Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Each generation deals with its own issues and challenges with the tools that are available to it. As the Talmud states, “Jephthah [the so-called “Judge”] in his generation was like Samuel in his” (RH 25b). Jewish history records many institutional and religious transformations, and how local communities dealt with them. Rabbinic Judaism significantly altered biblical Judaism. Medieval philosophy, influenced by Greek and Arab thinkers, redefined Judaism for many (e.g., Maimonides, Ibn Ezra). Modern thought allowed liberal Jews to raise new questions and respond with novel answers.

Judaism is now facing a significant theological crisis, as the gap between fundamentalist Orthodox and progressive Jews keeps getting bigger. And the liberals seem to be paying the price.

A few examples will point to the problem at hand.

1   The emphasis on spirituality is gone:

There was a time, maybe 10-15 years ago, that everyone was gravitating to a “spiritual” interpretation of Judaism. Lectures, seminars, and books were dedicated to the discussion of “spirituality” in Judaism. In the year, 2000, I, too, wrote a book on spirituality called Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (JL), which, at the time, was very well received. Now you can get it for $3 each. Most people cannot relate to “spirituality” anymore. They don’t know what it is, and furthermore, many don’t even care.

2   Synagogue affiliation is in trouble:

When I began my rabbinate in 1966 (I just celebrated my Jubilee year), synagogue affiliation was de rigueur. True, some people could not afford or did not want to belong to a temple, but the community ethics insisted on membership in a shul for most Jews. Today, many quit after a Bar/t Mitzvah, attendance at regular services is going down and fewer people actively participate in synagogue leadership. Some temples in the Boston area where I live are closing down (e.g., a major Conservative congregation, Mishkan Tefillah, with 1200 families at its height, folded recently); others are merging because of financial needs, or sharing their facilities with other institutions.(On the other hand, a few synagogues, e.g., Needham, Wellesley and others are doing very well).

3   Emphasis on Youth; What about adults?

During my active rabbinate, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), with its regional offices everywhere in the country, had many programs for adults and youth. Recently, with the closing of the local offices, the URJ seems to redirect its attention to the youth, through camps and Israel trips, in the hope of raising a new generation of committed Jews. This is wonderful but what happens to the adults among us? I don’t see too many programs addressing their needs.

Is there a solution to our dilemma?

There is not a magic wand that will cure all ills, but there are things that we can and should do. Many people do want a religious outlook that they can adopt for their emotional and intellectual needs, but are looking for something they can hold on to, and rationally accept. With spirituality gone, I suggest, we could emphasize the ethical dicta of the sages, both ancient and modern. After all, we have a long tradition of ethical teachings in Judaism: the prophets did it (e.g., Amos 5:14-15; Micah 6:8), the Rabbis wrote about it (e.g., Pirke Avot), the medievalists pondered on their implications (e.g., Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim). We also need to stop repeating beliefs that are hard to take seriously now, such as miracles, life after death, petitionary prayers or the Messiah, and concentrate on ideas and facts that are empirically verifiable.

In my case, I grew up Orthodox in Istanbul, was the hazzan kavua of my synagogue for many years, and then discovered Reform Judaism. Now, I realize that for many people theism does not work anymore and that we could look at God, not as a Personal God (because the concept does not have a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil), but conceive of the divine as a non-anthropomorphic energy or force of the universe. That, I believe, many people would accept. Obviously that would require that we begin to redefine our religious vocabulary on prayer, revelation, miracles, holiness and others (Note 1).

Recently, I gave a lecture on “The critical approach to the Bible” to the faculty and staff of my University. Afterwards, one Jewish professor told me, If I had you as my Rabbi when I was younger, I would have certainly kept the faith now!


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

Framingham State University

Note 1: See my article “Theists and Non Theists” in the Reform Jewish Quarterly-CCAR Journal, Spring, 2016, 99-108, for an example. 

For my other books, see

On the Ten Commandments: And God Spoke These Words:
Did Moses Really Have Horns:
Modern Judaism: (search by author and/or title)
Vivir Como Judio: (search by author and/or title).

(Co-authored with Rabbi Daniel Syme):