Friday, December 8, 2017


As I get older (I am 79 now), I realize that even though most of us are surrounded by family and friends, we are alone in our suffering. Here, I am not talking about depression or other psychological illnesses, but simply facing physical challenges in the midst of a caring community. No matter how loving they may be, my wife or children cannot take away my headache or kidney pain.  I have to deal with it, alone and by myself, using my own resources. 

There is a dramatic episode in the Hebrew Bible describing the loneliness of our patriarch Jacob. According to the story, after leaving Laban, his father in-law, Jacob took his wife and other relatives, and went West to meet his brother, Esau. He was between a rock and a hard place: he did not like his father-in-law and was afraid of his brother. When he reached the ford of the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan river, he took them all across the stream, but he remained behind. At that point, the text tells us: “Jacob was left alone,” (Gen. 32: 25). There, he was viciously attacked by a mysterious god-like individual. Commentators try to figure out who this person was. Some argue that he was an angel (Hos.12:4); others say he represents his conscience (G. von Rad). In reality, for me, his loneliness is emblematic of the human condition. Even though you are surrounded by family and friends, you need to face your existential and physical challenges all alone and by yourself. 

In my naturalistic religious philosophy, I do not equate suffering with punishment. I do not believe God is there to inflict pain on us when we do something wrong. God, for me, is the energy of the universe, the source of all existence. And we, like all living creatures, are formed with various physical capabilities but also with numerous limitations, having come into being, as the Bible states, “from dust to dust” (Gen. 3:19). 

I also recognize that being lonely is not the same as being alone. I enjoy being with people, but, once in a while, I prefer to be alone, to do my own thing. I agree with Thomas Wolfe, when he states in his essay, “God’s Lonely Man,” that ultimately “loneliness…is the central and inevitable fact of human existence,”, and we need to learn how to deal with it. 

Human beings are social creatures. We come into the world against our wishes, and, as we grow older, we seek people like us, and finally depart this world by ourselves, often, unwillingly. The Bible recognizes this characteristic, when, at the dawn of history, it states, “it is not good for a human to be alone” (Gen.2: 18). We need to find human connections who will stand by us in good times and bad. Not that they will be able to take away our pain, but just to let us know that they care for us. It is in that spirit that the ancient Rabbis taught that visiting the sick removes 1/60th of one's suffering (Ned. 39b).

In the Book of Job, the main character Job suffers tremendously, “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7), but his friends did not leave him alone. They cared for him. They were aware that they could not take away his psychical pains, but, in an act of charity, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him, for they saw how great was his suffering.” (2:13). In life, that is all we can expect from loved ones, and that is what we should do for others we care. Just be with them. 

Fortunate are those who have this kind of support and love.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2017

PS. To clarify, I am in no pain now. I am arguing a psychological/philosophical issue. 

Friday, October 13, 2017


These days I am going through a phase commonly called “nostalgia.” This word is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in various villages, as my parents moved from Kuzguncuk, in the Asian side of the Bosphorous, to Galata and then to Sisli, both in the European part of the maritime divide. When I look at my old pictures in Istanbul, I remember the places and smells of my childhood neighborhoods, the foods my mother cooked or those we ate at the local restaurants, the places I visited with my family and friends, the music I used to sing at the synagogue, and I get teary-eyed for a  moment, only to realize that these memories are just memories of an age long gone by.

But I have done something: Recently, I have reconnected with some old friends , now living in Israel, Europe or Canada, and have made new friends on Facebook with some Turkish Jews who still live in Istanbul and also in many parts of the world. We share the same cultural background and speak the same language (Ladino, Judeo-Spanish of the 15th century). I have also asked my wife, Ines (born in Argentina), to cook meals based on old Turkish recipes that I was able to get online, and have dragged her to Armenian stores in the greater Boston area where we live, in order to get typical pastries of the old world. Is this typical? Or I am going through a phase in my life, now that I am 79 years old?

The word “nostalgia” is derived from two different Greek words, “nostos” (meaning, homecoming) and “algos” (meaning, pain). In the past, it was considered a psychological disorder, and ever since the 17th century, a Swiss physician, Johannes Hoffer, called it “a soldiers disease,” attributing it to their longing for their return home after a long battle. In Spanish, it is still referred to as “el mal de Corazon” (heart pain). Some people even think that it is caused by demons. However, there is a new attitude regarding nostalgia today. Based on investigations done by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and others, nostalgia is now recognized as a powerful tool in the battle against anxiety and depression. 

In my case, I don’t feel I am anxious about anything in particular or depressed by any means; only the recognition that my life is slipping away much faster than I expected. The reality is that if I were to go back and visit the places of my childhood, I will certainly be disappointed, because they would not look the way I remembered them. In fact, about a dozen years ago, when I went to Istanbul and roamed the main street of Kuzguncuk, I could not believe how narrow it was!

So, now I taste anew some of the delicacies I can find in my neighborhood in Boston (e.g., baklava, muhallebi, and others), look at old pictures to refresh my memories of events of the past, and am grateful that I can still recall them in my mind, singing quietly the old melodies that shaped my personality. O tempora, O mores, as Cicero, the old Latin politician of the 1st cent. BCE, would have said!

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Oct. 2017

Tuesday, September 5, 2017


I have been teaching Ethics at Framingham State University (in the greater Boston area) for a few years. This course is for one semester only. I usually teach in the Fall and in the Spring, but not during the Summer. I am in the Psychology/Philosophy department, and have created my own approach to this academic discipline. 

I start with theoretical issues, such as, How free are we? Where do we get our ethics from? What are Virtue Ethics?  Then, I move to classical material that deal with ethics. We read and study in class a number of texts taken from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls, Koran, Greek literature, rabbinic material, medieval philosophy and contemporary literature. The third component of my course is dedicated to the discussion of modern issues, such as legal ethics, racial prejudice, environmental ethics, and sexual ethics. During the fourth and last part, I ask my students to debate a particular issue before the class, such as a specific death penalty case, an extortion issue, or gender identity dilemma. 

The response of my students has been positive. I love to engage them in ethical debates, and want them to take a position, however uncomfortable. One of my favorite cases comes from the rabbinic literature (Sifra on Lev. 25: 36): Two people are in the desert. They have only one flask of water. If both drink, both will die; if one of them drinks, he/she will survive. You carry the flask. What would you do? Then, I make the case even more complicated: I say, the other person is your child. Here, most participants vote to give the bottle to the child. But, if I say, the other person is your hated brother-in-law, opinions change.

What do I want to achieve?
a)    I want my students to think, and to think logically, and weigh the outcome of the issues at hand in a rational way, without, however, ignoring the needs of the heart. I don’t want them to act impulsively, but to look at both sides of the issue before making a decision.
b)    I want my students to realize that we make ethical decisions all the time, and we need to develop a sensitivity in this area. 
c)    I stress that certain things are clearly wrong: to be a Nazi is despicable; there is no other side. To be a racist, is bad; there is no justification for it. But, at times, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. To save a life, your own or someone else’s, people often behave in an “unethical” way.  For example, a woman who willingly commits adultery with a terrorist in order to save her life. Her behavior is understandable, and justifiable, even if it is not totally moral.
d)    Finally, I want my students to have empathy. This is more than caring about another individual. Empathy requires that you put yourself in that person’s shoes, almost to be that person. When you show empathy, you are more likely to behave in a humane way. And, that is good.

What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Sept. 5, 2017