Monday, September 24, 2018


For the last few years I have been teaching, on a part-time basis, a semester-long course on Ethics at Framingham State University in the greater Boston area. I have created my own course outline and do not use a textbook. For convenience sake, I put all the study material online for easy access to my students. 

I start by introducing them to various theories of ethics. We then read numerous texts that deal with morality through the centuries, such as ethics in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, in the Koran, in medieval literature and in contemporary writings. We follow this with a discussion of various ethical issues covering a number of areas, like legal ethics, environmental ethics, or medical ethics. We end the course with a major debate on a few specific topics (e.g. a case of death penalty, an insanity defense, tax fraud) that various groups of students get together to present to the class for their evaluation and resolution. 

My interest is to make students think, and develop the ability to defend their point of view by using rational arguments, because the subject of ethics basically deals with values that are, at times, in conflict with each other. Two people struggling with an ethical dilemma can, and often do, take opposite points of view, and hopefully justify them, not by invoking religious dogma or authoritarian dicta, but by using a variety of cogent arguments. Following the teachings of Aristotle and Maimonides, I encourage my students to take the “Middle Road,” thus avoiding extreme positions. 

We don’t know whether we are born with a sense of morality or if ethics are learned from parents and teachers. When I observe the recently born babies, with their aggressiveness to get what they want (e.g., food, shelter), I am more convinced that we learn from others how to behave correctly. (Note: the biblical Hebrew word for ethics is MUSAR, coming from the root YASAR, meaning “discipline” or “chastening”). I consider it my job, to open the mind of my students, leading them to tackle controversial issues by fair and peaceful means. In particular, we have fun dealing with ethical dilemmas, because they force us to take positions on difficult cases. Mostly, we end up with the “best” alternative, even if it is not the worthiest solution. 

Here is an example of an ethical dilemma: Three of David’s classmates have created an offensive website that attacks students and teachers in a vicious way. The principal wants to know who did it? David is the only one who knows. You are David: will you lie to the principle by saying you don’t know who did it, or betray your friends? 

Here is another: There is a long line in a food court.  You ask the agreeable buyer in the front to include your order in his/hers, in exchange for the payment of  lunch. You are the buyer in the front. Would you do it?

I would be curious to know what is your position on either dilemma. Please write to me at

Rifat Sonsino, Rabbi, Ph.D.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Today, it would be sheer madness, if not utterly dangerous, to send a young kid from one continent to another, all alone, even if it is on a short trip. Rare is the parent who would do that, fearing all kinds of bad things that can happen to a 9-year-old. You can be sued for neglect or child endangerment.

But that is exactly what my parents did when I was in 3rd grade, in Turkey, in the mid 1940’s. In those days, we lived in a small town, called Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus that divides the city of Istanbul into two sections. There was no bridge across the two continents. This was built in1970. So, in order to go to school on the European side of the city, I used to take a ferryboat from Kuzguncuk to Galata-about 20 minutes-, get off the boat, walk to the small subway station about 10 minutes away from the peer, roll out of the subway and walk downhill to Musevi Lisesi, the Jewish school that was located not too far away from the historic tower of Galata. The whole trip often took about half an hour to 45 minutes. Then, on the way back, I had to walk up to the subway, get off, and walk to the peer in order to wait for the late afternoon boat that would take me back to Kuzguncuk. Our house was a few minutes away from the station.

For a number of years, I followed this routine, before we moved to the city itself. I had no problem navigating the streets all alone, and without fear. Nothing happened to me of any significance.

One day, however, things dramatically changed. I was about to take a major test in the fifth grade in order to move from the elementary school to the middle school. It was late winter, and the sea was raging. My father decided to take me along. When we arrived at the boat station, we realized that, because of the bad weather, all traffic was cancelled. Nothing was moving. Yet, if I did not take the test that day, I would have had to repeat the academic year. We had no choice. We had to do something out of the ordinary. My father decided to rent a small rowboat with a boatman in it. The guy agreed after requesting an unusually high price. We got on and he started to row across the Bosphorus. Visibility was almost none. He had to advance pretty much on instinct. The rowboat shook. (As the author of Jonah wrote, “a great tempest came upon the sea that the boat was in danger of breaking up,” Jon.1: 4). We had to hold ourselves pretty tight. Finally, -it felt interminable to us- we reached the western shore of the city. We paid the guy, got into a taxi and made it just on time for me to take a seat at the examination table. Thankfully, I passed it and moved on to the Middle School.

Today, I would never do this to a young kid, let alone to my grand-kids: it is too dangerous to send him/her on a solo trip, no matter how short or long. It is simply too risky. But in those days, this was not a concern. 

I have never forgotten this episode in my life, and taught me that, at times, you have to take risks, yea calculated risks, in order to overcome a serious challenge. This has also been my mantra in life. On many occasions, I have had to take major decisions after quickly reviewing my options under pressing circumstances. It served me well.