Monday, November 26, 2018


This week, the Boston Magazine (Dec. 2018), published a powerful article by Erick Trickey, entitled “Has Boston Given up on God?” This is a devastating piece against old time religion. The author points out that “Religion’s importance in people’s lives is on the decline across the country,” evidenced by the fact that so many religious institutions are simply shutting down their operations. He also states that “people who say they are not affiliated with any religion, [is] at 32 percent of residents.” To counter this negative trend, Trickey points out, new belief systems are emerging based on “higher education’s critical thinking, science’s demands for evidence, technology’s drive for results, liberal politics’ notion of progress and social justice.” 

That is what I want from my Judaism. We have a long tradition and we want to preserve it by adapting it to the needs of the time, just as Rabbinic Judaism radically transformed biblical Judaism, and medieval Jews started to view Judaism through the prism of their time and place. Reform Judaism is one of the modern answers. I would argue that even Orthodox Judaism today has had to change since its medieval practices.
I grew up Orthodox, and was in fact the Hazan Kavua (permanent prayer leader) of my Junior congregation, but, after I went to law school, I simply could not abide by the theology and practice of my religious community in Istanbul, and chose Reform Judaism as my new path. It has been my salvation. 

In our time, we, too, need to stress the rationalistic elements of our Jewish tradition, because I believe most of our people now are demanding it.  We, too, must look at our religious patterns critically, and search for reliable evidence regarding our religious beliefs. Otherwise, we will lose our constituency that will go elsewhere for its spiritual needs.
Soon, in the Jewish community, we will be celebrating Hanukah. Pray, let us not retell the story of the so-called “Hanukah miracle,” that kept the candles lighting for 8 days, but, discounting this improbable rabbinic teaching in the Talmud (TB, Shabbat, 21 b), let us concentrate on the importance of the holiday as a festival of lights that figuratively opens the blind eyes, and deaf ears; and as the holyday that celebrates religious liberty.
Spirituality is the study of ultimate concerns, and there is plenty to discuss it within a rationalistic frame of mind.

Happy Hanukah.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 27, 2018.

Friday, November 16, 2018


Yoram Hazony wrote a great book entitled The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge, 2012), in which he argued that the Bible could be “more readily understood if read as works of reason rather than works of revelation” (p.66). Being a religious naturalist, this line of thought suits me better. 

Very often, the Hebrew Bible states, “The Lord spoke to me,” or simply, “God told me.” If, as I maintain, God is the impersonal energy of the universe, these expressions for me could simply mean, “I have got a new insight,” or “a new idea came to my mind.” Here, “insight” simply means, the ability to have a clean, deep and often sudden intuitive understanding of a complicated problem or issue. This does not diminish the importance of the message, but it places it within the naturalistic realm. The new quandary for us then would be to try to find out the source of the new insight. Most people would say that we get it from the combination of our reasoning mind and our natural inquisitive personality. 

I have a hard time comprehending the meaning of the expression, “God said.” In other words, I do not know how divine verbal revelation really works. For example, when the Bible states, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea” (Hos.1:1), what exactly took place in that dialogue? Did God speak with a human voice, in Biblical Hebrew? Did the prophet hear articulated sounds? Similarly, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the text reads: “God spoke all these words, saying” (Ex.20:1), many thinkers throughout history had a hard time imagining the format of the conversation. According to some ancient Rabbis, when God gave the Torah, “the whole world hushed into breathless silence, and the voice went forth” (Sh’mot Rabba, 29:9). For Philo of Alexandria, during the giving of the Decalogue, “an invisible sound” was created (Decalogue,9-10). In the Middle Ages, Maimonides, the rationalist, had to agree that the Israelites only heard “inarticulate words” (Guide, 2:33). Even Mendel of Romanov, a Hasidic teacher of the 18th cent. maintained that the people only heard the letter ALEF, the first letter of the Decalogue (Zera Kodesh, II, 40). Assuming that the entire episode is historical, which is hardly so, wouldn’t it be better to understand that Moses simply had a remarkable insight, and shared it with others?

Using reason, instead of revelation, would make the sacred text, more relatable to many who are not ready to accept mysterious and unverifiable divine articulations?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Nov. 15, 2018

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Yesterday, Saturday morning, Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, 46, walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, and killed 11 people in cold blood, just because he claimed Jews were behind the refugees coming from Latin America. He was finally caught and arrested. This is lunacy!

I thought this type of tragedy only happened in the old country or during medieval times, or in primitive societies. Well, it happened in the States too. We are not as advanced as I thought. How sad!

I am angry and disappointed. We desperately need to foster mutual respect and promote gun control as top national priorities. Who will step up to the plate now? I don't see Pres. Trump doing it.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D