establish general education for all; everyone is entitled to know and follow the laws diligently. In biblical Judaism, and later on in rabbinic Judaism, no individual has an exclusive on the Torah. Anyone can access it freely. Education is not limited to a few individuals, but is available to all Jews willing to learn.  Torah is for all.

 Now, that is remarkable.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University, Boston, MA

Friday, January 15, 2016


The question is this: If you could add one more commandment to the Decalogue, what would it be? 

The Decalogue/Ten Commandments are considered as the foundational text of Judaism. They are also viewed as one of the most important ethical documents of the Western civilization. They were recited daily at the Temple of Jerusalem (M Tamid 5:1). However, when some “sectarians”- we don’t know their identity, but perhaps, early Christians- maintained that they were the only texts revealed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Rabbis decided to eliminate them from the liturgy (BT B’rahot 12a). According to them, all the laws in the Torah, from the one that urges the removal of the mother-bird before taking the fledglings (Deut. 22: 6-7) to all the minutiae of the temple sacrifices, were given by God to Moses, and they are as important as the lofty message of the Decalogue. 

We now read/chant the Ten Commandments in the synagogue only when they occur in the regular cycle of Torah readings, both in Yitro (Exod. 18:1-20:23) and in Vaethanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11) as well as during the festival of Shavuot that celebrates the summer harvest and the revelation of the Torah. 

One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the past generation, Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003) argued that it is time to add a new commandment, the 11th,  to the list that reads, “Do not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” By this he meant that after the Holocaust, we, Jews, have an obligation to preserve Judaism for future generations, and we dare not give Hitler the satisfaction of completing the final solution by our inaction and lack of commitment. Similarly, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of the Reconstructionist Judaism, maintained that the biggest challenge facing the contemporary Jewish community is the “open” society in which we live that gives Jews various options, including to bow out of it.  

I am convinced that in our days, the greatest danger to the Western world comes from political and religious extremism. When fanatics try to impose their views on all of us, we are all in danger. When bombastic loudmouths come up with unwarranted generalizations, we are all in danger. When obscurantists in our midst attempt to eliminate the open and civil dialogue, we are all in danger. No religious group or political party is immune to this curse. We, Jews, too, have our own close-minded individuals who deny the legitimacy of many well established and respected religious and political ideologies around the Jewish world. Perhaps, this can be remedied through education, open and respectful dialogue, and, on rare occasions, even through self-defense. So, my 12th commandment reads: ‘Do not allow the fanatics to rule the day.”

What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. 
Jan. 2016

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


In the Hebrew Bible, Gen. 12: 1 begins with God’s command to Abraham to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The text is problematic, because in the Hebrew original, the verb “go” is repeated for purposes of intensifying the command (Gesenius, #119s): lekh lekha. This unnecessary duplication gave rise to a variety of interpretations by ancient sages as well as modern commentators.

Some argue that Abraham did indeed hear the command of God to leave his native country and move to a new land (later understood as the land of Canaan). I prefer to say that Abraham, assuming he was an historical character, was impelled by an inner voice that told him to move forward.

For the early Jewish/Greek Philosophers, like Philo of Alexandria (1st cent. CE), “Go forth” meant, to escape from the body, which “the foul prison-house” that pollutes the soul (“On the Migration of Abraham,” 9). This is hardly our thinking today.

In more recent times, in his classic commentary on the Pentateuch (Soncino, 1971), Dr. J. H. Hertz generalized the instruction, and applied it to the historical fate of the Jewish people that for many centuries had to live as a minority among other nations: “A similar call comes to Abraham’s descendants themselves in every age and clime, to separate themselves from all associations and influences that are inimical to their Faith and Destiny.” In other words, Jews have to learn how to become authentic Jews, even when they live with others.

Other interpreters, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888), stressed the existential condition of humanity by interpreting the expression as: “Go by yourself.” That is, the journey must be taken alone, and, with some luck, with good friends and family to support us along the way. I like this interpretation.

The command to “go forth” has also been understood in a psychological sense. In his well-known book, The Lonely Crowd (1950), David Riesman, had suggested that the goal in life is to move from being an “other-directed” person, whose existence depends on reliance on others, to becoming “an inner-directed” individual who is propelled by inner motivation and strength. 

Following Riesman’s line of thought, I would argue that it is necessary to be able to move from “dependence” to “independence” by learning how to take chances in life with freedom. In line with many Hasidic teachings, the biblical expression lekh lekha can therefore be understood as “Go to yourself.” This is my favorite interpretation. It says, go to your own roots, your inner being. Find your potential. Discover your own strength. Be your own person. 

Fortunate are those who can accomplish this goal.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2015