Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I teach Ethics at Framingham State University. At every session we take an ethical problem and discuss it. Recently I presented a rabbinic dilemma to my students that is very popular in the Jewish sources. Here is the case: 

Two individuals, A and B, are traveling together through the desert, and between them they have only one flask of water. If A alone were to drink the whole bottle, he would be able to reach the town at the end of the road, but if they were to share the bottle, the two of them would die. What should they do?

One ancient rabbinic commentator by the name of Ben Peturah (“the Son of Petura,” an otherwise unknown figure in Rabbinic literature) argued that both should drink and die, rather than A should live and witness the death of B. He based his argument on the Biblical text that reads: That your brother may live with you, (Lev. 25: 35), stressing the word, “live.” However, Rabbi Akiva, a 2nd cent. scholar, said to him: The word to be emphasized  is “with you” and not “life.” This clearly implies that your life takes precedence over the life of your of your friend. (See text in Sifra, Lev. 25:36 and BM 62a). And that is the Jewish law on the subject.

Examples from modern life are plentiful. Here is one:  On the plane, before taking-off, an announcement is usually made: “In case the level of oxygen falls, a mask will come down from the ceiling. Please put it on you before you place it on the face of your companion.” The rationale is that if you cannot take care of yourself, you will not be able to help another.

However, as we discussed in class, the situation may change depending on who B is. There are at least three different scenarios:

 1) If B is someone you do not know or barely know, one can easily argue that A’s life comes first. Why should A give up his life for a stranger?

 2) But what happens if B is your child?  Your boy/girlfriend or husband/wife? My guess is that here, many people would give up the bottle, and let the other drink alone.

 3) But what if you were traveling with your good friend, or your parents, or even with some elderly relatives? Whose life comes first in these cases? For me, the determining factor is who has a better chance to survive? At the end, the survivor may suffer from a guilty conscience, but he/she will live after all.

What do you think?

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 2015

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 tmjells 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 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