Wednesday, December 26, 2012


After I completed the various statements regarding my religious philosophy, I was asked to state where I stood vis-à-vis three more topics: the value of religious practices, my position on Israel and my personal approach to our sacred texts. Here below are my answers:


For us Jews, Judaism must be lived through various religious rituals and not only studied as an academic exercise. After all, non-Jews can do that as well, and often do. Jews, on the other hand, need to observe mitzvot, at least, for the following reasons:

        a) Religious practices/ rituals have an educational value: By carrying out Mitzvot we can teach Jewish values: e.g., saying a blessing over wine as a symbol of joy; reciting the motzi as an acknowledgment of our dependence on God for nature’s bounties; the wedding ring as a symbol of marital fidelity.

    b) Religious practices/rituals have an emotional value: By carrying out a mitzvah we can remember important people in our lives who do them now or have done them in the past.

    c)   Religious practices/rituals bind us to the Jewish community at large by establishing a connection to other Jews around the world.

    d)  Religious practices/ rituals point us to the source of power or energy of the universe, namely God.

However, mitzvot, to be authentic, have to be observed in consonance with our modern thinking, and devoid of superstition and false information. Furthermore, they have to be carried out to the extent that they are meaningful to the individual.


The Land of Israel is the spiritual home of all Jews. Even after the destruction of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, when Jews spread out throughout the Mediterranean basin and lived under the domination of gentiles for about 2000 years, they never forgot the land of their ancestors, and looked forward to the day when they would be gathered once again in the Land of Israel and live there freely and in peace. That event took place in 1948 when the modern State of Israel was established.

          Presently, the Jews of Israel live surrounded by a Muslim community in the Middle East that is inimical to its physical existence. Even though some of them are willing to recognize the reality of Israel, others are vociferously proclaiming its upcoming destruction.  This negative attitude has compelled Israeli Jews to turn to the right in the political spectrum, which has been, in my opinion, unhealthy for the long prospect of Israel. Palestinian Arabs and Israelis have no other choice but to accept the reality of each other, and make painful compromises in order to live in peace. This goal, however, appears to be unattainable today. Jews who live outside of Israel are also conflicted, some supporting the government of Israel, which is committed to build more settlements in Judea and Samaria, and others, like me, standing behind the opposition, which is against enlarging the settlements and in favor of a policy of compromise and accommodation. So, there is no Jewish unanimity on this subject. But, except for the Satmar Hasidim who are theologically opposed to Israel as a State, what unites all Jews today is the unequivocal commitment to the independence and sovereignty of Israel in its own land. 


Jews have been the historical authors of many Holy Scriptures, such as the Bible and many rabbinic texts; they represent the foundation of our western civilization. Some consider the Bible as God’s word and therefore inerrant, and others, me among them, follow biblical criticism and view it as the product of many inspired individuals and schools of thought throughout the centuries. Is the Bible authoritative? Some Jews say, yes, because God wrote it. I consider it a major source of inspiration and as the basis for my own Judaism, but , being a fallible human document, the Bible is in no way binding. I spent all my life studying the Bible because it is part of our own tradition, warts and all, and still has something to teach us about human behavior and religious beliefs.

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, December 20, 2012



A few years ago, at a rabbinic meeting in Boston, we were asked to write a statement, which could be read in thirty seconds or less, about Judaism and the role we play as clergy. Obviously, the exercise was to force us to identify the essence of our religion in a clear and concise manner. This is what I wrote:
          “For me, the essence of Judaism as a religion is found in its teaching of empathy for other human beings who are facing existential issues. As a Rabbi, my role is to be a more derekh, a spiritual guide, pointing to viable alternatives that lead to wholeness and personal integrity.”


I have often been asked: If you maintain that there are various definitions of God in Judaism, just as there are different paths of Jewish spirituality, what then binds us, Jews, together? My answer is this: we share the same history; we have the same tradition that is optimistic and “this-world” oriented; we cherish the same sacred books; we celebrate the same holidays and life-cycle events; we have a strong “tribal” connection; and we welcome anyone who wants to share our life and fate. To be a Jew is a privilege, and we should be proud of it.  


Religious beliefs are stronger when they are authentic. They cannot be imposed; they have to be accepted freely. During my entire professional career, I sought a path that reflects my personality. I made it my cause to elucidate the religious alternatives promoted by our sages, and have encouraged my readers and listeners to find their own way within this diversity. This is one of the strengths of Judaism. For centuries, Jews have created a way of life and a system of community discipline that bound one Jew to another. However, in matters of belief, Jewish teachers were much more open to alternatives. After having proclaimed a few principles of faith, such as the belief in one God, the foundational myths about the giving of the Torah at Sinai/Horeb and our hopes for the future, they still allowed  individual Jews to choose from the traditional sources those that are in consonance with their own thinking, even allowing them to add newer ones in line with the traditional Jewish spirit. We can ignore this tradition or we can embrace it. I opt for the latter, and urge other fellow Jews to do the same.


 Judaism has espoused various views, all of them projected from our own existence here on earth, about the afterlife. No one believes today that after death, he/she will go to Sheol, an undisclosed place perhaps located under the earth, where they shall live a shadowy kind of existence.. This idea went away by the end of the Biblical period. During the rabbinic period, resurrection of the body became a dogma disseminated by the Pharisaic teachers. Later on, some Jews subscribed to the idea of immortality of the soul or reincarnation, just as others maintained that after death there is a total disintegration (For more details, see our book, What Happens After I Die? R. Sonsino and D. Syme, URJ, 1990). 

          After viewing all the Jewish alternatives, I believe that one lives on biologically through children, through an association with the Jewish people, and, ultimately, through his/her good deeds. Personally, I assume that after I am gone, the energy I represent will blend with the energy of the universe. I hope, however, that whatever influence I have had on others through my books and other types of teaching will remain in the minds of my students and congregants.

In the meantime, I hope to live as long as it is possible fully, creatively, with personal integrity, with good health and surrounded by family and friends. And to all this I say, dayenu! (“It is just enough for me”). 

Rifat Sonsino
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012



Of the three major types of prayer (i.e., praise, gratitude and petition), it is the prayers of petition that create problems for some people. The reasons vary: we expect an immediate answer that fails to materialize; the text of the prayer is inadequate either because of its archaic nature, patriarchal language or non-inclusive character; sometimes we even equate nobility of expression with profundity of thought. In reality the crux of the problem is theological. Heschel once said, “The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God” (Man’s Quest for God. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1954, 58). Consequently, if you believe, you can then pray. For a long time I, too, subscribed to this notion. However, recently, I realized that people could struggle with prayer and theology at the same time. As theological views become clearer, prayers too become more authentic. Prayer is a natural need of every human being. The question is what we expect from it? Here below are my conclusions:
        a)To help create a positive prayerful mood, one needs an inspiring text and sublime music within an appropriate physical setting.
        b) Prayers should be read not as legal briefs but as poetry pointing to something higher.
c) One should refrain to pray for the impossible, for God works through the laws of nature, and God is not likely to change the course of events no matter how fervent the prayer or pious the individual.
d)  It is more important to express one’s goals and aspirations through prayers than to expect an answer for them. If we are able to formulate our thoughts clearly and turn them into a program of action, the deed itself becomes our answer.
e)    Prayers do not change the world outside, but give the worshipers a better insight into themselves. As the Gates of Prayer had it, “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”
f)     Even if, at the moment, it is not possible to enter into a prayerful mood, one can and should identify with the community as part of the worship experience. By praying together we can strengthen one another.


I do not see any difference between religion and spirituality. The second is an expression of the first. For me, spirituality is “the awareness of being in the presence of God,” no matter how God is defined in Judaism. Even though “spirituality” implies a dichotomy between body and mind, which is more Greek than biblical, it is often narcissistic in scope and anti-intellectual in practice. The quest for spirituality is here to stay because it is based on the realization that we are not at the center of the universe, that science cannot answer all our questions, that we need to relate to something or someone bigger than us, and, above all, because it is grounded in our search for purpose and meaning in life. 

          Each individual needs to find his/her own appropriate spiritual path. In my book Six Jewish Spiritual Paths, I have identified six paths through which one can express his/her own spirituality: a) Acts of Transcendence; b) Prayer; c) Meditation; d) Ritual; e) Deeds of Loving kindness; and f) talmud torah -Study. These are only examples. It is possible to add other paths. However, it is important to include a social component to any of these paths in order to avoid the accusation that they are “me-oriented.”
       Spirituality cannot be imposed. It has to be discovered. I found mine through torah lishmah, the “study for its own sake.”

Friday, December 14, 2012



The universe works in wondrous ways. However, this recognition does not eliminate the problems we face in our daily life, either because of the limitations of our  bodies, the unfairness we encounter in our dealings with others, or even when we fight natural disasters not of our own making. We are devastated when tragedies mar our existence. Most of us can understand and accept that people will eventually pass away, but we find it very difficult to deal with the death of loved ones, either at the hands of others or because of natural calamities. We do not live in a perfect world, and certainly do not know all the intricacies of the universe.  Life is mysterious, and, at times, even unpredictable, requiring a wholesome perspective. For many, religion does that. 
But what does the word “religion” mean? Some people derive it from the Latin “relegare” meaning to re-examine carefully, and others from “religare” meaning to connect (with God). Even though the second one is the most popular understanding of the word today, it is still vague. What does it mean to connect with God? What does God mean? Hebrew does not have a proper word for “religion.” In medieval times, we find dat, which can mean law, custom or faith. In modern Hebrew a dati is a religiously observant person. 
Of the various definitions of religion, I believe, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) has provided the broadest one. He argued that religion gives the individual a “frame of orientation” as well as “an object of devotion.” Each of us has a “frame of orientation” through which we view the world, and “an object of devotion” to which we pledge ultimate loyalty. The question is how to identify these “frames” and “objects?”  
Maimonides (d. 1204) defined religion as “to (intellectually) know God.” For Mordecai Kaplan (1991-1983), “the essence of every religion is the human quest for salvation (i.e.., self-realization).” In Abraham J. Heschel’s (1907-1972) view, “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” Roland Gittelsohn (1910-1995) proposed one in line with his religious naturalism: “the study of the mutual spiritual relations between human organisms and their total cosmic environment.” I prefer the one advanced by Alvin Reines (1926-2004): “Religion is the human person’s response to the conflict of finitude,” namely, how do we deal with the realization that we are all limited and are destined to die one day?  In this sense, I consider everyone religious because we all have the same concerns and expectations. Whether we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim (or other), how we personally respond to our existential questions becomes our religion.

In my book, The Many Faces of God, I have summarized my view on God in these words: 
“Like others, I, too, went from stage to stage in my theological development. I consider myself more of a researcher and teacher rather than a systematic theologian. I like to look for legitimate options, and make them available to my students and readers as viable and authentic responses to matters of life and death. As an individual I, too, had to struggle with questions of existence, and looked for explanations that made sense to me. I gave up my childhood notion of classical theism, because my logical mind and inquisitive nature would not yield the conclusions I was asked to accept. I find mysticism appealing but not totally compatible with my rationalistic tendencies. I am not satisfied with the claim of the religious humanists that God, as the highest images of ourselves is capable of answering our queries. Also, I cannot conceive of a theology that looks at the universe from the divine perspective. I believe theology starts with our own questions, and ends with our tentative answers.
I am more attracted to the views of the religious naturalists who maintain that there is an energy that sustains the universe. Based on observation and analysis, I see a certain order in the world around us, and conclude, much like some of the medieval thinkers and even a few early rabbis, that this order implies an ordering mind, or in my case, an ordering power and energy that stands for God. The laws of nature, I argue, are simply a manifestation of this universal energy that makes possible for me to exist. And for this, I am very appreciative, and express my thanks to God through prayers of gratitude and works of loving-kindness that benefit my family and community. I affirm the freedom of the human will, and can live with the realization that I don’t have all the answers for the tension that exists between the realities of good and evil, because I do not know all the inner workings of the universe. In the spirit of Spinoza, I say that if we knew how the world operates, we could predict our next move. But alas, this is not within our ability. So, we live in an imperfect world and with limited abilities to understand the mysteries around us, while desperately looking for meaning and purpose in our daily struggles” (pp.250-1).