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Tuesday, February 7, 2012


בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים

In Hebrew, for masculine singular nouns, plurality is indicated by the ending im. Thus, for example, yeled “boy” becomes yeladim “boys.”

The Bible uses many terms for God, such as El, Shaddai, YHVH, Elohim--they are all in the singular except for Elohim, which is in the plural. The question is this: how can God, conceived as being the only divinity in the universe—hence, monotheism- have a plural ending? Ancient Rabbis had to deal with this problem and said that the reason for the plural in Elohim is because of all the attributes (e.g. merciful, caring, loving) that are ascribed to one God. On the other hand, is it possible that the term Elohim is a vestige of polytheism in biblical Israel? I would say, yes.

To test whether or not the editors of the Bible considered Elohim a plural or a singular noun, we need to find whether the verbs attached to this name, are in the singular or in the plural. If they are in the plural, we would know that in the past Israelites believed that Elohim referred to many gods. If the verb is in the singular, then we would have to conclude that the term underwent a change, and a plural noun was now considered singular. We have an example of that in English, too. The word “media” is the plural of “medium.” Yet, we often say, “the media says,” not “the media say.” “Media” is now viewed as singular.

Let’s test the use of the word Elohim in the Bible: In the overwhelming cases, the word Elohim is accompanied by a singular verb. For example (see Hebrew title above): the Hebrew Bible begins with b’reshit bara elohim, “When God began to create…”-here the verb bara (“created”) is in the singular. That means the editor of this passage conceived of Elohim as one God. (For other examples, see, Gen. 1: 3; 22: 1; 25: 11; 50:24, and many others).

However, there are a few passages where Elohim is accompanied by a plural verb: when Abraham says to king Abimelekh, “When God (Elohim) made me wander…(hit’u) (Gen. 20: 13) ,” the verb “wander” is in the plural. Similarly, we read, “It was there that God (Elohim) revealed (niglu) himself to him [Jacob]” (Gen. 35: 7). Here, too, “revealed” is in the plural, implying the existence of many gods. (For other examples, see Ex. 22:8; Deut. 5:23; II Sam. 7: 23 and others). The medieval commentator Rashi was aware of this problem but tried to solve it by saying, “all references to godliness and authority are in the plural.” I would argue that these are vestiges of ancient polytheism that crept into the text.

There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in biblical times, Elohim was considered in polytheistic terms, “gods.” A good example is found in the Book of the Covenant, in one of the laws dealing with debt-slavery. According to a sub-section of this law, if the slave wishes to remain with his master for the rest of his life, because “he loves” him, then his master “shall take him before the gods (Elohim)” (Ex. 21: 5) and pierce his ear with an awl. Traditional Jewish commentators say that here the word Elohim means “judges.” So, the owner is taking his slave to the court. Some modern commentators believe that the reference is to the local sanctuary where the master presents his slave before God, perhaps, for an ordeal. For me, this texts simply means that the master brings his slave before the household gods, hence Elohim (see, for instance the reference to the household gods that Rachel had when she left her father’s house, the terafim, Gen.31: 34), and then pierces his ear at the doorpost of his own house with an awl.

This short analysis shows that biblical Israel went through a period of transition from polytheism to monolatry (“there are many gods but only one god for us”) and finally to monotheism (“there is only one God”). The process continued in medieval times into the modern. Old God concepts are not working any more. We need to search for the best explanation of what God means today in order to meet the needs of our own time.

(For details about God concepts in Judaism, see my book, Finding God (with Daniel Syme), NY: URJ Press, 2002, or, The Many Faces of God , NY:URJ, 2004, or , more recently, “What is God’s Real Name?” in my book, Did Moses Really Have Horns? NY: URJ Press, 2009, 12-24).

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, January 5, 2012


We just returned from a week stay in Israel a few days ago. We went only to Jerusalem, a city made holy by our memories, not for tourism but to spend time with the family, and celebrate my daughter Debbi’s 40th birthday and her 10th wedding anniversary to Ran, her Israeli husband. My wife Ines, Debbi, Ran and our two grandchildren, Avi and Talya, came along. It was a great trip, though very short. Here are some personal impressions.

This time I found a greater alienation between the secular and the fundamentalist religious groups. Jerusalem is turning into a “haredi” (extreme religious) city. One top Israeli executive told me, “Seculars Jews have already given up.” This may be an exaggeration but there is a kernel of truth in it. The month of December was marred by attacks on women’s civil rights: an eight year old girl was hit by extremists because she was not dressed modestly; some Orthodox soldiers refused to listen to the singing of female soldiers; a woman was asked to sit in the back of the bus but she refused. Many leading Rabbis condemned this anti-women attitude by saying, “Israel does not belong to the religious alone.” A number of secular Israelis raised banners in Bet Shemesh that read, “This will not be another Teheran.”

There was quiet between Israelis and Palestinians during our stay, but animosities are still present. One day I went to Abu Shukri, a well-known restaurant in the Old City, which displayed a Palestinian flag on its wall. I ordered pita, humus and “Israeli salad.” The waiter told me, “We don’t serve Israeli salad here,” only “Arabic salad.” That was curious because in our hotel the same salad was labeled “Israeli,” even though many Israelis call it “Arabic.”

The Palestinians I met in Jerusalem seemed content living among Israelis. The Palestinian life-guard at our hotel, a student at the University, told me that he had many Israeli friends and that the problem was with the extremists on both sides. I walked the streets of the Old City without fear. Yet, when we took the train from the Center of Town towards the Hebrew University, we were told to get out of the train outside of the Damascus Gate because of a “suspicious object.” A police robot quickly discovered that it was harmless, and we boarded the train again. A passenger told me, “We live every day with miracles here.”

Because of Christmas and Hanukah, Jerusalem was full of tourists, more than ever before. Consequently, traffic between mid-mornings to around 8 pm. was terrible. A trip from Har Hatzofim to Talpiyot that usually takes about 15 minutes by cab often took us more than an hour.

The economy of the country seems to be doing well. We saw lots of people shopping at stores and local Malls. The new Mamila Mall is magnificent. The Western Wall was full of tourists as well as local Israelis. We visited the tunnels by the Western Wall- an archaeological marvel. You see under a glass walk, ruins that go back to the First and Second Temple.

The best time, however, was spent with the family. We walked by the Tayelet, went to the Hebrew Union College on King David Street, visited the Hebrew University, walked through Ben Yehudah Street, bought gifts at Geulah, attended an Orthodox service on Shabbat Eve, and ate almost every night at our son-in-law’s parents’ home. Quite a treat. We also got together for a great meal with our Israeli family and friends at Abu Gosh, an Arab village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

And we returned happy but tired. Our grand-children are ready to go back. We too.

Rifat Sonsino

Jan. 5, 2012

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


In contemporary culture today, the name Maimonides stands for the mainstream Jewish Orthodoxy. Chabad (Lubavich Hasidic) sends in regular messages on line with special references to Maimonides’s books for daily study. A prominent Orthodox private school, called Maimonides, continues to have a great academic reputation in Boston, MA.
That was not always the case in the medieval period when the great philosopher lived, first in Cordoba, Spain and then in Fustat, Egypt. Moses Maimonides (1135-1204; called for short, Rambam) was deeply influenced by the teachings of Aristotle, and attempted to show that Judaism, too, with some restrictions, could be understood in light of Greek philosophy. Through his books, such as The Guide to the Perplexed, and the Commentary to the Mishnah, the rabbi-philosopher spoke of God as pure intellect, and insisted that God’s attributes were metaphors, which were understood and expressed only by our limited human minds.
Though Maimonides had many supporters, some of his contemporaries strongly disagreed with his rationalistic interpretation of Judaism. Soon, an anti-Maimonidean movement developed in southern France and Cataluña, which shook the foundations of the Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin. Spearheaded by the Ravad of Posquieres (12th cent) and supported even by some of the great rabbinic luminaries, such as Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier and Jonah b. Abraham of Girondi, the anti-Maimonidean movement declared the Rambam a heretic, and was instrumental in having his books publicly burned in Montpellier, southern France in 1233. As time went on, however, this negative attitude against Maimonides abated, and, in our time, few remember the fierce intellectual battles that medieval rabbis fought about this great Jewish-Spanish philosopher.
In our time, a new intellectual battle is raging between the Jewish rationalists and anti-rationalists-each claiming that it best represents the Jewish tradition. Regrettably, the anti-rationalists appear to be denigrating the other possible approaches in Judaism. This would be a big mistake, because there is room within our tradition for both approaches, and no one should claim that it has the ultimate truth. As a rationalist myself, I would be very sad if this reality is ignored in the modern Jewish world.
Rifat Sonsino

Monday, June 20, 2011


I have been in the rabbinate for more than four decades but never before have I participated in a group conversion of 30 individuals (24 adults and 6 children, ages 4 to 12) until now. This historic event took place in Barcelona, Spain on June 8 and 9, 2011.

The entire project was coordinated by Rosina Levy of Bet Shalom of Barcelona, a small congregation I have been helping out on and off for the last four years with its programs and services, and which now belongs to the European Region (ER) of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). When word got out that Bet Shalom was ready to present its candidates to the ER’s Beth Din (“rabbinic court”), other liberal Jewish communities around Spain asked that they be allowed to send in their own as well.

A duly authorized progressive Beth Din of three rabbis and a lay secretary came in from London. The European custom is that the local Rabbi (in this case, me) is not an official member of the court. However, I was invited to attend all the sessions and became a full member when one of the rabbis had to return to London for Shabbat services.

The candidates came from many parts of Spain: Barcelona (the majority from Bet Shalom but a few also from Atid), Asturias, Galicia, Seville, Cordoba, and Madrid. They were prepared for this transition by local teachers for a period of a year or more, and the men had to bring a certificate of circumcision as required by Jewish law and the European custom. (In the States, some Reform Rabbis do not require this procedure from adult males). The participants demonstrated proficiency in Jewish history, customs, religious festivals, and life-cycle events; and they were all involved in their own synagogue life.

It is estimated that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 Jews in Spain today, most of them coming from North Africa, France and surrounding countries, but there is a great pool of local people with vivid Jewish memories going back to the times of the Inquisition. Now these people want to reclaim their Jewish identity and wish to become officially part of the people of Israel.

After the exams, we issued two types of certificates: a formal conversion certificate but also, upon request, a certificate of return. We heard incredible stories: their parents, and more often their great or great-grand parents, told them that they carried Jewish blood, that it was the family tradition to cover the mirrors during the period of mourning, that many lit candles on the Sabbath Eve, some knowing exactly what they are doing, others attributing the practice to vague family traditions of ages gone by with no particular knowledge of their significance.

The culminating event took place on Friday, June 9, in the afternoon, when all the candidates (with the Beth Din supervising the procedure) went to the beach for the tevilah, the ritual immersion, with women on one side and men on the other of the pier. It was drizzling that day in the morning but fortunately for us, when we arrived at the beach, the rain stopped and the sun appeared for a short while. There was a mad dash into the tepid waters. After reciting the blessings together, they all came out triumphantly proclaiming their new Jewish identity.

That night, during the Sabbath service, I, as the officiating Rabbi, gave each Jew-by-choice his/her certificate, and the next day during the morning worship I called them up to the Torah for their ever first aliyah. There was joy and celebration in the congregation. They could not thank us enough for confirming what they felt a very long time. And we, at the rabbinic court, were thrilled to make this happen a reality for them. For next year, many are already planning an adult Bar/t Mitzvah.

This conversion program not only propelled Bet Shalom onto the front lines of progressive Judaism in Spain but is now a model for other small congregations, which have learned what can be accomplished with enthusiasm, dedication and the support of the European Region of the WUPJ. This made me really proud.

Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino, Emeritus

Boston College, USA

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Every so often the question of God’s nature comes up for discussion. There are those who believe that God is a personal God, namely, a supreme being that has intelligence, emotions, and will in an absolute form. God knows you, loves you and responds to your prayers. Most of these people also maintain that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. These individuals are classical theists, by definition. (Limited theists believe in a personal God but one who is not all-powerful). And there are others who depart from this view and subscribe to a variety of other non-theistic God concepts.
One of the problems, which was debated for centuries between the theists and non-theists, whether Jewish or not, has to do with God’s love and God’s involvement in human lives. Does God love me? Does God interfere in my life? How does God respond to my prayers? Theists say, yes, God watches over us; others argue, no, God has nothing to do with “loving” anyone. In particular, the question of prayer is of immediate concern for many people, and has already been raised in many biblical passages. On the one had we have, “I turned to the Lord, and He answered me” (Ps. 34: 7), and, on the other, “How long, O Lord, shall I cry out and You not listen” (Hab. 1: 2).
Here below is my religious naturalist response to this question:
I view God as the energizing power of the universe. I do not expect that God would know me or love me or even interfere in my life the way my parents did. All I want from God is that I be given the sustaining tools of a meaningful life, the wisdom to accept my limitations and the skill to overcome them reasonably within nature’s possibilities. I don’t pray for miracles or look for perfection in life. I hope for wholeness and contentment. I am grateful just to be. There is plenty of God’s love just in this recognition.
Rifat Sonsino

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The Torah portion, Behar (for May 14, 2011), just one chapter long, appears in Lev. 25:1-26:2, and deals with two related subjects: The Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year.

The law regarding the Sabbatical Year is mentioned three times in the Bible: Ex. 23: 10-11; Lev. 25: 3-6, and Deut. 15: 1-10. There are significant differences between them, and talmudic law tries to reconcile these passages (e.g., BT Git. 36a).

According to biblical law, during the Sabbatical Year, all agricultural work stops and the “after growth of the harvest” is to be given to or shared with the poor (Ex. and Lev.); Deuteronomy adds that all debts are to be canceled. At the end of 49 years, during the Jubilee Year, the land is to lie fallow, all landed property reverts to the original owners, and all Hebrew slaves receive their freedom.

It is not known if the Sabbatical Year was observed during the First Temple, but there are references (for example, Neh. 10:32; I Mac. 6: 49) that it was kept during the Second Temple. Presently, some Orthodox Jews in Israel are very punctilious about it. Others, using a legal fiction, “sell” the land to a non-Jew, and continue to work on their lot as before. The last time a Sabbatical Year was observed was, according to one calculation, on the Jewish year of 2007-08. The next one will be on 2014-15.

There is no reference anywhere that the Jubilee Year was ever observed. The prophets do not mention it and the historical texts do not record it. Most likely, it represents an ideal setting: though it does not make economic sense, its ethical as well as ecological message is sound. The text tells us that the reason why slaves must be freed during the Jubilee Year is because all human beings are God’s creatures: “It is to Me that the Israelites are servants” (Lev. 25: 55), and, therefore, no one should lord over the other; also, the rationale for returning the land to its original owner is that the earth ultimately belongs to God, not to us: “the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25: 23).

We are all passengers in this world. Whatever we accumulate here is left on earth, either for our children or for our community to enjoy. In the meantime, we are told to live our life fully and creatively, to pursue meaning and high purpose in our endeavors, to leave a legacy of good will and to preserve the earth for those who will follow us.

This is quite a challenge and a wonderful opportunity for each one of us.

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In my home I have a Turkish blue eye charm/bead (called Nazar Boncugu in Turkish) that sits on one of my shelves casting a protective gaze upon the entire house. Does it help? I doubt it, but it does not hurt either.

This is obviously an old superstition found all over the world: an envious glance can bring harm to the person or object. How do you protect yourself against it? You get a blue eye amulet that mirrors back, and stops the harmful look, the so-called, “evil eye.”

In Hebrew, the evil eye is called ayin hara or en raah (in Yiddish it is “kayn aynhora”). According to the Rabbis, whereas a benevolent eye (“ayin tovah”) is praiseworthy, "an ayin hara, (an evil eye), the evil urge and hatred of another human being take one out of the world.” (Av. 2: 11). According to another, ninety nine people die of an evil eye, and only one through natural causes (BM 107b). You can protect yourself against this malicious curse, by repeating ever so often, beli ayin raah (“without the evil eye” [having power over you]). In a popular Jewish joke, a Jewish patriarch who was on the witness stand was asked by a District Attorney: “How old are you? He answered, “I am, kayn aynhora, eighty one.” Similarly, when counting people, you are expected to say, “Not one,” “Not two, “Not three” etc. in order to avoid the disastrous effects of the evil eye.

This meaning of “evil eye” represents an extension of what the original word for “eye” meant in biblical literature. Ayin, (pl. enayim), simply refers to the physical organ of sight. Whereas, a person with tov ayin (lit. good eye) is considered a “generous person” (Prov. 22: 9), one with ra ayin (lit. evil eye), is “miserly” (Prov. 28: 22). One can have eyne gavhut, a haughty look (Isa. 2: 11), or shah enayim (lit. “lowly eye”) “humility”(Job. 22: 29). Being consumed by an attitude described as raah enekha (lit. an eye set on ill will), simply meant being “mean” to another person (Deut. 15: 9). God’s eyes (eyne YHVH) are placed upon the land of Israel as a promise of protection (Deut. 11: 12). It is not at all clear what the Bible implies when it states that Leah, Jacob’s wife, had “weak eyes” (rakot). (Gen. 29: 17). Did she lack luster (Sarna), or did she have lovely, delicate eyes (Speiser)?

The Hebrew word, ayin, (pl. ayanot), also means, “spring” (of water). Example: “An angel of the Lord found her [Hagar] by a spring of water (eyn ha-mayim)” (Gen. 16: 7). This may be an extension, maybe a figurative way of speaking of an “eye.” It is interesting to note that in Akkadian, inu(m) means both “eye” and “spring” or “source.”

The human eye is our window to the universe. What we see is a reflection of our personality and provides a frame of reference for our approach to life. Some see things in color; others consider the world a dark place. Those who find shadows everywhere use amulets and other defense paraphernalia against the corrosive impact of the evil eye. It is, however, better to have a positive attitude in life and face the world with optimism, courage and determination. In the long run, the talismans do not work.

Rifat Sonsino

March, 2011