Monday, January 26, 2015


Since the start of the year, I have been teaching an Ethics course at Framingham State University (outside of Boston), and often discuss personal dilemmas we confront regularly.  “Whose Life Comes First?” was one of the topics we covered recently.

Ever since Auguste Compte, the French sociologist, coined the term “altruism” in 1851, thinkers have been debating the issue as to whether or not human nature is fundamentally selfish or other-oriented. Some argue that humans compete with one another all the time, and natural selection has made men and women even more egoistic. Others maintain that humanity could not have survived without charity and social responsibility toward the others.

Ancient Rabbis, too, struggled with the issue of “Whose life comes first?” A Talmudic passage put the dilemma is these words:
"Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a flask of water. If both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank, [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura (a rabbinic scholar) taught: 'Better both should drink and die than that one should see his friend's death,' until Rabbi Akiba (2nd cent. CE) came and taught: [The Bible says:] 'Your brother should live with you' (Lev.25:36) – meaning, ‘your life takes precedence over the life of your friend's' (Baba Metzia 62a). And that is the position of Jewish law today.

We see an application of this rule in the way in which we are expected to act when we fly. As the plane is about to take off, the steward/ess says, “In case the air pressure falls, an air bag will come down from the ceiling. Please put the mask on your face first, and then help your neighbor.” The assumption is that unless you take care of yourself, you are not in a position to help someone else.

Most ethical dilemmas are not so clear cut. Often different situations require a re-evaluation of available options: Let me give you two examples: 

a) What if the other travelling companion is your child? My guess is that most parents would place the mask on his/her child first, or, in the case of the desert, give the bottle of water to his/her son or daughter, and willingly choose death. The ethics of self-sacrifice requires that when you give a gift, you do not expect anything in return, and that the life of the other person is viewed as more important that yours. And, for someone you love, this comes easy. There have been many examples in battle when a soldier sacrificed his/her life by taking a bullet meant for someone else, just because of close friendship or personal loyalty. 

b) What happens if you are not sure that your donation will save someone else’s life, and, in fact, your gift may put you in jeopardy?  Thus, for instance, some rabbinic authorities actually forbid a donor from giving a kidney to a dying patient if it will place the donor in some danger. But Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d.1986), the well-known Orthodox legal authority of our time, took a middle position, and stated that even through it is not obligatory to place oneself in questionable danger, you may personally choose to take this risk in order to save a life.
My life experience has taught me that human beings are basically egoistic, and that self-sacrifice does not come easily to many of us. However, altruism can and must be taught. This is often imparted at home and in school. That is why we need loving parents, influential teachers, and alert advisors to help us become more caring, more loving and more sensitive in our dealing with others. 

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
January, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Many people say “I am not religious” when they actually mean, “I am not observant.” What is the difference between the two? 

The way I see it, “religious” refers to beliefs and values, whereas “observant” involves ritual practices and carrying out daily Mitzvot (“commandments”). Most people who are religious are also observant, but there are many, like me, a liberal rabbi of non-theistic persuasion, a religious naturalist by self-definition, who is not as observant as many Orthodox Jews. It is said that the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was “a non-observant Jew” (Merriam-Webster). 

The difference between “religious” and “observant” is relatively new. Traditional sources do not seem to be aware of any tension between them.

The Bible often refers to individuals who “fear God/the Lord.” This “fear” is more than reverence; God was then viewed as a mysterium tremendum who could reveal His awesome power and even punish people who strayed from the expected path. Thus, for example, Abraham “feared God” (y’re Elohim) (Gen. 22: 12); so did the midwives in the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 1: 21). The prophet Malachi speaks of those who “feared the Lord” (yire Adonay). In the Apocrypha, Susanna “feared the Lord” (1:2). No distinction is made between “fear God” and “fear the Lord.” Often, “fear of God/theLord” is used in warning Israelites against idolatry (e.g., Ex. 20: 17), but also as a means to encourage them to “walk in God’s ways” (Deut. 10:12-13), namely, to put into practice the many biblical teachings. Even though we do not know how “observant” biblical Jews were, and there are many indications that they did not always follow the teachings of their prophets and leaders, in the literature itself, “fear God” and fear the Lord” refer to the power of the divine but also to religious beliefs, personal piety and traditional practices. 

In the late biblical period and in the early Persian times, the Hebrew term dat appears in classical texts. This word often refers to laws, customs and royal decrees. For example, in the book of Esther, the term dat often means the law of the king (Est. 4: 16; 11, 16) and is only secondarily applied to religion and religious practices. Similarly, the expression dat Moshe means both “Mosaic ritual law” as well as “Jewish faith.” (In Deut. 33:2, the term dat is corrupt). Religion and observance are here closely related. 

In the modern period, one who is pious as well as religiously observant is called a dati. However, there is no modern Hebrew term for someone who is religious but not observant. In Jewish life today there are many who fall in this category and are often  referred to as “cultural Jews.” It needs to be stressed that devout Orthodox Jews are not the only ones who are religious as well as observant. Many liberal Jews are also practicing Jews in line with their Reform Jewish tradition/s. 

What am I? I am not a dati, as a Hasidic rebbe, yet, as a Reform Rabbi, I am seriously observant, in my own way, based on the critical study of tradition and my own theological outlook. Someone suggested the Hebrew term dati reformi, namely, observant a la Reform Judaism.

Most Jewish people I know are religious, i.e., they hold values and beliefs, theistic or not, that are derived from the Jewish tradition and nurtured by our own culture. Our task is to encourage them to set up a discipline of religious practices that are compatible with their personal views, thus ensuring the continuity of our traditions and culture. This job belongs to dedicated parents, insightful teachers, and great role models. Are you one of them?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Jan, 2015

Saturday, December 20, 2014


A few weeks ago, I attended a family Sabbath service with my grandchildren in one of the local synagogues. When the Rabbi announced the Shalom Alekhem (“Welcome”) song and went on talking about the angels that accompany us on that night, I was not at all happy. As an adult I understand metaphors, but young children do not, and are more likely to take things literately. And that is unnecessary and dangerous.

Shalom Alekhem is one of the most popular liturgical hymns for welcoming the Sabbath. It refers to the “angels of service,” conceived as two divine messengers, which, according to the Talmud, accompany every Jew on the Sabbath (BT Shab. 119b): one of two angels is good, the other one is evil. When the person arrives home and finds that the Sabbath lamp is lit and the festive table is set, the good angel approves of the action and blesses the individual; but if this is not done, then the evil angel invokes a curse on the person. (Ugh!). As a song, it is relatively late, probably originating at the start of the 18th century. However, it uses imagery that goes back in time.

The belief in angels is predominant in the ancient Near East. People then believed in the existence of divine winged creatures called karibu (“intercessors”). The Bible, too, knows of angels, called either satan, “holy ones,” cherubim, seraphim, and others. (See article on “angels” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1).The role of angels dramatically increased in post-biblical literature as well as in rabbinic texts, and reached its height in kabbalistic material during the medieval times. In the Reform movement, the old Union Prayerbook (1959), reflecting the classical Jewish stand of its time, did not include Shalom Alekhem. The Gates of Prayer (1975) did. The new Mishkan T’Filah (2007) demythologizes it by adding a note at the bottom of the next page saying, “ordinary people are messengers of the Most High” (p. 143). But that is not what the text implies.

A number of Rabbis raised serious concerns about angelology in Judaism and specifically against the use of Shalom Alekhem during the Sabbath service. For example, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (d. 1821) taught that it is forbidden to make any requests of angels, because, he believed, they do not have independent power. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) objected to the verse asking the angels for blessings (“Bless me with peace,”) for, according to a long standing Jewish teaching, blessings come only from God. (For an excellent discussion of this poem, read the chapter in Shabbat At Home, Edited by L. A. Hoffman, Jewish Lights, 2004). 

I don’t think there is such a thing as an angel, whether as real creatures floating in the air or as divine emanations advocated by Maimonides in medieval times. This primitive image belongs to the past, and better be left there. I would also argue that some liturgical passages, like Shalom Alekhem or Kal [note: not Kol] Nidre, should only be sung, but not translated, because they may lead people into believing in matters that are irrational and, worse, theologically objectionable. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Dec. 21, 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014


The traditional explanation of why the festival of Hanukah is celebrated for eight days is based on a Talmudic passage: Oil for one day, miraculously lasted eight. (See below). However, this is a late development. Early texts do not mention this so-called miracle. It is time we give up this irrational explanation and find a better one. And that historical explanation does exist.

The history behind Hanukah is, briefly, this: In the second cent. BCE, Antiochus IV, the Syrian king, set out to conquer Egypt. While he was fighting there, Jason, who was deposed from his position as the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem, left the Ammonites with whom he had taken refuge, and attacked Menelaus, his brother in Jerusalem, in order to regain the High Priesthood. A civil war broke out between the two, and Jason successfully entered Jerusalem. King Antiochus was furious. On his way back from Egypt, the king attacked Jerusalem, imposed restrictions on Judea, and eventually desecrated the Temple. In reaction, a priest by the name of Mattathias, and his sons (called the Maccabees), fought against the Syrians, and were able to clean and rededicate the temple of Jerusalem to the worship of one God in the year 165 BCE. This rededication is called Hanukah (“dedication” in Hebrew). 

The First Book of Maccabees (c.mid-2nd cent. BCE), states that Hanukah ought to be celebrated for eight days but does not indicate the reason for it (see, 4:59). It is in the Second Book of Maccabees (c.125 BCE) that we find a rational explanation: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev.  And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths [Sukkot], remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. (10: 6). So, Hanukah was really like a delayed Sukkot that lasts seven days plus Atzeret, a one day festival (See, Lev. 23: 33-36; cf. v.39).

The first reference to the lights of Hanukah appears in the writings of Josephus (1sr cent. CE) who calls the festival “Lights” by saying: I suppose the reason was this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us and that hence the name given to that festival. (Antiquities, 7:7). 

In it only in the Talmud, which was edited in the 5-6th centuries CE in Babylonia that the so-called “miracle” makes its appearance (under Persian influence?): What is [the reason of] Hanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislew [commence] the days of Hanukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.  For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty (i.e. the Maccabees) prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (BT Shab. 21b, Soncino). 

Later on a midrashic text (c. 9th cent.) provides another explanation: When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they entered the temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on these spears and kindled them. (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 5). 

It is clear that the explanation of why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days changed over the years, some legendary, and some more historical. For me, the simplest and the most reasonable explanation is that in its own time, Hanukah was a delayed Sukkot. No miracles. The festival today proclaims many important values, such as courage, dedication, thanksgiving, and, above all, the right to be different. These are the values we need to stress, and not the miracle of oil which is not rational, historical or even believable in our time.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D