Sunday, October 27, 2013


Mid October, my granddaughter, Ariella, became a Bat Mitzvah in California, and made us very proud and happy. 

There are moments in life which define us. There is a before and an after that particular event. In the present Jewish practice, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is one of those cutting moments. A thirteen year old boy (a Bar Mitzvah) or a girl (a Bat Mitzvah) marks a significant transitional period in life by celebrating it with family and friends during a religious ceremony and often with a big party afterwards. 

In Hebrew the expression Bar/Bat Mitzvah, usually translated as “son/daughter of the Mitzvah,” really means youngsters who are now “responsible for the performance of the Mitzvot (commandments/good deeds).” It takes about two years to get a date from the synagogue and six months to learn how to lead the service in Hebrew and English. In most Reform synagogues in the USA, during a Sabbath morning service, which often includes the celebration of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the high point is reached when the candidate chants a section of the Torah portion of the week taken from the Pentateuch and part of the prophetic portion (Haftarah) that follows it. Also, a Bar/Mitzvah usually reads a short commentary of the biblical passages and a message of gratitude to parents, relatives and friends. Ariella did all that. She was nervous but went through the whole thing with poise and a great smile. We were delighted. 

In my granddaughter’s temple, they have a lovely custom of invoking God’s blessings upon the Bar/Bat Mitzvah while standing under a prayer shawl (tallit) held by close friends. As a grandfather, it was my pleasure and honor to recite the priestly blessing there as I prayed for Ariella to have a good and long life, contentment and peace.

However, what moved me the most was a moment just before the Torah service when the Rabbi asked us to pass the Torah scroll from one generation to another, as a reminder that we, as Jews, are all connected by tradition, cultural as well as ethnic ties, from our ancestors in biblical times to the present generation and beyond. As I handed the scroll to my wife, and as she passed it on to my son and daughter-in-law, and they gave it to Ariella, I thought of my own Bar Mitzvah in Istanbul in 1951, of my deceased parents and grandparents, and forward to my son and his daughter, with a sense of gratitude and connectedness that can only be described as magical. I was overwhelmed by emotions, my eyes became teary and I had a hard time breathing. Yes, our Jewish tradition is being handed down to a new generation, and I hope they will be proud of it, keep it and enrich it with their own creativity.  

Ines and I still have the Bar/t Mitzvah of three more grandchildren to go, and I hope God will grant us the opportunity to witness their own celebration.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD
Oct. 2013

Friday, October 4, 2013


Many people read consumer reports before buying an article, such as a car or a TV, and even about a restaurant. I often do. However, recently I was shocked to read that some individuals are getting paid to write favorable reviews for products in respectable periodicals. That is outrageous. Can you trust anyone today?

Our religious literature cautions us not to put our faith in someone else. The model is set by the patriarch Abraham: “Because he put his trust in the Eternal, He reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15: 6). The prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in God and who makes God his refuge” (17: 7), and, conversely, “Cursed is he who trusts in man” (17: 5). Similarly, the psalmists states, “Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust” (40: 5), and “Do not put your trust…in mortal man who cannot save” (146:3). In the early rabbinic period, Hillel is reported to have warned people against overconfidence: “Do not trust yourself until the day of your death” (Pirke Avot, 2: 5; the Talmud gives a few examples in Ber.29a). In medieval times, the Jewish philosopher, Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th cent., Spain) spent an entire chapter on the idea of trust (see, his chapter 7, in The Duties of the Heart), and, even though he thought that it was possible to trust human beings who have compassion, empathy and love, he added that these qualities are often wanting in everyone except God. He then concluded by saying that “whoever trusts in what is other than God, God removes His providence from him and leaves him in the hands of whatever he trusted in.”

Non-Jewish literature on this subject is not more comforting either. The Roman philosopher Seneca (I cent CE) put forward a balanced viewpoint: “It is a vice to trust all, and equally a vice to trust none.” Most writers were more cautious. Thus, for instance, Shakespeare stated, “Love all, trust a few” (All’s Well That Ends Well). Ronald Reagan insisted, “Trust but verify.” Some thinkers even said that we need to put our faith only in ourselves, not on others. And Joseph Stalin went to the other extreme allegedly saying, “I do not trust anyone, not even myself.”

I maintain otherwise. I am not na├»ve but I do tend to be a trusting individual. I often take people at their word. Before a purchase, I do read one or two reviews and then proceed. How can you live in a society where no one relies on another? A student trusts his/her teacher. Children trust their parents, and vice-versa. We rely on a variety of experts. Personal friendship or a good marriage is possible only when there is mutual trust. When we read a book, a research paper, a magazine article etc., unless the claim is preposterous, we all tend to accept the facts cited in them as reliable and true. 

Yes, some people do lie; some people cheat. And it is getting more difficult to trust others. One needs to be skeptical of unusual, strange and outrageous claims. But I don’t think the dishonest are in the majority. I will continue to rely on my guts and depend on others. That is what we need to work on, and make individuals responsible for what they say and do. Society cannot survive on falsehood and suspicion.

As for me, I will start to read many more reviews than before buying anything, and then decide. What a shame!

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD
October, 2013