Wednesday, September 28, 2016


I teach Ethics at Framingham State University, and every year I place the following rabbinic moral dilemma before my students: 

Judaism places a high value on life. On the one hand, the ancient Rabbis teach us that the saving of life must be placed at the top of all the commandments, superseding even the laws of the Sabbath (Yoma 84b). On the other hand, however, Satan in the Bible reminds us that “all that a man has, he will give up for his life.” (Job. 2:4). In other words, it is good to be altruistic but physiological egoism reminds us that ultimately all human beings are motivated by self-interest. So, if your life conflicts with someone else’s life, whose life should come first? 

The Rabbis discuss this tension in a remarkable talmudic passage (BM 62a):  

Two people, A and B, are on a deserted road, presumably far from civilization. They have only one bottle of water; if both drink, both will die; however, if A drinks, B will die, but A can reach a place where water is available and will survive. What should they do? 

          One scholar, ben Petura, otherwise unknown in the rabbinic literature, argued that ‘it is better that both should drink and die, rather than one cause the death of the other.’ He based his reasoning on a biblical text that states that “your brother may live with you” (Lev. 25: 35).  However, Rabbi Akiba, a 2nd cent. CE scholar, perhaps a contemporary of this ben Petura, going against his colleagues maintained that “your life takes precedence over his.” That is, you should drink and let the other one die. His argument is based on his reading of the biblical text that highlights “with you.” Your life comes first. 

          Rabbinic scholars “use” biblical verses for their convenience, often quoting them out of context. In our case, the original verse dealt with an Israelite whose kinsman, most likely another Israelite, has financial problems and cannot pay his rent. The law states (in Lev. 25: 35-38) that you must be kind to him, i.e., not evict him, and, on the contrary, allow him to remain at your side (“live with you”) as a member of the community. But the ancient Rabbis quote this text to bolster their respective positions in the ethical dilemma mentioned above, assuming that the text is divine and therefore providing guidance for all occasions. 

          Even though the Talmud never resolves the ethical problem as to what is the proper behavior in our dilemma, later commentators have overwhelmingly sided with Rabbi Akiba, with three exceptions: your life comes first, yes, except in cases of murder, idolatry and incest. In these cases, you should prefer death rather than commit a heinous crime. 

          Ben Petura’s view is highly altruistic, but Rabbi Akiba’s position, though more self-centered, is more realistic. Isn’t this the way we have to act today when we are on a plane and the airbag comes down because of a drop in pressure? The stewardess tells us, “please put your seat belt on first, and then, attach it to your child.” The rationale is this: Your life comes first; if you can take care of yourself, you can then help others. Not the other way around.

          Two caveats: 1) From the reading of the rabbinic text in the Talmud we can deduce that the position of ben Petura was dominant, “until Rabbi Akiba came and taught.” Often, there is more than one way to resolve an ethical dilemma. In this case, with the Rabbi Akiba, we see a major change in attitude.

 2) The Rabbis do not “obligate” A to drink, letting B to die. They only say that your life comes first. And you should not feel guilty about it. But you may decide to sacrifice your life for another, depending on the circumstances. For example, if B is your child, most people would willingly give the bottle to the child, thus allowing the youngster to live. But what if B is your older parent?  What if B is a total stranger?  (In both cases, I would stay with Akiba). What if A has an acute case of cancer, and B is healthy and has a chance to survive, would B be acting morally if he /she were to take the bottle away by force? (I would say B has the right to do that). 

          I do not believe in absolute morality but in situational ethics. The German philosopher Kant (d. 1808) talked about “categorical imperatives;” that is, you should act in such a way so that your deed be viewed as praiseworthy and universal. I believe in this basic principle, but still allow for deviations when appropriate.

What do you think?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Framingham State University

Sept. 2016


Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)






AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)




Wednesday, September 7, 2016


At the end of the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (2016), Michael Phelps, 30, a highly decorated US competitive swimmer with 28 gold medals to his name, announced that this would be his last international competition. Mind you, this is the second retirement for Michael. The first one was after the 2012 London Games. 

Some, like Michael, retire multiple times. Others retire but do not know what to do with themselves. And there are those like me, who call it quits without hesitation, after a satisfying career, but this one takes time and advanced planning. 

Why and when people retire depend on various circumstances: e.g., health issues, moving to other communities, or sadly because they are terminated by their bosses. Others, however, choose to retire and often plan for it. I am among the fortunate ones who thought about ending my full-time career as a congregational Rabbi when I turned 65, about 13 years ago. 

Throughout my life, I have always been associated with synagogue life. In my youth, even during Law School in Turkey, I acted as hazzan kavua (a permanent prayer-leader) in my Orthodox congregation in Istanbul. During my rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, I held student pulpits in McGehee, Ark.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Kokomo, Ind. After ordination I served in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Philadelphia, Pa.; Chicago, IL and, finally at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA. But when I was about to turn 65, I decided it is time to stop.

The inspiration for retirement came from a rabbinic teaching. According to an ancient source, when Rabbis sat in the Sanhedrin (rabbinic court), they took their seats in a semi-circle fashion, with three rows of scholars facing the Chief Judge. When an opening occurred, they would move a judge from one row to a closer one from the front (Sanh. 4: 4). Later on, Rabbis, commenting on the significance of this move, stated, “It is better for people to say to you ‘go up,’ than for them to tell you to ‘go down’” (Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 1:5). What a wonderful insight, I said to myself. Having accomplished most of what I had intended to do in my professional life, I would retire at will, at the top of my career, instead of waiting for someone telling me, “Rabbi, you are getting older; it is time to take it easy!” 

When Ines and I decided to take the plunge, we first went to a retirement seminar sponsored by the Pension Board of our rabbinic association (CCAR) to learn how to say good-bye. Then I approached my lay leadership and informed them of my plan. My president and board accepted our decision with regret, and offered us a wonderful retirement package, including health benefits, convention allowance and, most importantly, a “reserved” spot in the parking lot of our synagogue. This whole process took about a year.

After announcing my retirement to the congregation, we had a special celebration in May of 2003, which we enjoyed very much. On June 30, 2003, I turned in the keys to the office manager and walked away. Ines and I also decided to leave town and move to another suburb in the greater Boston area in order to allow my successor, Rabbi Jay Perlman, a total immersion in the life of the synagogue. 

What to do after retirement? I now had more free time to spend with family. I taught, part-time, at Boston College, and now I am on the faculty of Framingham State University, much closer to my home in Ashland. MA, teaching Ethics to two different classes. Ines and I travel more, visit our children and grandchildren in California, and spend more time with our daughter and grand kids in our area. I help out Bet Shalom of Barcelona, an emerging liberal congregation in Spain. I also blog (SONSINO’S BLOG) and lecture on a variety of topics. Recently, I learned how to play bocce!!!

I still keep an association with my former Temple. I am the “Rabbi Emeritus.” I give the sermon on the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, a talk on Yom Kippur in the afternoon, and lead a discussion during an old-day Kallah (“study session”) for temple members. We, obviously, continue to see many of our friends in the Boston area, and our Rabbinic Study group of more than 30 years meets every Monday morning at our Temple building in Needham. But otherwise, I am not involved in any details of our congregational life. This is ably handled by other rabbinic colleagues. 

This pattern has worked well for us. But it took thinking, planning, understanding and good will on both sides, mine and the temple leadership’s.

I highly recommend it to others who wish to follow a similar path.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Sept. 2016