Sunday, October 28, 2018
Yesterday, Saturday morning, Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, 46, walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, and killed 11 people in cold blood, just because he claimed Jews were behind the refugees coming from Latin America. He was finally caught and arrested. This is lunacy!
I thought this type of tragedy only happened in the old country or during medieval times, or in primitive societies. Well, it happened in the States too. We are not as advanced as I thought. How sad!
I am angry and disappointed. We desperately need to foster mutual respect and promote gun control as top national priorities. Who will step up to the plate now? I don't see Pres. Trump doing it.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Friday, October 26, 2018
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Friday, October 12, 2018
A month ago, my wife and I moved to the independent living section of the Willows in Westborough, MA. We have an apartment on the top floor with two bed rooms and two baths. I also have an office. We are comfortable in our setting. We get one meal a day, and all the amenities of living in a large complex.
Of all the residents with whom we interact, we are among the youngest. I am still teaching Ethics, part-time, at the Framingham State University, and my wife Ines is busy babysitting for our grandchildren or driving them around whenever she is needed.
Living among older people taught me a great deal. I see that, except for illness, most people function well into their 90’s. Last night we celebrated the birthday of Mr. Brown who is 99 years old and doing rather well. We also had dinner with a lady who is 98, and sharp as a whip. She still drives her car during the day and takes part in many social and cultural activities of our community. In the mornings, when I go to the gym in the first floor, I meet a number of people who come to exercise and who are much older than me.
The Hebrew Bible tells us that Abraham died at the age of 175 (Gen.25:8) and that Moses died at the age of 120 (Deut. 34: 7-8)-I doubt that. On the other hand, Abraham was 75 when he left Haran (Gen.12:4)- this is possible; and that Moses was 80 when he led the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex.7:7)-this is also possible, unless all of these dates are figurative. On the other hand, our Hebrew texts insist on showing respect to the elderly. For example, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect to the elderly” (Lev.19:32), for the simple reason that, as Job puts it, “Is not wisdom found among the aged?” (12:12). In our time, many elderly people are forgotten, ignored or warehoused because no one has time for them. This is wrong. The aged have a great deal to contribute to family and society.
When I turned 80 a month ago, I thought that I was entering “old age.” After all, according to the Talmud (BB 75a) “If one dies at eighty, he has reached old age.” I now know that I was mistaken. True, some people tragically die when they are much younger, but in our time, for many individuals, old age begins much later in life.
In rabbinic writings, age 80 is identified as “the time of remarkable strength” (gevurah) (PA 5: 21). I always thought that the Rabbis had a good sense of humor when they viewed 80 as “strength.” I now realize that most likely they had in mind “mental strength,” or “wisdom” or “discernment,” and not physical strength. According to the Sifra, another rabbinic text, “An older person is one who has achieved wisdom.” (Ked. 7:12).
So, what is the lesson? As you get older, keep active; now that you have more freedom, spend more time with family and friends; show the way to the younger ones; be a role model. And give gratitude for everyday that are you are alive and well.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Oct. 12, 2018
Monday, September 24, 2018
For the last few years I have been teaching, on a part-time basis, a semester-long course on Ethics at Framingham State University in the greater Boston area. I have created my own course outline and do not use a textbook. For convenience sake, I put all the study material online for easy access to my students.
I start by introducing them to various theories of ethics. We then read numerous texts that deal with morality through the centuries, such as ethics in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, in the Koran, in medieval literature and in contemporary writings. We follow this with a discussion of various ethical issues covering a number of areas, like legal ethics, environmental ethics, or medical ethics. We end the course with a major debate on a few specific topics (e.g. a case of death penalty, an insanity defense, tax fraud) that various groups of students get together to present to the class for their evaluation and resolution.
My interest is to make students think, and develop the ability to defend their point of view by using rational arguments, because the subject of ethics basically deals with values that are, at times, in conflict with each other. Two people struggling with an ethical dilemma can, and often do, take opposite points of view, and hopefully justify them, not by invoking religious dogma or authoritarian dicta, but by using a variety of cogent arguments. Following the teachings of Aristotle and Maimonides, I encourage my students to take the “Middle Road,” thus avoiding extreme positions.
We don’t know whether we are born with a sense of morality or if ethics are learned from parents and teachers. When I observe the recently born babies, with their aggressiveness to get what they want (e.g., food, shelter), I am more convinced that we learn from others how to behave correctly. (Note: the biblical Hebrew word for ethics is MUSAR, coming from the root YASAR, meaning “discipline” or “chastening”). I consider it my job, to open the mind of my students, leading them to tackle controversial issues by fair and peaceful means. In particular, we have fun dealing with ethical dilemmas, because they force us to take positions on difficult cases. Mostly, we end up with the “best” alternative, even if it is not the worthiest solution.
Here is an example of an ethical dilemma: Three of David’s classmates have created an offensive website that attacks students and teachers in a vicious way. The principal wants to know who did it? David is the only one who knows. You are David: will you lie to the principle by saying you don’t know who did it, or betray your friends?
Here is another: There is a long line in a food court. You ask the agreeable buyer in the front to include your order in his/hers, in exchange for the payment of lunch. You are the buyer in the front. Would you do it?
I would be curious to know what is your position on either dilemma. Please write to me at email@example.com.
Rifat Sonsino, Rabbi, Ph.D.