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Monday, August 24, 2009


It is well known that most Orthodox Jews do not have high regard for Reform Jews. They consider the Reformers as assimilationists and even "lesser Jews" because of the Reformers' alleged lack of religious observance and their "devious" theological views. I grew up Orthodox in Istanbul, Turkey in the early 40's. The then Chief Rabbi, David Asseo (z'l), was formerly my Hebrew teacher in the Jewish High School . He knew me well. Yet, when, much later, I visited him, along with other Reform Rabbis of the USA, he excoriated me in front of all of them for "leaving the only true religious path."

This does not have to be the pattern of relationship between Orthodox and Reform Jews today. It is possible to transcend the feeling of animosity between them if there is goodwill and personal rapport between us. My friendship with the present Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Isaac Haleva, is a good example.

Isaac and I were part of Mahazike Hatorah ("Supporters of Torah"), a group of young Turkish Jews who were interested in synagogue life. We attended weekly Judaica classes taught by its director, Mr. Nisim Behar, who later on was ordained Rabbi in the State of Israel. Isaac was just a few years younger than me, but we were both part of the same Havurah, and remained personal friends our entire life.

This past summer, I went to Turkey for my 50th Law School reunion, and on the spur of the moment decided to see my childhood friend, Isaac. I called up the Chief Rabbinate and asked for a few minutes with the Chief Rabbi. I was told that without a prior appointment it was impossible to have an audience with him. I told his secretary, "Just tell him Rifat Sonsino is in town and wants to give him a hug. "Oh, no," said his secretary, "you cannot hug the Chief Rabbi." "Well," I said," just tell him Rifat Sonsino wants to see you." He apparently did, because within a few seconds, Isaac came on the phone and told me to come right over.

Ines, my wife, and I then drove to the Chief Rabbinate located in the Galata section of Istanbul, and proceeded to enter the building. I think it is easier to enter Fort Knox than to go into the Hahambasilik (Chief Rabbinate, in Turkish). There is so much security! Once inside, we walked up a flight of stairs, and came to the office of the Chief Rabbi. The secretary ushered us in, and Isaac, who was meeting with two diplomats, came rushing out to a friendly embrace. I had not seen him in a few years. He looked well, all dressed up in an embroidered blue gown, the traditional garb of the Turkish Chief Rabbi. We spent a few minuted together, reminisced a bit, and I left him with a big hug.

I am certain religious divides can be overcome if there is mutual trust and respect. I don't expect Orthodox Jews to approve of my theological stand. They cannot: they believe in verbal divine revelation at Mt. Sinai. I maintain that the Torah is a human document that evolved over the last 3000 plus years. Orthodox Jews, by definition, are bound by Jewish Law. For me, Jewish practice is part of the Jewish tradition that has, as Mordecai Kaplan would say, "a vote not a veto" on my religious life. What I expect is this: mutual respect, and a recognition that no one has the ultimate answer to our existential questions. We are all seekers of truth. My friendship with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey is a good example of this possibility.

Rifat Sonsino
Aug. 24, 2009


  1. Rifat - In the second paragraph, did you accidentally omit "not" as the third word?


  2. Thanks, Don. I already corrected the text.