Sunday, March 20, 2016


On Saturday night, March 12, Bet Shalom congregation of Barcelona celebrated its 10th anniversary with the dedication of a new sanctuary. 

Bet Shalom is an emerging liberal synagogue that is affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism (EUPJ). It has been my privilege to work with them for many years, and to witness their steady growth in a country that has a small Jewish community but a glorious past history in the Jewish world. For many, it is almost a “mother country.” 

My wife and I went to Barcelona first in June, 2008, and worked with Bet Shalom’s lay leadership to give shape to a new movement. A few Rabbis preceded our arrival, each one spending a limited time in the country. The Jewish community in Barcelona is small. Presently, in addition to Bet Shalom, there is an Orthodox Jewish center, a Chabad group and another small progressive synagogue called Atid. I see Bet Shalom as a dynamic, forward thinking, and community oriented. Jai [pronounced as Hai) Anguita, the President, is its indefatigable lay leader, and Maria Prieto Manzanares functions as its representative vis-a-vis the world Jewish community. About 60-70 families are now associated with it.

Since 2008, we have traveled to Barcelona a number of times, and stayed there short periods of time leading services, teaching classes, and giving public lectures on Judaism. I have also done a few weddings, and participated in many rabbinic courts (with Rabbis coming from London) regarding conversions, and I always returned to the States more energized and hopeful for the future. The congregation is now fortunate to have Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz, a graduate of the Reconstructionist seminary, as its religious leader, who from now on will be able to spend a few weeks at a time working with different branches of the congregation. 

The new and spacious sanctuary is located in the area called Gracia, not too far away from the famous Sagrada Familia, the church that was designed by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1936) but still not finished. The celebration attracted many local dignitaries, representatives of other Jewish institutions and Mrs. Miriam Kramer, the Chairperson of EUPJ who came from London. After Havdalah and dedication, which Rabbi Berkowitz and I conducted in Spanish, the congregation and guests, numbering in over 100 people, enjoyed a lovely meal and danced for many hours. They now have a new pulpit and are in the process of getting a new ark that will house the single Torah I brought to them a few years ago. During the rest of the week, I also taught a class on Jewish God concepts to the participants of Introduction to Judaism class, and gave a public lecture on the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Spain in now granting citizenship to anyone who can prove a link to the Jewish community that was expelled in the past.

I am very proud of my association with Beth Shalom and hope that with local and international help, it will continue to grow in number and stature, even encouraging others to follow its steady path. Already a few progressive groups are functioning in Madrid and other cities, and look to Bet Shalom for guidance. Spain is emerging again as a new Jewish light. I only hope they go from strength to strength.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March, 2016

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Human beings have always been curious about the creation of the universe, and have come up with a variety of myths in order to explain it. We find a number of them in the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts, like Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian as well as in our Hebrew Bible. Even medieval Kabbalah has one of its own.


How did the ancients imagine our world’s creation?
1.    They thought that it was placed at the center of the universe.
2.    They believed that it was stationary and everything else moved around it.
3.    They claimed that the earth, appearing flat, was covered by a canopy called “firmament” over which the sun and the moon rolled. The “holes” in it allowed the rain to come through. Underneath the earth, they maintained, existed an undifferentiated underground called Sheol to which the dead went down but lived a shadowy kind of existence. At times, some people came back to earth, but mostly they remained there forever.

The ancient Egyptians honored the god Ra as the creator and ruler of the people. They believed that he recreates Egypt every day. Ra (also called Atum), “who came into being by himself” (ANET, p. 4), also formed the other gods.  Some creation myths of the past had a political agenda. Thus, for instance, the main purpose of the Babylonian story of creation (the so called enuma elish, “When on high) was to show why and how Marduk became the patron god of Babylon. According to this very popular myth, after a conflagration among the various gods, Marduk volunteered to fight on behalf some of them. Consequently, he killed Tiamat (the salt water god), and by cutting her into two, created the heavens and the earth:
“Then the lord [Marduk] paused to view her dead body,
That he might divide the monster and do artful works.
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky.” (ANET, p.67)

After the creation the world, Marduk had Ea, ( the god of wisdom) formed a human being out of the blood of Tiamat’s divine husband, whose name Kingu.

As of today, no Canaanite creation story has emerged. It appears that the Hebrew Bible, influenced by the Babylonian story, proposed its own creation myth by providing two different models, one in Gen. 1 and the other in Gen. 2. The first story in Gen. 1 follows a pattern of creation that spans over seven different days; Gen. 2 does not know this format and is more flowing in its narration.

There are significant differences between the biblical stories and the ancient Near Eastern equivalents, all of them deriving from a debate between ANE polytheism and Israelite monotheism:
1. Whereas in the ANE we have various gods involved in the forming of the universe, in the Bible the entire process is assigned to one God.
 2. In the ANE, humanity is created from the blood of a fallen god, but in the Bible, Adam and Eve are formed by God alone.
 3. In the ANE, the main purpose is to show the ascendency of Marduk to a high position among the gods. The story in the Bible, on the other hand, is not a central event but only an introduction to a process that will culminate with the revelation of Torah at Sinai.

The Biblical creation story is not the only one in the Jewish sacred literature. The medieval Lurianic Kabbalah proposes a very different one based on the assumption that creation took place in three consecutive phases:
1. Tzimtzum: Contraction of all existence into God’s self;
 2. Shevirat Ha-kelim: The breaking of the vessels that resulted by God sending into the new vacuum of the world rays of divine light;
3. Tikkun Olam:  And finally, the hope that at the end of time, these sparks of light will once again be collected and harmonized through Tikkun Olam, the fixing the universe.


How does the scientific community of our time deal with the creation of the universe? It supports what is called “The Big Bang Theory.” The idea was first suggested by a Belgian priest and astronomer, George Lemaitre (d. 1966) in the 1920’s. Today many scientists offer a few changes to it.

         In essence, the theory is based on the observation that other galaxies appear to be moving away from our own at a greater speed, in all directions, as if they had been propelled by a former explosive force. It assumes that about 13 billion years ago, our universe emerged, perhaps through this explosion, out of a “singularity” which combines various fundamental particles, such as neutrons, electrons, and protons. As the universe began to inflate and decay, it started to cool off and expand. It continues to do so even in our time.


Even though the Genesis story is primitive and certainly nonscientific, it still has some lessons to teach us:
1.    There is an order in the universe, and we need to preserve it even in our lives.
2.    Humanity is the pinnacle of creation and every human being need to be considered as sacred.
3.    Just as we need to work, we also need to rest (“the Sabbath idea”); we are not animals.
4.    God created the universe, not only by a “word” (“God said, let there be light, and there was light” Gen. 1: 3), but also through personal involvement (“God made the two great lights” Gen. 1: 16). Therefore, just as the word has power and needs to be respected in our inter-human relations, we need to dedicate ourselves to “creating” , through individual commitment, something new that would benefit humanity.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

March, 2016