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