Thursday, November 20, 2014



Children are often curious about God, and many parents have a hard time dealing with it. The subject of God is difficult for adults who are not trained in theological discourse, let alone for children who have a hard time dealing with abstractions. So, very often we transmit to them childish images that we don’t believe either, like, “God, the old man in the sky.” One child thought that God lives in the bathroom, because his mother kept saying, “Oh, God, are you still there?”

In reality, explaining God to children is not different than explaining it to adults, except that the language has to be more direct and simpler. It is important to understand the real source of the kids’ questions. The Swiss developmental thinker, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) taught us that children have a “functional orientation.” That is: when they ask, “What is a chair?” they really mean, “What is it for?” Similarly when they ask, “What is God?” they are really asking, “What does God do?” On the other hand, Rabbi Harold Kushner (b. 1935) says that when children ask about the existence of God, they are really asking whether they can trust the world. Furthermore, as our seminary teacher, Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski (1925-1991) used to tell us, “It is easier to talk to God than to talk about God
Judaism proclaims the unity of God (“monotheism”). However, over the years, Jewish teachers have maintained various views about God (See, for example, Finding God, R. Sonsino and D. Syme, URJ Press, 2002). 

In teaching about God, I would suggest the following:
First, a few don’ts: a) Do not stress fear and guilt. Don’t say, if you do or don’t do this, God will punish you. b) Don’t blame God for the so-called “acts of God.” Better deal with consequences; that is, with natural causes and effects. c) Don’t encourage children to pray for the impossible. That often results in disappointments. d)  Don’t explain biblical or rabbinic legends as historically true. If you don’t believe them, they won’t either.

And, now a few recommendations:

a)    Dr. Benjamin Spoke (1903-1998) was correct when he remarked that when parents are gentle and loving, they will present God as kindly and approving.  So, be loving, caring, supportive, non-judgmental with your children in discussing God. And don’t be afraid to say, I don’t know!
b)    Along with Rabbi Abraham Heschel (1907-1972), I would strengthen the children’s sense of awe and wonder of the universe.
c)    Rather than telling children about God, I would prefer they experience God though love, care, sense of wonder, and beauty of the world, even with the challenges that come from disappointments and pain. Nothing is perfect in life, and we need to learn how to live with all types of surprises.
d)    I would tell the children, just because you don’t see something, that does not mean it does not exist. Example: love. God is not invisible; it is intangible. We cannot see God because there is nothing there to see. We only get the impact of God in the universe. As a religious naturalist, I see God in the workings of nature, in the energy that sustains the universe. That is good enough for me. I hope it would be OK with them too.

Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino

Sunday, November 2, 2014


In the mid 70’s, a Canadian-Jewish movie called “The Lies my Father Told Me” became popular. It dealt with the relationship between a kid and his father and grandfather at the turn of the century and about what he learned from them-most of them not true.

Inspired by this movie, I submit that we are still teaching a bunch of lies to our children and students. Here are three examples:

1.    How did the Israelites get out of Egypt?

According to an old Jewish joke, a youngster tells his mother that after the Israelites walked safely through the Red Sea on pontoon bridges, the Egyptians followed, and Moses used his cell phone to radio for air cover! His mother asked: “Now, did your teacher really teach you that? “No,” said the kid, “but if I were to tell you the way he said it, you would never believe it!”

Biblical scholars tell us that the Israelites did not cross the “Red” Sea but, perhaps, the “Reed (suf in Hebrew) Sea.” Besides, we are told that the family of Jacob came down to Egypt with 70 people (Deut. 10:22), and after 430 (some say 400) years of captivity (Ex. 12: 40) the Israelites left with 600,000 men plus women, children and others who joined them (about 2 million) (Ex. 12: 37). This is impossible! Some critics today argue that not all the Israelites went down and left Egypt, maybe the Levites were the only ones. It appears that, years after, as the Israelites remembered the freedom they gained when some of their ancestors departed from Egypt, the whole “story” of their liberation was projected back into ancient times, and greatly exaggerated.

2.    Is the Story of Noah historical?

Very often the story of Noah, with all the animals saved on a single ship, is taught as if it were historically accurate. In reality, the Bible contains two different (but parallel and integrated) Noah stories. Besides, as most scholars recognize, the legend of Noah was taken into the Bible from a popular ancient Near Eastern literary source, where the hero is called “Gilgamesh” in Akkadian or “Ziusudra” in Sumerian. At most, it may have been based on a local flood that was magnified many times over.

3.    Hanukah “the miracle of oil.” Really?

Most school texts state that the reason why Hanukah lasts eight days is because of the so-called “miracle of oil” (found in the Talmud. Shab. 21b) when the oil that was sufficient to light the Hanukah candles only one night miraculously lasted eight days. In reality, ancient Jewish texts are not unanimous on why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days. One rabbinic source states that “upon entering the Temple, they (Maccabees) found there eight rods of iron which they grooved out and then kindled wicks in the oil which they poured into the grooves” (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 1). On the other hand, the Second Book of Maccabees (10: 6-8) says, more plausibly perhaps, that Hanukah “was celebrated for eight days…in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles” (that is, seven days of Sukot plus Atzeret on the 8th; see Lev. 23: 33-36).  Why then do we need to center the holiday on an unbelievable “miracle” when there are other, more realistic, interpretations?

Lessons to be learned:
a.     The fact that a story is popular does not mean it is historically correct.
b.    Texts that mention miracles often stress certain religious values, and are not concerned with historical truth. In the examples cited above, the Exodus teaches us, among others, about the importance of freedom; Noah reminds us that life is precious and, like Noah, we too must save lives whenever possible; and Hanukkah teaches us the values of Jewish pride and loyalty.
c.     We should not teach anything that will need to be unlearned later on. When I discovered the historical background of the stories mentioned above, I felt as if my religious foundation was cracking up, and I lost all trust in my religious school teachers.
d.    Where can you find reliable information? Not in the daily press or in popular books but only in serious studies and encyclopedias that are written from an historical/critical point of view.

We need to teach our children and students self-reliance through critical thinking and not dependence on “bubbe meises” (i.e., Yiddish for old wives’ tales!!!).

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Many people turn away from prayer because they realize that it can rarely produce concrete results. Therefore, it is important to understand what prayer can do and what it cannot accomplish. For me, this is the scope of prayer:

1.    One should not pray for the impossible. Nature will not respond just because we pray with reverence. Our rabbinic sages already knew that “to cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9: 3). They even give a few examples: for instance, a person whose wife is pregnant should not say, “May it be Your will that my wife should have a boy” (idem). Such a prayer is “vain,” they add, because the sex of the child was already determined at the time of conception, and no prayer, however sincere and heartfelt, will change it. Similarly, they taught that if a person, coming home from a journey, hears crises of distress in his town, he should not say, “(God) grant that this not be in my house,” for this, too, is a vain prayer (idem), here  for two reasons: a) if the problem is in his house, it is too late for this type of prayer; b) then, the prayer implies that the distress should be in someone else’s house; and that is unethical.   

2.    Prayer alone does not modify the course of nature. It can, however, affect the worshiping individuals. It can give them a new insight; it can deepen their understanding of how the world operates; and both can prepare them to face the world with courage and clarity of mind.

3.    We often worry about the acceptance of our prayers when we should be more concerned about our ability the express them with a certain sense of realism. Mordecai Kaplan once wrote: “Religious prayer is the utterance of those thoughts that imply either the actual awareness of God, or the desire to attain such awareness” (The Meaning of God, 1962, 33). The key word here is “utterance.” High expectations can lead to disappointment. By expressing our hopes and aspirations properly and within reason, we can take the first step towards their realization. Every prayer becomes a program of action, motivating us to work towards its fulfillment.

4.    We must remember that the main goal of public worship is to strengthen the bonds that unite the community engaged in prayer. When we get together for worship, even though some of us may not be in the mood, we are still given the opportunity to identify with the hopes, aspirations and goals of the congregation. By joining the worshiping community, we strengthen the group as we strengthen ourselves.

5.    We have come a long way from the ancient days when worship in the ancient Near East meant taking care of the individual needs of the gods. The challenge today is not only to ground the prayers in an acceptable rationale but also to formulate them in such an equivocal language that they will reflect the different theologies of the praying individuals, and thus unite us in our endeavors to create a society in which everyone has the maximum opportunity for self-realization. Regrettably, we are not there yet.

Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2014

PS. For more and other details on prayer, see my 6 Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VM: Jewish Lights), 2002, 72-92.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


In confronting daily struggles, some people remain apathetic and ignore them, hoping the problems will go away; others, confront the issues with full force, at times, even acting blindly and with anger; however, the best way is to take the middle road and resolve them by learning how to live with the ambiguities of life.

Thus, for example, the prophet Ezekiel criticizes those people “who have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not” (12: 2). Biblical law decries this uncaring attitude and, in fact, states, “You shall not stand (idly) by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19: 16; cf. Rashi based on the Sifra). 

At the other extreme, the zealot is characterized in the biblical tradition by the hot-blooded Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, who attacked and killed a non-Jewish woman and her Jewish husband in their tent, presumably because of some idolatrous practice, thus putting an end to a plague. For this act, Phineas received God’s “pact of friendship” (beriti shalom) as well as “a pact of priesthood” (berit kehunat olam) for all time (Num. 25:12). Later rabbinic tradition shows a great deal of ambivalence regarding Phineas, some considering him a hero, while others view him as  a dangerous fanatic who needs to be contained (See, for ex., “Coping with Zeal,” N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, 328.ff). I still remember Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention of 1964 when he said: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I disagree: extremism is always a vice. 

Between these two poles, the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, suggests a third option. He calls it “the middle road,” or “the happy medium” (midah benonit). He says this is the most desirable path, as it requires the individual “to be angry only for a grave cause that rightly calls for indignation, so that the like shall not be done again” (Mishneh Torah, Knowledge: 1: 4). 

I admit that the “middle road” is not an easy path, because it requires the individual to learn how to live with lack of precision and within the shades of gray. Some people simply cannot handle it. They want clear and cut answers. It is “yes” or “no.” Life, however, is never “black and white.”  It is not always an uphill road. It meanders; there are low points followed by great achievements. As we become more mature, we all need to learn how to live with uncertainties, with sudden deviations, with momentary greatness, with long range goals and broad perspectives, so that when we look back, we can say, “Not bad; I did all right.”

Apathy is inhuman. Extremism is easy but dangerous; it is even arrogant. The middle road, though far from being smooth, is wholesome. Thus, Maimonides suggests that those who follow it should not be “tight-fisted nor a spendthrift…neither frivolous and given to jesting, not mournful and melancholy” (idem). He ends by saying that those who follow the “middle road” are termed “wise.” 

Regrettably in our time, especially in the political scene, many people choose an extreme path. They view themselves as saints and consider others as villains. It is regrettable that the social and political agendas of many societies have now been high jacked by narrow-minded fanatics. Many countries in the world (e.g. the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe) are suffering because of this malaise. This is not helpful. It is simply wrong. 

So, don’t be an apathetic person, ignoring what is going on around you. On the other hand, stay away from intolerance, because it only leads to mental blindness. The middle road is the wholesome road.

Rifat Sonsino

Oct. 2014