Monday, July 20, 2015


What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.

That is what Shakespeare said in his famous play, Romeo and Juliet. A name is an appendage; it is a way to distinguish one person or an object from another. Some people like their names, and keep them for life; others don’t, and change them for a variety of reasons, including fame or ethnicity.

A bit of a background:

Among Semitic people of the ancient Near East, a name had a meaning based on its three-letter roots. Biblical Israelites, being part of that world, followed the same custom and gave their heroes and villains names with significance appropriate to their situation in life: For example, Adam means “humanity;” Isaac is “laughter,” Joseph “increase.” Some people were named after animals: Deborah (“bee”), Jonah (“dove”), Rachel (“ewe”), or plants: Tamar (“palm tree”), Hadassah (“myrtle”).  Sometimes, circumstances determined the giving of a name: Avraham is “exalter father;” Esau means “hairy,”Abimelekh  “My father is/was a king.”(I remember the case of an Arab who called his 10th daughter “Tamam,” meaning, “Enough”!!!). 

In the biblical period, a name was considered to be part of the essence of a being. As the Bible states, “like his name, so is he” (I Sam. 25:25). If something did not have a name, it simply did not exist. The Bible states that “whatever the [primordial] man (ha-Adam, in Hebrew) called each living creature, that would be its name” (Gen. 2: 19). Also, altering a name implied changes in social status. Thus, leaders and kings often assumed new names when their social condition changed. For, example, the patriarch Jacob was named Israel after he struggled with a mysterious person at the River Jabbok (Gen. 32:28); Eliakim, the son of King Josiah, became Jehoiakim when he became king of Judah (II K 23: 34); similarly, Mattaniah’s name was changed to Zedekiah when he was appointed king (II K 24: 17).

 In our time, the custom of changing a name is preserved in the Catholic Church when the cardinals appoint a new pope. Thus, Joseph A. Ratzinger became Benedict XVI (2005-2013), and, the present pope, Jorge M. Bergoglio became Francis (2013-). Often kings or queens assume a regal name when they ascend the throne: Queen Victoria (1837-1901) had been christened Alexandrina Victoria, but took the throne under the name of Victoria. Similarly, when her son, Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, became king, he took the name of Edward VII. Also, women traditionally take their husband’s last name when they get married. (I often wondered, why so? Now, some men are taking their wife’s family names. Maybe each should keep his/her own for the rest of his/her life). Many women change their name after a divorce. Some artists assume a new name for purposes of publicity, fame or simple vanity. Thus, for instance, Eric. M. Bishop became Jamie Foxx; Carlos I. Esteves became Charlie Sheen, and Stefani J. A. Germanolla became Lady Gaga.

What happens today?

The naming process is different in our time. We give our children names we like, without knowing their significance; at times, we bestow upon them names in honor or memory of a family member. However, this is a name we personally choose for them. Have you asked yourself: what if they don’t like it when they grow older? Why should one get tied up to a name that is imposed on him/her, even if it is done with the best of intensions.  Giving a name is not like getting a new piece of clothing that you can discard easily. You are either thrilled with it or stuck with it the rest of your life. 

The Jewish custom is to name children after their father .They become: A the son (ben)/daughter (bat) of B. For males, this takes place during their circumcision. Jewish girls are often named during a new ceremony called simhat bat (“Celebration of a girl”) either at home or in the synagogue. Presently, children are named after both father and mother. My Hebrew name is Refael ben Avraham. I added my mother’s name when I became an adult, so I am fully Refael ben Avraham ve-Havvah. When I was born, my parents in Turkey did not want to call me Refael; that was my grandfather’s first name, but it sounded too Jewish! So, they changed it to Rifat (pronounced as Ree-faht), a good Turkish name. 

The name “Rifat” comes from the Arabic, meaning “elevation, superiority.” It can be given to a man, a woman, even used as a last name. It served me well when I was in Law School and when I served in the Turkish army. But, when I came to the States in 1961, it started to give me problems. Few people knew how to pronounce it, and even fewer how to spell it. Even now, after more than 50 years in the US, when I make a reservation in a restaurant by phone, I tell them, this is “Robert.” At least, almost everyone knows how to pronounce it and spell it.

Maybe we ought to change the system. Why burden a child with a name that we like, but they may come to dislike, or find it inappropriate? Perhaps, we need to give our children a temporary name until the age of 18, and after that let them choose their own personal name, one they like. In this I am following the ancient Rabbis’ advice who taught, “Every person has three names: the one given by his father and mother, the one that others call him, and the one he acquires for himself” (Eccl. Rabbah 7: 1).

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino
July, 2015

Monday, July 6, 2015


Many traditional Jews, and even some Christians, prefer to spell the name of God by writing “G-D” or “L—D.” I think this is unnecessary and based on wrong assumptions. 

In support of the spelling of the word as “G-D,” many say that this is because it is prohibited by the Decalogue. This, however, is not so clear. The 3rd commandment is worded ambiguously. We do not exactly know what it means “to swear falsely by/take in vain the name of the Lord (YHVH).” Does the commandment prohibit “misuse (in court?)” or “identifying YHVH with a false god”? (See my book, And God Spoke These Words; The 10 Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, 64). 

In 1963, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, a prominent Reform Jewish legal scholar, dealt with this issue in a responsum, and argued that “the primary prohibition against erasure ..of the name of God [on which this custom is based] applies to the sacred names in the properly written text of the Torah, and even in the Torah itself those names of God are not sacred unless the scribe sanctifies them with a specifically uttered formula” (Recent Reform Responsa, 53).  

Furthermore, as we all know, Biblical and Rabbinic texts contain various names for God, but the only one that can be considered as God’s personal name in the Hebrew Bible is not “God,” an English word, but YHVH (from the verbal root hvh, an older form of hyh, meaning “to be”), which can be translated as “[YHVH] is” or, “[YHVH] is present” or even “[YHVH] causes to be.” It is found in the Bible in many places, and was uttered by the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem only during certain occasions. In time, its pronunciation was lost and the Rabbis substituted for it the name Adonai (meaning, “My Master”). So, Adonai is NOT God’s personal name; only YHVH is, and we do not even know how to pronounce it.  

In our time, the word “God” stands for something very important for many of us. For some it represents “the ground of existence,” for others “the fountain of ultimate meaning,” and for me, “the energy of the universe.”  (You can add here your own concept of God). God should be invoked simply as “existence,” without a personal name. We do not exert power over God by using God’s proper name. 

The word God is a symbol. In English prayers, using a generic term such as “God” (fully spelled) is enough. Let people apply to it their own meaning. The divinity does not need or require a personal name.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
July, 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


This week my wife Ines and I decided to clear our basement where we stored boxes of old pictures, going back 40 or 50 years. We were younger then, and surrounded by parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins who infused meaning into our lives. Alas, those days are gone forever, and we are only left with colorful images.

The biblical poet urges us to “Remember the days of old” (Deut. 32:7), and that is good.  In the same spirit, an anonymous author stated that pictures capture the moments in our lives for many tomorrows. “Many”-- in our lives, yes; “forever”-No! Some of these treasured memories are meaningful to us who lived the moment, and may have some significance for our children, but what about our grandchildren and their own kids? I doubt it. They may take a curious look at them, and that’s it. Unless one is extremely well-known beyond one’s immediate circle, most pictures are meant for the close family members of one or two generations, at most. These are “our” pictures, “our” recollections. By looking at them, we briefly relive the moment. Others will have their own images that will sustain them in their lives.

Among the treasures we found were pictures of our respective parents’ early years as well as those taken during major celebrations and notable life-cycle events, such as Ines’ “quinceaƱera” (when she turned 15), other weddings and Bar/t Mitzvas. I retrieved one of my parents’ engagement; one taken during my high school days, a great one of me wearing a Turkish army uniform; pictures of our kids’ birth; early travels. I even found one showing my long dark hair and no facial hair. When my grandchildren look at them, they will not stop laughing: “You look so different” they will say; “You were so young,” or even “Is that you?”

What is the message? I like what Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author,  once said: “Life is short, and we should respect every moment of it.” I personally do not believe in the hereafter, and consider our life on earth precious and worthy of living, hopefully in relative good health, but fully, cheerfully and creatively, leaving a good name behind.  

My wife and I did not keep all the pictures; in fact, we discarded most of them, but saved a few that will still bring a smile to our faces, and perhaps a chuckle among our grandchildren. 

C’est la vie!

Rifat Sonsino

June 17, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015


In early June (2015), my wife and I visited the famous Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, and were fascinated by it.

Located in the old Jewish section of Pest, the so-called Tabakgasse synagogue (“dohany” means “tobacco” in Hungarian, from the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic “duhan”) is the largest house of worship in Europe and one of the biggest temples in the Jewish world (Temple Emanuel in NY is larger). It can accommodate close to 3000 worshipers, and looks very much like the Central Synagogue of NYC.  It costs about $13 to get in as a tourist. 

Originally built in the Moorish style in 1859, the synagogue is a part of a complex that also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum. Behind the impressive Ark (see picture above), there is a huge organ that was played by famous musicians like Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saens. It also has a mixed choir. Worshippers, both men and women, can sit on the ground floor but women are segregated to the sides.

The synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazis in Feb.1939, and used as a base for the German Radio and stable by the nazis during the WW2.  Thanks to the generosity of many American Jews, like Estee Lauder and Toni Curtis, the temple was restored between 1991-98.

The congregation practices what they call “Neolog” Judaism that is based on the teachings of Rabbi Zecharias Frankel (1801-1875, died in Breslau) of the Positive-Historical Judaism, and is somewhere between Reform and Conservative Judaism in the States. However, they are not formally affiliated with either movement in America.

Before arriving in Budapest I wrote a note to the Rabbi of the temple. When we got there, I tried to see him personally but he was not available, so I left him a message.

It is not clear how many Jews live in Hungary today. The estimated range is from 120,000 to as low a 35,000.

When you have a chance, do visit this magnificent structure. You will be very impressed by it.

Rifat Sonsino
June 12, 2015

Monday, May 4, 2015


A few months ago, after 15 years of teaching at Boston College (BC), I decided to call it quits.  This week, I gave my final exam, corrected the papers, and posted the grades.  Finito!

My first contact with BC took place in the Fall of 1999 at the invitation of Dr. Ruth Langer, a rabbinic colleague of mine who taught at the College. I was then the Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA., and planning my upcoming retirement. Having a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Bible and Ancient Near Eastern studies, I wanted to work in academia for a few years. During my initial meeting with the head of the Theology Department, I was given an opportunity to teach an elective. I chose to deal with “God Concepts; Jewish and Christian Responses,” based on Finding God (URJ Press), a book that I had co-authored with Rabbi D. Syme a few years ago. The course was popular and I had a large class. Later on, I taught many electives, including an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Spirituality, Biblical Theology, and the Decalogue. My classes were popular; I never had less than 35-40 students. Every year I only taught one class per semester, because of time constraints at my synagogue. However, in 2003, at age 65, after my retirement from the full-time rabbinate, BC asked me to teach, twice a week, a required course on Religious Quest, concentrating on Judaism and Christianity. My book Modern Judaism (Cognella, 2013) was written as a textbook for my students. 

When we lived in Needham, the commute to BC was easy--under half an hour. However, in 2005 when we moved to our new condo in Ashland, about half an hour west of Needham, the trip started to become a chore- 45 minutes to go and an hour and a half to come back. Especially the return around 5 pm was rough, because it coincided with the heavy traffic on the expressway. I started to rethink about my commitment to BC. When an opportunity emerged for me to teach a course on Ethics at Framingham State University (FSU), just 15 minutes away from my house, I gladly accepted, and began classes in Jan. 2015, both at FSU and BC. About a month ago, however, I told my BC chair that I would not return to the College in the Fall. 

Teaching at a Catholic University gave me an opportunity to get to know the Catholic academic community of Boston relatively well. I found my colleagues to be accepting and open-minded, even though my Jesuits friends always maintained a strong devotion to the Vatican and to the basic teachings of the Church. One year, when the administration decided to place a crucifix in every classroom, some of the professors did not like it, but I said, “Listen, Jesus was Jewish; he grew up as a Jew and died as a Jew.” I did not mind having him around.

BC also has a group of colleagues who are dedicated to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and they sponsor regular luncheon meetings, welcoming speakers on a variety of subjects who deal with the rapprochement between Jews and Christians. 

The quality of most of my students at BC has been exceptional. They wanted excellence and strived to reach it through their work. Not satisfied with an A-, they had their eyes on an A+, and demonstrated that commitment by studying hard. In all of these 15 years, I have also had a number of Jewish students in my classes, even though I asked myself: what is a nice Jewish boy or girl doing at a Catholic University? BC made them feel at home, has a number of Jewish professors and even sponsors an active Hillel. 

I will miss BC: primarily my students, the excellent computer tech department, the libraries, many faculty members, but in particular Dr. Karen Howard, a Holocaust scholar who has been my office-mate for many years (and who often brought me delicious homemade jams), Dr. Antonia Atanassova, my Bulgarian neighbor, and many other members of the administration. But everything has to come to an end. And this is the year for me. I know that this represents a major transition in my life, but I am ready for it. What made my departure more pleasant were the little gifts, notes and emails I received from my students who wished me well in the next stage of my life. I was enriched by my experience at BC and was rewarded plentiful by wonderful associations. Thank you, Boston College.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
May 4, 2015