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Sunday, September 20, 2009


This is my tenth year at Boston College (BC). When I started to teach in the Theology Department, I was given just one course. Within a year, however, I was already teaching two courses per week, both during the Fall and Spring semesters, one on Bible and the other on Jewish Thought. Even after my retirement from the congregational rabbinate in 2003, I kept my position at BC, and love it.

Boston College is a Jesuit school, and well-known throughout the country. The faculty of the Theology Department is top-notch and highly liberal. There are only two Rabbis on our faculty: Ruth Langer and me. She is full-time; I am only part-time. When, a few years ago, I was asked to teach an Introduction to the Old Testament, they re-named it, “An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” in deference to my being an ordained Rabbi. I appreciated that gesture.

BC attracts students not only from the greater Boston area but from many quarters of the world. Most of my students come from staunch Catholic homes; others are only culturally Christian. I have also had a few Jewish students, but most of them have not done well in my classes; they were surprised to find out that what they knew about their religion was not only minimal but mostly wrong.

For many of my students, whether local or foreign, studying with a Rabbi is a new experience. I am usually addressed as “Professor” or “Rabbi.” But a couple of times, by sheer custom, I was also called, “Father.” Then we all laughed a bit!

Some students, not having dealt with a Rabbi before, are puzzled about what to say in my presence. Last year, a foreign student from Australia, asked me whether it was acceptable to mention Jesus to a Jewish Clergy. The question surprised me. I guess in the back of this student’s mind, it was not appropriate to cite Jesus in a prayer, so as not offend his/her religious sensitivities. But we were in class. I quickly answered, “If the discussion requires, there is nothing wrong with mentioning Jesus to a Rabbi. After all, Jesus was a Jew who lived like a Jew and died like a Jew. We are not praying in class, so it is perfectly OK to deal with his life and message.”

One of the great difficulties my students have is how to deal with Jewish diversity in thought and practice. Coming from the Catholic perspective, where the Pope is considered to have the last word on religious matters, they find it very hard to accept there are so many Jewish opinions on almost every topic, be it God, Revelation, the Bible, life after death etc. I tell my students that there has never been a time in Jewish history when Jews did not disagree with one another, yet we have remained one people and shared the same fate. Little do my students know that there is also a great diversity among Christians, even among Catholics of different bent, as witnessed by the academic discourse that is prevalent at BC and other Catholic institutions of higher learning.

What I have found appalling is how little Christians know about Judaism, on which their faith is based, and how ignorant- I would even say, uninterested- many Jews are about fundamental Christian beliefs and practices. Yet, in the USA and other parts of the world, we live side by side, and rarely do we attempt to find out what our neighbors hold sacred. I think this should be remedied, and more comparative religion courses ought to be made available for peoples of all ages. Some of us are doing our share, but it is still a drop in the bucket.

Rifat Sonsino, Rabbi, Ph.D.
Sept. 21, 2009

Monday, September 7, 2009


Over the last seven decades, I have managed to learn a number of languages- none of them perfect. Growing in Istanbul, Turkey, we already started with a few: at home we spoke Ladino, which is a Jewish-Spanish dialect spoken by Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Over the years, Ladino welcomed words from other languages, such as Hebrew, Italian, Greek, or Turkish. It is now written in Latin characters, but in the past it was written in Soletreo, a Rashi-type script. My father knew how to read Soletreo. Most of my generation cannot. Though our home language was Ladino, we spoke Turkish in the schools and in the streets.

For my first grade my parents sent me to the local Greek elementary school (in the Asian side of Istanbul) where most classes were taught in Greek. For the second grade I went to the community Turkish school, and from the third grade on, I attended the Jewish High School in the European section of Istanbul. (The school covered all grades from one to twelve).

The school curriculum included a number of languages: we began with Hebrew in the 2nd grade (?), French in the 3rd, and English was added to the 9th. While attending Law School in Istanbul, I took private lessons in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Italian. In Paris, France, where I spent a semester at the Institut International d'Etudes Hebraiques (first half of 1961), my French improved considerably to the point that I could take my exams in French.

When I enrolled in the rabbinic program of the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati (Sept. 1961), English became my primary language. From then on, I wrote to my parents and my brother in Istanbul only in English. At the seminary, in addition to studying Hebrew intensively, I also learned Aramaic, the language of some of the biblical texts and the Talmud.

Following ordination in 1966 I left Cincinnati for Buenos Aires, Argentina to become a congregational rabbi, and there I had to learn modern Spanish, really Argentinean, which was an easy jump from Ladino. I also took private lessons in German in order to understand what the Orthodox Rabbis were speaking in Yiddish behind my back. They did not approve of Reform Judaism, and were trying to impede my work there. (I didn’t want to study Yiddish, but I understood it).

In 1969, I came back to the States, and enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of Bible and ancient Near Eastern Literature. As part of my studies I had to take all the Akkadian dialects (Mari, Alalakh, Nuzi etc), but also Ugaritic, Arabic, and Sumerian. I never learned Egyptian.

There are many advantages to studying different idioms: You acquire a large vocabulary. You become aware that certain ideas or concepts can be fully expressed only by a particular language (e.g., “Derekh Eretz,” “Joie de Vivre”, Sitz im Leben,” “Spreadsheet”). You also develop a love for the culture of that language. Furthermore, it is much easier to learn a new language when you have studied a few others of the same family. I never studied Portuguese or Catalan, but, with my Spanish, I can understand most of it.

In spite of this wide exposure to so many languages, at times, I wish I could master just one well.

Rifat Sonsino
Sept. 8, 2009