Friday, May 24, 2013


My new book, Modern Judaism, published by Cognella in Jan. 2013 and available through other venues, is a full introduction to the Jewish customs and ceremonies, the history and basic beliefs, the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and all the major Jewish platforms of our time. Written first as a college text book, it is now available to the general public. 

Writing an introduction comes with its own challenges as to what to include and what to exclude. You would expect that Judaism, as an ancient religion that is well known in the West, does not need another introduction but the fluidity of the literature and the constant changes in our life-style and religious beliefs make it necessary to update the material on a regular basis. My book attempts to meet that need.

In 1961 when I arrived in the United States as a rabbinic student from Turkey, it was much easier to identify who was an Orthodox Jew and who was a Conservative or a Reform Jew. Today, the line of demarcation is not so clear. Even though non-Orthodox movements, which now include the Reconstructionist, Humanist and Renewal, have their own religious platforms, they are general in nature and tend to be inclusive and therefore vague; they do not always reflect the practice in the field. In former years, I could attend a Reform rabbinic convention (CCAR), and know exactly what to expect liturgically and theologically. Today, it includes a mishmash of all types of religious practices and beliefs. More and more, it looks like a bigger divide is emerging in the Jewish world between the Orthodox and the rest of all the non-Orthodox  movements. Modern Judaism discusses all of these religious movements. 

Most previous introductions assumed that the Ashkenazic religious practices determined the core of Judaism, and consequently contained hardly any reference to the rich Sephardic tradition. In my Modern Judaism, I tried to present both points of view on most contentious subjects, such as the various practices regarding what to eat and not to eat during Passover, whether flowers are permitted during funerals, and what is the pattern of naming a child after a living or a dead parent and many others.

In addition to religious practices, it is important to point out that in the realm of religious beliefs, even though we all believe in the existence of One and Unique God, Jewish thinkers have advocated various concepts of God as well as other major religious concepts (e.g., freedom of will, sin, salvation, the efficacy of prayer). Furthermore, we, in the liberal community, need to approach our Sacred Scriptures through critical eyes and not take them as infallible, which they are not. My book highlights these points.

It would have been advantageous to include other subjects in the book, such as, an extensive discussion of critical biblical passages, a more comprehensive analysis of Jewish medieval thought, a full evaluation of modern Jewish approaches to various ethical and medical ethics, but that would have been beyond the scope of an introduction, and I decided to leave them out. I hope my Modern Judaism will whet the appetite of the readers and will lead them to further studies in their chosen fields. I am only opening the door, and if I have been able to excite the curiosity of my readers, I will be happy.

Rifat Sonsino

May 2013

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Friday, May 17, 2013


In my home I have a Turkish blue eye charm/bead (called Nazar Boncugu in Turkish) that sits on one of my shelves casting a protective gaze upon the entire house. Does it help? I doubt it, but it does not hurt either.

This is obviously an old superstition found all over the world: an envious glance can bring harm to the person or object. How do you protect yourself against it? You get a blue eye amulet that mirrors back, and stops the harmful look, the so-called, “evil eye.” 

In Hebrew, the evil eye is called ayin hara or en raah (in Yiddish it is “kayn aynhora”). According to the Rabbis, whereas a benevolent eye (“ayin tovah”) is praiseworthy, "an ayin hara, (an evil eye), the evil urge and hatred of another human being take one out of the world.” (Av. 2: 11). According to another, ninety nine people die of an evil eye, and only one through natural causes (BM 107b). You can protect yourself against this malicious curse, by repeating ever so often, beli ayin raah (“without the evil eye” [having power over you]). In a popular Jewish joke, a Jewish patriarch who was on the witness stand was asked by a District Attorney: “How old are you? He answered, “I am, kayn aynhora, eighty one.” Similarly, when counting people, you are expected to say, “Not one,” “Not two, “Not three” etc. in order to avoid the disastrous effects of the evil eye.

This meaning of “evil eye” represents an extension of what the original word for “eye” meant in biblical literature. Ayin, (pl. enayim), simply refers to the physical organ of sight. Whereas, a person with tov ayin (lit. good eye) is considered a “generous person” (Prov. 22: 9), one with ra ayin (lit. evil eye), is “miserly” (Prov. 28: 22). One can have eyne gavhut, a haughty look (Isa. 2: 11), or shah enayim (lit. “lowly eye”) “humility”(Job. 22: 29). Being consumed by an attitude described as raah enekha (lit. an eye set on ill will), simply meant being “mean” to another person (Deut. 15: 9). God’s eyes (eyne YHVH) are placed upon the land of Israel as a promise of protection (Deut. 11: 12). It is not at all clear what the Bible implies when it states that Leah, Jacob’s wife, had “weak eyes” (rakot). (Gen. 29: 17). Did she lack luster (Sarna), or did she have lovely, delicate eyes (Speiser)? 

The Hebrew word, ayin, (pl. ayanot), also means, “spring” (of water). Example: “An angel of the Lord found her [Hagar] by a spring of water (eyn ha-mayim)” (Gen. 16: 7). This may be an extension, maybe a figurative way of speaking of an “eye.” It is interesting to note that in Akkadian, inu(m) means both “eye” and “spring” or “source.” 

The human eye is our window to the universe. What we see is a reflection of our personality and provides a frame of reference for our approach to life. Some see things in color; others consider the world a dark place. Those who find shadows everywhere use amulets and other defense paraphernalia against the corrosive impact of the evil eye. It is, however, better to have a positive attitude in life and face the world with optimism, courage and determination. In the long run, the talismans do not work.
Rifat Sonsino

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים
In Hebrew, for masculine singular nouns, plurality is indicated by the ending im. Thus, for example, yeled “boy” becomes yeladim “boys.”
The Bible uses many terms for God, such as El, Shaddai, YHVH, Elohim--they are all in the singular except for Elohim, which is in the plural. The question is this: how can God, conceived as being the only divinity in the universe—hence, monotheism- have a plural ending? Ancient Rabbis had to deal with this problem and said that the reason for the plural in Elohim is because of all the attributes (e.g. merciful, caring, loving) that are ascribed to one God. On the other hand, is it possible that the term Elohim is a vestige of polytheism in biblical Israel? I would say, yes. 

To test whether or not the editors of the Bible considered Elohim a plural or a singular noun, we need to find whether the verbs attached to this name, are in the singular or in the plural. If they are in the plural, we would know that in the past Israelites believed that Elohim referred to many gods. If the verb is in the singular, then we would have to conclude that the term underwent a change, and a plural noun was now considered singular. We have an example of that in English, too. The word “media” is the plural of “medium.” Yet, we often say, “the media says,” not “the media say.” “Media” is now viewed as singular.

Let’s test the use of the word Elohim in the Bible: In the overwhelming cases, the word Elohim is accompanied by a singular verb. For example (see Hebrew title above): the Hebrew Bible begins with b’reshit bara elohim, “When God began to create…”-here the verb bara (“created”) is in the singular. That means the editor of this passage conceived of Elohim as one God. (For other examples, see, Gen. 1: 3; 22: 1; 25: 11; 50:24, and many others). 

However, there are a few passages where Elohim is accompanied by a plural verb: when Abraham says to king Abimelekh, “When God (Elohim) made me wander…(hit’u) (Gen. 20: 13) ,” the verb “wander” is in the plural. Similarly, we read, “It was there that God (Elohim) revealed (niglu) himself to him [Jacob]” (Gen. 35: 7). Here, too, “revealed” is in the plural, implying the existence of many gods. (For other examples, see Ex. 22:8; Deut. 5:23; II Sam. 7: 23 and others). The medieval commentator Rashi was aware of this problem but tried to solve it by saying, “all references to godliness and authority are in the plural.” I would argue that these are vestiges of ancient polytheism that crept into the text. 

There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in biblical times, Elohim was considered in polytheistic terms, “gods.” A good example is found in the Book of the Covenant, in one of the laws dealing with debt-slavery. According to a sub-section of this law, if the slave wishes to remain with his master for the rest of his life, because “he loves” him, then his master “shall take him before the gods (Elohim)” (Ex. 21: 5) and pierce his ear with an awl. Traditional Jewish commentators say that here the word Elohim means “judges.” So, the owner is taking his slave to the court. Some modern commentators believe that the reference is to the local sanctuary where the master presents his slave before God, perhaps, for an ordeal. For me, this texts simply means that the master brings his slave before the household gods, hence Elohim (see, for instance the reference to the household gods that Rachel had when she left her father’s house, the terafim, Gen.31: 34), and then pierces his ear at the doorpost of his own house with an awl. 

This short analysis shows that biblical Israel went through a period of transition from polytheism to monolatry (“there are many gods but only one god for us”) and finally to monotheism (“there is only one God”). The process continued in medieval times into the modern. Old God concepts are not working any more. We need to search for the best explanation of what God means today in order to meet the needs of our own time.
(For details about God concepts in Judaism, see my book, Finding God (with Daniel Syme), NY: URJ Press, 2002, or, The Many Faces of God , NY:URJ, 2004, or , more recently, “What is God’s Real Name?” in my book, Did Moses Really Have Horns? NY: URJ Press, 2009, 12-24).
Rifat Sonsino