Friday, February 14, 2020


I have been blogging since 2009, and so far, I have published about 150 blogs, drawing altogether almost half a million viewers. Each blog tends to be about a page long. In the early years, it was called, “From Istanbul to Boston,” and, in 2012, I changed it to “Sonsino’s Blog.”

I write on topics that matter to me and on issues that I think would interest my greater audience: history, theology, life cycle events, and reminiscences.  I write as an academic, as a Rabbi, as someone who has traveled to many parts of the globe. My approach tends to be critical, liberal and based on reason. A review of my blogs show that I have viewers all over the world: the USA, Europe, Russia, Latin America, the Far East, and in the Arab world (primarily in the UAE).

I will continue to blog as long as I have something to say. I appreciate your readership. Please continue to view my texts and send me your comments, for this gives me the incentive to write more.

Gratefully yours,

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Feb. 14, 2020
Temple Beth Shalom, Rabbi Emeritus
Framingham State University, Dept. of Psych. And Philosophy

Sunday, February 2, 2020


This past week, I led the first of the four Bible seminars on the Book of Exodus for  the faculty and staff at Framingham State University in the greater Boston area, where I teach Ethics. I decided to concentrate on Exodus, because I consider it to be one of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible as well as one of the most important narrative in the history of the Jewish people.

The biblical Book of Exodus has four major sections:
1.     The story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their liberation (ch.1-15);
2.     The journey of the Israelites to the Sinai desert (ch.16-18)
3.     The covenant with God and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (ch.19-24)
4.     The building of the portable sanctuary (ch. 25-40).
The major problem we encounter in the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is its historicity, because there are no references in any of the contemporary Egyptian sources, or in other ancient Middle Eastern texts, to the sojourn in and departure of a group of people called the Israelites from the land of Egypt. The only mention of the Israelites in Egyptian texts is found in the victory hymn of Merneptah over the people of Israel in Canaan (13th cent. BCE), when the king states, “Israel is laid waste; his seed is not” (ANET, p. 378).
There is no knowledge in Egyptian literature of an Israelite leader who went by the name of Moses. In the Hebrew Bible, the name of the Pharaoh, who is involved in the Exodus, is not identified. We do not know when, if ever, the event took place. We also do not know where the crossing occurred. Was it through the “Red Sea” or “the Reed Sea”? And, where is it? (See my article, “Did the Israelites Escape though the Sea”? (In Did Moses Have Horns, 2009, 70 ff). There are also so many generalizations in the Bible about this event that makes it unbelievable. For example, the Hebrew text tells us that the Israelites numbered 70 when they came down to Egypt (Ex.1:5), and, in three generations (Ex.6: 16-20), they left with “about 600,000 men on foot, plus children” (Ex. 12: 37-38), bringing the total to more than one million! All of these assertions make the Hebrew text highly speculative and, at best, legendary. No wonder why so many scholars deny its reliability as an historical event.

Yet, I consider the Exodus a foundational story in the history of the Jews. Over and over again we are told that we were “slaves/strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.13: 3; 22.20, Lev. 19:34 Deut. 15:15). Furthermore, as Michael Coogan points out, there are a number of “indisputably Egyptian elements in the account of the Exodus” like, the names of Moses, Aaron, Phinehas and others (The Old Testament, 2006, p. 97) ,which point to an Egyptian origin. Israelites have carried the memory of this fascinating event for centuries, which makes is plausible that it occurred, even if only its kernel is historically correct. Maybe the real event occurred differently and various legends emerged in time; maybe, as some modern scholars now argue, only  a few departing tribes joined up with others already living in Canaan, thus creating a loose confederation of tribes called “Israel” (See, the discussion in my Modern Judaism, 2013, p. 3).
The enslavement and liberation of the Israelites from Egypt have become a symbolic model for all those who are struggling to become free in the modern world. And that is worth noting and even celebrating, as Jews do at every Passover. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Feb. 2, 2020
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Shalom, Needham. MA. USA
Framingham State University, Dept. of Psych. and Philosophy

Thursday, January 16, 2020


In Biblical times, children were said to issue from the YAREH of their father (Gen. 46:26). The question is, what does this Hebrew word mean?

According to the Bible dictionary, BDB, a YAREH refers to: a) the outside of a thigh, where a sword is worn (Ex.32: 27); b) the side of an altar (2 K 16.14); c) the base of a candlestick (Ex. 25: 31), and d) the loins, as the seat of the procreative power in humans (see below). 

Furthermore, in ancient times, during oath taking, one used various gestures: Raising the hand (Gen. 14: 22), holding a sacred object (See, Talmud, Shev. 38b) or touching a sexual organ.
In the Bible, putting one’s hand under the thigh of another person appears to have been used in connection with a promise: a) Abraham asks his senior servant, maybe Eliezer, to place his hand “under the thigh” of Abraham, swearing that he, the servant, will not take a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, from the Canaanites among whom he lived (Gen. 24: 2, 9). b) The patriarch Jacob asks Joseph, his son, to place his (Joseph’s) hand under the “thigh” of his father Jacob, promising him that he will not bury him in Egypt (Gen. 47: 29).

 What does the “thigh” refer to in these texts? It is not clear if the subordinate is expected to touch his superior’s testicles or his penis, and for what purpose. In an Old Babylonian letter from the city of Kisurra, in southern Mesopotamia, the author refers to an envoy who is about to get hold of both organs simply as a sign of loyalty, not during an oath taking. He states, “Let your envoy grasp my testicles and penis and then I will give it (an object, perhaps) to you.” (Malul, “Touching sexual organs,” VT, 37, 1987, 491).

The Jerusalem Targum renders YAREH as “penis.” Similarly, most of the ancient rabbinic commentators state that the subordinate must touch his superior’s penis, arguing, like Rashi (12th cent. France), that according to Jewish law, one touches a sacred object during a promise, and, in the case of Abraham, circumcision was the first commandment that God gave him. Others, like Ibn Ezra (12th cent. Spain), disagreed, and stated that putting the hand under the thigh simply means to acknowledge the authority of the superior, and does not mean touching a sexual organ.

It is interesting to note a parallel in ancient Rome: In Latin, the word TESTIS, means both “witness” and “testicle”. It looks like there was an old Italic rite in which the participant held his own testicles or those of a sacrificial animal while making some kind of solemn pronouncement. Some critics therefore assume that even in Rome, as it was in the ancient Near East, one touched a sexual organ during the act of witnessing. However, the likelihood that Roman and ancient Biblical customs coincide is very slim, especially because there is hardly any written confirmation of this Roman practice. Besides, it is strange that a person swearing does not touch his own penis, instead of the other person’s.

What would be the purpose of this touching, anyway? Some argue that it is a sign of loyalty to a superior. Most likely, however, it implies a self-curse. In other words, the person who is uttering an oath, touches the sexual organ of the other, the organ that stands for life and productivity, by saying, if I do not carry out my word, let me suffer from sterility or loss of children.
The custom is strange to us; we favor privacy and modesty, but in the past, people obviously had a different attitude regarding their bodies.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Jan. 16, 2020

Saturday, December 21, 2019

HAPPY HANUKAH!!! (to those who celebrate it)

Giving a lecture at The Willows in Westborough, MA, where we live, on the festival of Hanukah, which begins on Sunday night, Dec. 22, 2019. It is based on the military victory of the Jewish fighters, the Maccabees, against the Greek overlords in the year 165 BCE. It lasts 8 days.
Dec. 19, 2019

Sunday, December 15, 2019


When I was a teenager and occasionally had a headache or a stomach upset, the head of my Hebrew school (called Mahazike Hatorah), in Istanbul, Turkey, Mr. Nisim Behar, used to tell me, “Well, you must have done something wrong! That infuriated me, and I often responded, “No I did not do anything wrong. I simply don’t feel well today.”

The suffering of the righteous has been a challenge for many religions. In modern times, this subject has been discussed by Harold Kushner, in his popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981) and many others. The issue, however, is very old, and has already been dealt with in some of the ancient Near Eastern literary texts (See, “The Babylonian Theodicy,” ANET, 601 ff) as well as the Hebrew Bible, through the Book of Job, the Psalms (e.g.,Ps.73), the Book of Proverbs (e.g.3:12), Book of Deuteronomy and others with no satisfactory solution. The Rabbis, too, tackled this thorny subject, and came up with a variety of answers, most of them putting the blame on the individual (See, e.g., Ber. 7a). On the other hand, Rabbi Yannai (3rd cent. CE) gave up and stated, “It is not in our power to explain the wellbeing of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous” (PA: 4: 19).

In attempting to solve the problem of why we suffer within the context of theism, many thinkers define God as the one who is the most powerful, perfect, righteous, fair, and able to relate to his (!) creations directly by having a personal relationship with them and by responding (or, not) to their quests. God, we are told, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Therefore, if a person is in pain, it is because he/she must have done something wrong. Hence, the answer of my teacher given above.

However, there is another way to look at the problem. And that is, to define God in a naturalistic way, namely to assert that God is the impersonal energy of the universe, which encompasses all creation, and is the force that keeps it going. This position is called “religious naturalism,” which was defended by many in the past (see Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, 3rd cent. BCE), and, in our time, by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (d.1983) and others, who saw God as the sum of all natural forces in the universe. It is also the one that I subscribe to.

In religious naturalism, God’s energy is impersonal, and when bad things occur to good people, it is not because God “willed” it and “wanted” to punish them, but simply because we still do not know how the universe fully operates. Every day, through our scientific research, we keep discovering more about God, and learn how the laws of nature work in our daily life. We need God, because we are part of the maintenance of all the planets and the laws that govern them. We cannot live without God, because that is all there is in life! At the end of time, when we finally learn all the secrets of existence, we will celebrate it as the long awaited Messianic days. 

What shall we do in the meantime? We obviously cannot blame the God of nature for all the bad things we do to ourselves or the world around us. In cases of suffering due to illness, aging or simply bad luck, we need to accept these as being part of life, and not divine punishment. We now live longer and have a clearer understanding of nature. But, we still have a long way to go. Hopefully, future generations, with more research, will have a better handle on our existential conditions.  

I believe most people would be more comfortable with this type explanation, instead of looking to blame either God or other individuals.

How about that ? I invite your comments.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

Dec. 15, 2019 

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

In the States, many Rabbis retire at the age of 65 in search of other adventures. However, they do not give up their title. They remain “Rabbis” for the rest of their life.

In July of 2001, after 35 years on the pulpit, I, too, at the age of 65, retired from Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA. , a medium size congregation of about 600+ families (now, we are close to 1000 families), and became its first Rabbi Emeritus. I simply needed a change of venue in my life. I have a wonderful relationship with the leadership of my temple and my successors, and they include me in major functions of the synagogue.

As I survey what my retired colleagues are doing with their lives now, I find that some have totally withdrawn from congregational work, whereas others have assumed part-time positions in smaller temples, or have taken jobs unrelated to their training. Some take it easy and spend their time traveling around the world. Many take classes at local universities, and others, like me, become part-time professors at a local college. I first taught at Boston College, and, for the last 5 years, I have been teaching Ethics at Framingham State University, closer to my new home, and I love it. I do it, not necessarily for the remuneration, which is small, but for the love of interacting with the faculty and my students. For fun, I go to the gym every morning at the Willows, in Westborough, where I live; I publish a blog (SONSINO’S BLOG, with more than 475,000 viewers around the world; I work on my family tree, spend time with our grandchildren, and travel with my wife. Not bad for an 81 year old guy! I am blessed.

I have also chosen to remain with my study group, the Hevrah, which has been meeting on a regular basis for more than 30 years. Even when I was a congregational Rabbi, I used to join others at the house of one of our colleagues every Monday morning to study rabbinic texts for a couple of hours. Then, we moved the location to my synagogue in Needham, MA, and have been meeting there ever since. 

A rabbinic text (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch.4) tells us that, just before the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE by the Romans, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai obtained permission from the Romans to set up a new religious and cultural center in the city of Yavneh, in the central district of Israel. There the sages assembled in order to set the foundations of rabbinic Judaism that still guide us today. They believed that, with no temple, biblical Judaism had run its course, and they needed a community of scholars, for their own growth as well as for the sake of preserving biblical teachings for the future, this time in a new setting. Together, they adapted traditional Jewish teachings to the new conditions of their time. Thus, they edited the Mishnah, the Talmud and other texts. Later on, in Spain, they developed medieval Jewish philosophy; in many parts of Europe, they forged new religious and literary paths within Judaism. In the modern world, the effort continues in various centers of Jewish studies, where scholars debate the issues of today. 

As a retired Rabbi, I, too, need a community of my peers to keep my mind active, to exchange ideas, to study new texts, and to learn from one another. In one rabbinic text, we are told that Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh (1 cent. CE) withdrew from the community of his fellow sages, and, consequently “he forgot his knowledge of the Torah” (Eccl. Rabba, 7:7, No.2). I don’t want to do that. 

Right now, in our Hevrah meetings, about 8-10 of us, all retired Rabbis from the greater Boston area, are going through a difficult text called Shir Hashirim Rabba, an aggadic Midrash of the 10th cent. CE (Palestinian), which attempts to reinterpret the Song of Songs. In our discussions, we try to find its relevance for today. For me attending these sessions is a top priority. I am glad I can continue to be part of this energizing and stimulating group.

Dec. 2019

Sunday, November 3, 2019


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

As I get older, I yearn for my childhood experiences. I say to myself, if I could only revisit the places, listen to the music, taste the foods, and hear the sounds of my early adolescent years!!! I am now 81 years old, and, these days, in relative good health. Though retired from congregational life, I teach Ethics, part-time, at Framingham State University, and also regularly contribute to my blog (see, ), give public lectures  and keep in touch with my children and grandchildren. However, the memory of my early days keep me often awake at night. 

I vividly remember the street on which our 3rd-floor apartment stood in Kuzguncuk, a small village by the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. It was right across from the old synagogue, which was located next to a bakery where we used to get our cakes and ice cream. (By the way, the old house is now a bank building).  Our neighbors and good friends, the Cohens, lived just behind us, in an old big house. In my teens, after we moved to the city proper, we lived in Kule Dibi, by the big tower. It was in close proximity to two large synagogues, Knesset Israel, just next to us, and, a few houses down, Neve Shalom, the largest temple in Istanbul, which was attacked by terrorists in 1986, resulting in the death of 22 congregants at prayer.  In those days, I attended the Mahazike Hatorah (a religious school for young adults), and, being a teen-age cantor in my temple, I was often sent to Neve Shalom, to sing the Song of Songs on Friday nights. Finally, I have good memories of the 5th floor apartment that my father, the engineer, built in Sisli (Siracevizler Cad.), a fancy neighborhood of Istanbul. It was from there that I used to go to the University of Istanbul, to study law, taking the bus all the way down to the entrance of the campus in the old city. Who could also forget, my classmates, the trips to the Heybeli island during the summers, our visits to the grand bazaar in the city proper, the boat trips down the Bosphorus as well as the kebabs we used to eat at our favorite restaurants! O tempora!

Those were good days, but I have also erased some of the negative memories of living in Turkey as a Jew, where we were at times discriminated against, and had to keep a low profile. 

All these reminiscences are called nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past. The word comes from the Greek, nostos meaning “return,” and algos, meaning “pain.” It is indeed painful to go through nostalgia. Until the 1600s, it was even considered a disease of the mind. In reality, it is nothing but a sanitized version of the past, an idealized image of the years gone by, some happy and some sad.  

At times, I fancy about going back to Istanbul to visit my favorite places, but I am afraid that I will experience a disappointment. I realize, sadly, that you cannot recreate the past; you can only remember it, mostly in an idealized way. I will continue to do just that. I will be sustained by the wonderful images of my childhood, and review them in my mind, while listening to the music of my earlier years and perhaps eating a piece of baklava!!!