Sunday, September 30, 2012


2nd Lieutenant Rifat Sonsino, Tank Corps

On July, 1959, right after my graduation from law school at the age of 21, I was drafted into the Turkish army, and sent to Ankara, the capital, to the officers’ academy in order to be trained as a tank commander. After six months, I was assigned to the tank corps in Babaeski, a small town close to the Greek border. My job was to supervise the repair shop for all the tanks. I took care of the administration and, not knowing anything about the mechanics of our M 24’s, I relied on two USA sergeants who helped us with technical matters.

A few months after my arrival, the political situation in Turkey reached a boiling point. The Prime Minister Adnan Menderes (1899-1961), the leader of the Democratic Party, was losing ground to the opposition, and many young officers in the military were against him. On May 27, General Cemal Gürsel, the recently retired commander of the Turkish ground forces, initiated a coup d’état against the Menderes government. That night we, in Babaeski, were told to get ready to storm the city of Istanbul with all our power. The next morning, at dawn, I got on my tank, and, with hundreds of other military vehicles, we began to march toward Istanbul, about two hours away by bus. I did not particularly like this assignment, because of all the expected bloodshed, but, as an army officer, I had no choice in the matter. 

A few miles into our trip, a jeep appeared next to my tank, and a soldier told me that the general of my brigade wanted to see me right away. I jumped off my tank, and reported to the central command. The general asked me, “Is it true that you have a law degree?” “Yes, my general,” I responded. “Good,” he said. “I am appointing you head of the military jail. Stay here, and take over your new duties now.” I was pleased and thankful that I did not have to go to Istanbul on this mission. So, I got down from my tank, and drove back to my new post. 

In the small jail, I found about a dozen soldiers who had been incarcerated for a variety of military infractions, none too serious. I had a new office, and not much to do. I made sure they did not escape, that they had their meals on time, and did their daily chores. I also helped them with their legal problems. They trusted me and were very grateful. I spent most of my time, reading, studying and carrying out other duties in the military court. After a few months, I was reassigned to be the personal interpreter of an American general who was our military advisor. 

In the meantime, the bloodless coup succeeded, and Gṻrsel became the new president. The former president, Celâl Bayar, one of the founders of the Turkish republic as well as of the Democratic party, was arrested and convicted but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and ultimately released because of ill health in 1964.The Prime Minister Menderes was charged with violating the Constitution, and executed. All the members of the Democratic Party in the National Assembly, including Isak Altabev, a prominent Jewish congressman who was a friend of my father, were tried, and ended with many years of jail terms.

I was honorably discharged at the end of December 1960, and soon after I left for Paris, France to study, for six months, at the Institut International d”Etudes Hebraiques. In Aug. 1961, I left for Cincinnati, OH to begin my rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College. But I never forgot my military experience that gave me discipline, and taught me valuable survival skills. 

Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2012.

Monday, September 24, 2012


“In Genesis 1: 26, it says, ‘Let us make man in our image.” What do the words “us” and “our” mean to a person of the Jewish faith?

Gen. 1: 26 reads: “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (NJPS). There are a number of problems in this verse: To whom is God speaking? If God is One, who is “us” and what is “our,” and what does the word “image” mean? This text has been subject to various types of interpretation. 

About “us” and “our”:  

11. Some have argued that God is speaking in the “royal we.” However, there is no proof that biblical Hebrew knew anything about the plural of majesty as it exists in other languages.

.  2. The Rabbis in the Midrash proposed various scenarios: according to one Rabbi: God took counsel with the works of heaven and earth. Another one suggested, God consulted the works of each day.
   A third one argued, God meditated in His own heart (See, Genesis Rabba, 8: 3).  

   3.  In the medieval period, The French-Jewish commentator Rashi stated that God took counsel with the angels (ad loc).

    4. Among modern biblical scholars, E. Speiser wrote that, inasmuch as the name of God (the term used here is Elohim) appears in the plural form, though referring to a single God--note that the verb accompanying Elohim is in the singular--, God must be referring to Himself. Other modern critics think that the narrator had an angelic court in mind. This court appears in many other biblical passages (e.g., I K 22: 19; Isa. 6: 8; Job 38: 7). The latter interpretation seems to me as the most reasonable one, reflecting as it does the thinking of many cultures in the ancient Near East. 

About “image”:

  1. Some rabbinic commentators say that this means that humanity was created with the ability to think and understand (e.g., Rashi); others maintain that it refers to man’s free will (e.g., Iture Torah ad loc).

   2. Many modern biblical scholars suggest that, by its ability to have dominion over the earth and its creatures, humanity was created as “God’s sovereign emblem” on earth (Von Rad), or that “each man bears the stamp of royalty” (Sarna). This understanding seems to reflect better the ancient Near Eastern thinking.
    PS. Many of us do not believe in the existence of heavenly angels today, but, in the past, most people did, and some believe even today. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Sept. 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012


For older postings, please check:
Thank you,
R. Sonsino


If not to Jesus, to whom does Isaiah 53 refer? My Christian friends insist that it's a reference to Jesus, and I would like to respond.  Thank you.

The prophet Second Isaiah, who lived during the Exilic times (c. 550 BCE), wrote four songs referring to the “servant” of God (42: 1-4; 49: 1-6; 50: 4-9; and 52-13-53:12). The identity of this figure has been contested for centuries. Some people think that the prophet had in mind a religious leader in the past, like Jeremiah (Saadia Gaon) or Moses (in the Talmud); others argue that it referred to a political figure such as Cyrus, the king of Persia, or Zerubabel, the governor of Judea after the return from Babylonia. There are some scholars who say that the servant is a pagan god who dies and is resurrected periodically, like the Mesopotamian god Tammuz or Adonis-Baal. One biblical critic argued that the servant is the cultic center of Zion-Jerusalem. So, as one commentator put it, “Modern scholarship has reached an impasse in regard to the identity of the “Servant of the Lord” in the servant songs in Deutero [Second]-Isaiah” (Wilshire, JBL, 9/1975, #3).

The New Testament states that the image of the servant is fulfilled in the personality of Jesus (e.g., Luke, 4: 21; Matt. 12: 18-21; Acts 8: 29-35). This does not mean that Isaiah was thinking of Jesus who lived centuries after him, but that early Christians simply identified the image of the servant with Jesus, who was considered by them as the long-awaited Messiah. However, it is unlikely that the servant refers to a messianic figure because the author of Second Isaiah, who wrote Isa. 53, never mentions a Jewish Messiah in other parts of his book, except for a reference to Cyrus, king of Persia, who was not even Jewish” “Thus said the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed one [limshiho] (Isa.45: 1). 

Most Jewish commentators and many Christian scholars today believe that the servant is the people of Israel, based on many references in Second Isaiah where Israel is a called a “servant” (e.g., Isa. 41: 8; 44: 1; 49: 3). 

[For further reading: Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament  (Oxford University, 2006), pp. 411-412; John McKenzie, Second Isaiah (The Anchor Bible, 1967), pp. xxxviii-lv; “Isaiah,” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. 2007, Vol. 10, pp.71-72)].

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים

In Hebrew, for masculine singular nouns, plurality is indicated by the ending im. Thus, for example, yeled “boy” becomes yeladim “boys.”
The Bible uses many terms for God, such as El, Shaddai, YHVH, Elohim--they are all in the singular except for Elohim, which is in the plural. The question is this: how can God, conceived as being the only divinity in the universe—hence, monotheism- have a plural ending? Ancient Rabbis had to deal with this problem and said that the reason for the plural in Elohim is because of all the attributes (e.g. merciful, caring, loving) that are ascribed to one God. On the other hand, is it possible that the term Elohim is a vestige of polytheism in biblical Israel? I would say, yes.

To test whether or not the editors of the Bible considered Elohim a plural or a singular noun, we need to find whether the verbs attached to this name, are in the singular or in the plural. If they are in the plural, we would know that in the past Israelites believed that Elohim referred to many gods. If the verb is in the singular, then we would have to conclude that the term underwent a change, and a plural noun was now considered singular. We have an example of that in English, too. The word “media” is the plural of “medium.” Yet, we often say, “the media says,” not “the media say.” “Media” is now viewed as singular.

Let’s test the use of the word Elohim in the Bible: In the overwhelming cases, the word Elohim is accompanied by a singular verb. For example (see Hebrew title above): the Hebrew Bible begins with b’reshit bara elohim, “When God began to create…”-here the verb bara (“created”) is in the singular. That means the editor of this passage conceived of Elohim as one God. (For other examples, see, Gen. 1: 3; 22: 1; 25: 11; 50:24, and many others).

However, there are a few passages where Elohim is accompanied by a plural verb: when Abraham says to king Abimelekh, “When God (Elohim) made me wander…(hit’u) (Gen. 20: 13) ,” the verb “wander” is in the plural. Similarly, we read, “It was there that God (Elohim) revealed (niglu) himself to him [Jacob]” (Gen. 35: 7). Here, too, “revealed” is in the plural, implying the existence of many gods. (For other examples, see Ex. 22:8; Deut. 5:23; II Sam. 7: 23 and others). The medieval commentator Rashi was aware of this problem but tried to solve it by saying, “all references to godliness and authority are in the plural.” I would argue that these are vestiges of ancient polytheism that crept into the text.

There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in biblical times, Elohim was considered in polytheistic terms, “gods.” A good example is found in the Book of the Covenant, in one of the laws dealing with debt-slavery. According to a sub-section of this law, if the slave wishes to remain with his master for the rest of his life, because “he loves” him, then his master “shall take him before the gods (Elohim)” (Ex. 21: 5) and pierce his ear with an awl. Traditional Jewish commentators say that here the word Elohim means “judges.” So, the owner is taking his slave to the court. Some modern commentators believe that the reference is to the local sanctuary where the master presents his slave before God, perhaps, for an ordeal. For me, this texts simply means that the master brings his slave before the household gods, hence Elohim (see, for instance the reference to the household gods that Rachel had when she left her father’s house, the terafim, Gen.31: 34), and then pierces his ear at the doorpost of his own house with an awl.

This short analysis shows that biblical Israel went through a period of transition from polytheism to monolatry (“there are many gods but only one god for us”) and finally to monotheism (“there is only one God”). The process continued in medieval times into the modern. Old God concepts are not working any more. We need to search for the best explanation of 
what God means today in order to meet the needs of our own time. 

(For details about God concepts in Judaism, see my book, Finding God (with Daniel Syme), NY: URJ Press, 2002, or, The Many Faces of God , NY:URJ, 2004, or , more recently, “What is God’s Real Name?” in my book, Did Moses Really Have Horns? NY: URJ Press, 2009, 12-24).
Rifat Sonsino

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Was Moses Circumcised?

Was Moses circumcised as a baby before or after he was found by the Egyptian princess or at any time during his life?
There is no clear reference to Moses’ circumcision in the Bible. We do not know when or even if he were circumcised at all. It is possible that he may have been circumcised by the Egyptians, because circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt. But there is no mention of it anywhere.
There is only one biblical story that involves Moses and circumcision in Ex. 4: 24-26, but the text is corrupt.  We are told that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, carried out the act of circumcision on a family member on their way down to Egypt, but the text does not clearly state who was circumcised, Moses or one of their two sons, Gershom or Eliezer.
The text reads as follows (my remarks are highlighted): “At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him [who is “him”? Moses or his son], and sought to kill him [Moses or his son?]. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs [whose leg? Moses or the son’s] with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him [Moses or the son?] alone, she added,’ A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision” (NJPS).
Given the uncertainty of the text, commentators have suggested various interpretations.
According to some Rabbis, Moses was among those few grandees of the past who were born already circumcised (e.g., Tanhuma, Noah 5; Avot de Rabbi Natan 2: 5) as an expression of human perfection. For them, the question was who was then circumcised in the Exodus text? Some Rabbis maintained that God wanted to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his second son Eliezer (Ex. Rabba 5: 8; cf. Rashi). On the other hand, a talmudic Rabbi argued that the victim was not Moses but “the child”, but the Talmud does not identify whether this “child” was Gershom or Eliezer. One Rabbi opined that Moses was punished because he was apathetic towards circumcision; another one denies it (e.g., Ned. 31b and 32a).
Modern scholars, too, are divided: Some maintain that the victim was Gershom (Fohrer), whereas others say it was Moses (Childs). The text is so corrupted that one modern critic writes that “the account here is only a truncated version of a larger, popular story that circulated orally in Israel” (Sarna).
Even though the text is unclear, it becomes evident that the passage in Exodus highlights the importance and necessity of circumcision. Zipporah, facing a deadly threat, circumcised a member of her family, and saved him.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2012