Thursday, May 12, 2016


A miracle is usually understood as an intervention by God who suspends the laws of nature for a purpose. The rabbinic and modern Hebrew term for it is “NES.” However, this is not what it meant in biblical times. 

The term NES, deriving from the Hebrew root NSS, simply means an ensign, a signal, a pole, as in “The Lord said to Moses, ‘make a seraph [meaning uncertain, some say, a winged snake] figure and mount it on a standard (NES)” (Num. 21:8). Or, by extension, it may refer to an example: the rebellious Korah’s band disappeared when the earth opened up, thus becoming a NES (“an example’) (Num. 26:10).

 In the ancient Near East, the belief in miracles was based on the assumption that God is omnipotent, and, consequently, He [in the Bible it is always a masculine figure] can interrupt the flow of nature at will. Various Hebrew expressions are used for this phenomenon, such as, GEDOLOT (“great things”) and NIFLAOT (“marvelous works”). In the early rabbinic literature, the word NES refers to miraculous signs, such as: “One who sees a place where miracles (NISIM) happened to Israel should say, ‘Blessed is he who performed miracles for our fathers in this place” (Ber. 9: 1). 

It is important to note, however, that neither the Bible nor early rabbinic texts have a systematic understanding of miracles. In those days, people believed that God acted like humans, but considerably stronger and with incredible results. Only during the medieval period did the Jewish philosophers start to interpret the ancient miracles according to the prevailing thinking of their time, without, however, reaching unanimity of opinion. Even though many professed a belief in miracles, others came up with novel interpretations. For instance, Nahmanides (13th cent. Spain) and Hasdai Crescas (14th cent. Spain) believed that miracles were immutable supernatural realities, but others, like Maimonides (d. 1204, Spain and Egypt), argued, in accordance with their rationalistic Aristotelian philosophy, that the so-called miracles were built into the structure of the universe, and when circumstances become favorable they emerge as something new (See, Maimonides, Eight Chapters, ch.8; Guide, 2: 29), and others, like Spinoza (17th cent., Holland) and , later on, Mordecai Kaplan (d. 1983, USA) totally rejected all beliefs in the creditability of the biblical miracles. 

There is no doubt that many people in ancient times took miracles for granted, but, even then, there were some who discounted the idea. Thus, for instance, in the biblical times, according to one source, miracles cannot be used to prove a religious truth: The Book of Deuteronomy teaches us that if a prophet gives you a sign, asking you to follow another god, do not do it, “even if the sign or portent (OT or MOFET) that he named to you comes true” (Deut. 13: 3). Similarly, in the rabbinic literature, the sages stressed that no one should pray for something that would alter the past, for it cannot be undone. Thus, “To cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9:3). 

In our time, it is incumbent upon us to remind people that miracles do not happen. God, as the energy of the universe, does not interrupt the flow of nature for the benefit of anyone, no matter how sincere or hopeful. It is always good to hope for the best, but one cannot depend on it. As one rabbi said in the Talmud: “Never depend on a miracle” (Sab. 32a).
The Universe is a wonderful place. Every moment is a “miracle.” As Walt Whitman (d. 1892) once wrote, “To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle; Every cubit inch of space is a miracle.” As we observe nature, we realize that many of life’s secrets still need to be discovered. And when something incredible does occur, it is because we have not as yet learned how the world really operates and how the laws of nature make this possible. New knowledge enriches us and gives us a better perspective on life. We cannot pray so that the world outside will bend to our purposes, but we can pray so that we can have a better understanding of ourselves and learn how to deal with nature’s surprises. In that respect, the Gates of Prayer, hit the right note when it stated, “Who rise from prayers better persons, their prayer is answered” (1975, p.127). 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


It is difficult to define the word “holy” or “sacred.” Philosophers have a hard time clarifying the totality of what this word tries to convey. It certainly has to do something with religion, with God, with the otherness of things, or with the numinous quality of being. In modern life today, however, the word does not have a great appeal. The question is whether the concept behind the word is worth preserving.

In the ancient Near East holiness implied separation. In Akkadian the verb qadashu means to become pure. In Mari a qadishtu was a priestess. In the Hebrew Bible qadosh refers to whatever is set aside for a purpose. The Rabbis, too, understood the word in the same manner. Whereas Lev. 19:2 states, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” [qadosh], the SIFRA, a legal commentary on the book of Leviticus, states that this means, “You shall be separate [perushim] (from others or sinful acts).” The opposite of holy is profane, impure and ordinary. 

In traditional Hebrew texts, the term qadosh is applied to various spheres:
a)    Holiness can be applied to people, and especially to the people of Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine” (Lev. 20: 26). Priests also are considered holy because they were separated from other individuals in the community (Lev. 21: 6).
b)    Objects can be holy: Thus, all priestly clothing is considered holy (Ex. 28:2,4), because only priests can wear them. 
c)     Time can be set aside as holy:  For example, the Sabbath day is viewed as holy, because it is set aside from all other days as a day of worship and rest (Ex. 20:8).
d)    Places can be considered as sacred: Within the ancient temple of Jerusalem, there was a section designated as “Holy of Holies” where presumably the divine dwelled (Ex. 25: 8). Similarly, a sanctuary is called a miqdash (“sacred place’), for, it has been set aside as a special place of worship.
e)    Occasions can be viewed as holy: In the rabbinic literature, the marriage ceremony is called qiddushin (from the same root as qadosh), since both husband and wife set themselves apart for a unique relationship.
f)      The Israelite God, whose personal name, YHVH, we do not know how to pronounce, is viewed as holy, because He has been set aside for an exclusive worship from all other gods in the universe: “Who is like you, O Lord [YHVH], among the gods; Who is like you, majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15: 11). Similarly, in the temple of Jerusalem the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts” (Isa. 6: 3).  

In the Biblical view, holiness is regarded as being gradual from the most sacred to the least sacred; as one gets closer to God, it becomes more holy.  Some individuals, for example, are holier than others. Thus, the High priest is the most sacred; then come the ordinary priests, then the Levites, and finally the Israelites and the resident aliens. Foreign nations appear at the very bottom. In the same vein, when it comes to places, after the “Holy of Holies” in the temple of Jerusalem, you have the temple compound, then the city of Jerusalem, then the Land of Israel, and finally, the least sacred are all other lands outside of Israel. 

            How was God’s holiness understood? Primarily by way of copying divine deeds. For instance, when Lev. 19: 2 states, “You [meaning, the Israelites] shall be holy, because, I, the Lord your God, am holy,” the SIFRA adds that the proper meaning is: “If you sanctify yourselves, then I [God] would consider as if you have sanctified me.” Similarly, Nahmanides (Girona, Spain, b.1194-1270, Israel) comments on the same verse saying, “That means, by being holy we can cling to God”.  In other words, holiness is based on imitatio dei, acting as God would: i.e., If you act in a godly matter, then, God is sanctified. 

The comments above reflect a theistic view of God where God appears as a Person who knows, responds and reacts to human activity. How can holiness be construed within a non-theistic, religious naturalistic point of view (My approach)? I believe that the Biblical concept of “holy” as referring to something that is separate and being set aside for a special purpose is still valid. However, I would argue that nothing is intrinsically sacred. Holiness is a quality that we bestow upon others because we consider them as special, such as historical sites (e.g., the city of Jerusalem, my synagogue in Needham, MA), human relationships (e.g. spouses, parents), the environment (e.g. respect for nature).  [You create your own list].  As to God, which in a non-theistic religious naturalism stands for the energy that animates the universe, divine holiness is based on the life-affirming qualities that we, humans, attribute to all existence that surrounds us, for without that energy we would not exist.
I agree with Michael Benedict who wrote:
“Nothing is holy expect that we sanctify it;
and thus everything is potentially holy
      except cruelty, disease, and untimely death.” (1)

To life!
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
April 2016

1.    Michael Benedikt, God is the Good We Do. Botting Books, NY, 2007, 10.

Monday, April 11, 2016


On Friday night, April 8, 2016, my Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA (where I am the Emeritus) celebrated my 50th year in the rabbinate with a special Sabbath service. In my response to various speeches, I shared with the congregation the following words:

I have had two major existential crises in my life. The first one occurred when I was in high School in Istanbul, Turkey. I must have been in my early teens when I realized that I was not growing taller. When I complained about it to my French teacher, she, a little old lady that she was, told me, “You measure height from the shoulders up.” That was a revelation to me. From her words I derived the lesson that if I wanted to be successful in life I needed to develop my mind. So, I committed myself to my studies and did very well in High School. In fact, I became the valedictorian of my class.

The second crisis happened in law school (again in Istanbul) when I realized that I wanted to do something else than practicing business law. What shall I do? I was very much influenced by my father who was a good Hebraist and an accomplished structural engineer. I was not good at math. My brother, on the other hand, was the brain of the family, and not surprisingly he became an electrical engineer.  I was good at humanities, and needed to find an avenue for myself. So, with the help of a neighbor who was a liberal Rabbi, my mother’s unswerving love and my father’s passion for Jewish studies, I decided to become a Reform Rabbi in the USA, even though I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish environment. I must been a rebel even then.

I entered the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati, Ohio) in 1961 with a great enthusiasm for my newly elected profession. Looking back, I must say that I have been very fortunate. I took a few calculated risks in life. I married a wonderful woman, Ines; I carefully chose the University of Pennsylvania for my graduate school; was thrilled when I became the father of two wonderful children, Daniel and Deborah, and am now grateful to have four grandchildren, Ariella and Dalia, Avi and Talya, who fill me with joy. I was particularly happy to become the Rabbi of great synagogues, first in Buenos Aires, then in Glencoe, Ill, and finally at Beth Shalom, in Needham, MA (suburb of Boston) where I spent 23 productive years of my life. It was in Needham that I really learned how to become a Rabbi in the full sense of the word. Through the help of many of my wonderful past presidents, I was able to put Beth Shalom on the national map, and made sure that Jewish knowledge was based on solid foundation and liberal thinking. I am now thrilled to see the growth of our temple under the rabbinic leadership of Rabbis Perlman and Markley. I can’t wait to see our new building (now under construction) in the Fall of 2016.

Now that I am 77 years old, I have short-term projects. I am looking forward to Ariella’s confirmation this coming June, Avi’s Bar Mitzvah next April, 2017, Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah in Feb. of 2018, and then Talya’s Bat Mitzvah…she is still 8 years old and we don’t have a date yet. I also plan to continue to teach at Framingham State University. It gets me out of the house (Ines is happy about it) and allows me to do what I love best, namely, teaching. Personally, I am now looking at age 80. If I live to be that old, I will set up further short-term projects.

In the meantime, I enjoy the life Ines and I have together, love spending time with my grandchildren here in the Boston area, playing soccer with Avi and acting as a student in Talya’s imaginative class.
I enjoy studying with my rabbinic colleagues on Monday morning, helping my adopted synagogue in Barcelona, Spain, as well as writing, blogging, lecturing and teaching at different places, and doing some traveling to interesting places around the world.

Life is a journey, taken step by step. And I have been among the luckiest people in the world who has had the opportunity to do what I love best.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
April 11, 2016