Tuesday, April 29, 2014



101 Braeburn Lane 
Ashland, MA. 01721                                        

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, Ma.  and a member of the faculty at Boston College’s Theology Department.
Born in l938, Rabbi Sonsino attended the University of Istanbul, Turkey, and graduated in 1959 with a degree in law. After serving in the Turkish army as a tank commander, he went to Paris, France to study at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques. In 1961 he entered the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati from which he received his rabbinic ordination in 1966 with a Masters degree in Hebrew literature. In the meantime, he held student pulpits in McGehee, Ark., Jonesboro, Ark. and Kokomo, Ind.

After ordination, the World Union for Progressive Judaism sent Rabbi Sonsino to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to become the Rabbi of the only Reform Temple in the country, Temple Emanu-El (1966-1969). From 1969 to 1975 Rabbi Sonsino served at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pa. (a suburb of Philadelphia), and from 1975 to 1980 at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill. (a suburb of Chicago).

Rabbi Sonsino, a past president of the Boston Area Reform Rabbis (BARR), has taken an active role in a number of community programs. He chaired the North Shore Interfaith Housing Council (Chicago), the North Shore Fellowship of Rabbis (Chicago), the Program Committee of the UAHC Eisner camp, the Needham Clergy Association, the Joint Committee on Reform Jewish Education (Chicago and Boston) and the North East Region of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (NER/CCAR). He has also served on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

Rabbi Sonsino holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1975) in  Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies. His articles on Bible and Judaica have appeared in a number of scholarly journals. His book, Motive Clauses in Hebrew Law, was published in 1980 by Scholars Press for the Society of Biblical Literature. It was reissued in 2004. He is the co-author of Finding God: Selected Responses  (Daniel B. Syme, co-author) (NY: UAHC, 2002, Revised Edition), What Happens After I Die? Jewish Views of Life After Death (Daniel B. Syme, co-author) (NY: UAHC, 1990), Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, Nov. 2000), The Many Faces of God; A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies (NY: URJ Press, 2004) and Did Moses Really Have Horns? And Other Myths About Jews and Judaism (NY: URJ Press, 2009); Vivir Como Judio (Palibrio, 2012); Modern Judaism (San Diego: Cognella, 2013); And God Spoke These Words: The Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics (NY: URJ Press, 2014).  From 1997 to 2001, Rabbi Sonsino was the editor of the CCAR Journal.

In 1991 the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion bestowed upon Rabbi Sonsino an honorary doctorate in recognition of his 25 years in the Rabbinate.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


My religious training began in Istanbul, in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (ritual slaughter for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua (the main liturgical leader) of my temple. My teacher, I know realize, was a well-intentioned but narrow-minded individual.  In law school, when I discovered Reform Judaism, he quickly dismissed me from the pulpit. I was no longer kosher for him. 

For me, however, finding a liberal expression of Judaism was liberating. I could now, in good conscience, become a religious and observant Jew. During my military service in Turkey, I applied and was accepted by the Reform rabbinic seminary (the Hebrew Union College) in Cincinnati. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish rabbinic school associated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I came to the States in late August of 1961. I was in heaven!

In the 60’s, Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinions among us--we are Jews after all—we all had a general idea of what Reform Judaism stood for: We supported progressive revelation; we believed in the immortality of the soul; we had a common liturgical style and prayerbook etc. Now things are different. At times, I don’t know where Reform Judaism stands.

I realize that it is in the nature of Reform to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective of the Reform Rabbinate (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that, “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today, however, we have more theological discord among ourselves. For example, we cannot even agree whether we support tehiyyat hametim (resurrection) or immortality of the soul, and our new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, has to include both options. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity; and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices. 

The only continuity we have is the particular rabbi’s style of worship and philosophy in his/her congregation. When I was a congregational rabbi, I, too, influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a religious naturalist, my services certainly reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. Every rabbi does this in his/her temple. I understand that, and congregants do too. As a rabbi who has been on the pulpit close to 50 years and a shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader) for almost 60 years, I would suggest that once in a while, rabbis and cantors review their prayer practices, and vary them as necessary. Not all services have to start with, “Let us take a big breath.”  After a while, it is boring. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

April, 2014