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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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Recently, the Boston media announced that it was a citizen’s tip that led to the arrest of a sports utility driver who killed a graduate student in a hit-and-run accident about three months ago. The victim’s brother said,” I am happy about the arrest. It will not bring my brother back but at least it will help us reach some closure.” My question is this: can the arrest of the culprit really bring “closure” to the family at all?

In psychological sense, the term “closure” has a long history, and comes from the Gestalt school in Germany which was concerned with the organization of mental processes. It was actually Max Wertheimer who, in 1923, coined the term, and now is part of our ordinary language.

I do not really understand the concept of “closure,” for it implies that one can simply whitewash memories of a sad event. I don’t think that is possible. We can understand and often accept the death of a person who lived a long and fulfilling life, but there is an element of unfairness when we lose someone in a tragic way. The more horrific the event, the deeper our anger and grief. I don’t think parents can ever get over their pain when they bury a child; this becomes even worse when it happens as a result of a senseless killing. There was an outrage in Israel, mid-February, when the newly appointed Jordanian minister of Justice, Hussein Mjali, called for the release from an Israeli prison of Ahmed Dakamseh, a Jordanian soldier, who had murdered seven Israeli school girls and injured six others near the Israeli-Jordanian border in 1997. I can empathize with the anger of the Israeli citizens over this insensitive request.

Total closure, I maintain, does not exist. The Talmud says, “only after twelve months does one begin to forget the dead (Ber. 58b). The impact of the event, however, stays with us for many years to come. Does that mean that we cannot go on living? Yes, we can and often do, and with progressively diminished pain and anguish in our hearts. If we are fortunate, with time, we can experience the softening of the edges of our grief, slowly and haltingly. No, there is no such thing as closure. There is only the dulling of the pain, and most of us go on living because we have fewer choices. Fortunate are those sufferers who have the support of family and friends who can empathize with them during their ordeal, and help them move forward through the path of life.

May God spare us of these kinds of pain, and give us the strength to help those who are going through the valley of the shadow.

Rifat Sonsino
Feb. 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


I rely on people’s words, and expect that they will be fulfilled on time. Thus, for instance, I don’t like it when someone shows up late at a meeting, or sends a letter (or email) way after its due date-- unless, of course there is a good excuse.

I believe that, in the great scheme of things, we live in an orderly world. Seasons come after one another, just as day follows night. We could not function if we were left guessing all the time. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that God “brings everything to pass precisely at is time” (beito, 3: 11), and the Book of Proverbs praises the “word rightly timed” (davar beito, 15: 23). Timeliness was also stressed by the Rabbis. One sage taught, “If a fig is plucked at the proper time, it is good for the fig and good for the tree” (Gen. R. 62.2). This kind of world is dependable and reassuring.

I am an organized person who plans things ahead. Rarely do I leave things to the last moment. I respect people’s time and word, and expect the same from the others. When I was a congregational Rabbi, my weekend talks were often prepared early on Mondays or Tuesdays, and the outline of my High Holiday sermons was penciled by June or July, even though the festival would be celebrated around Sept/October. In synagogue life I could never predict what would happen towards the end of the week: a funeral, an unexpected meeting, an illness. So, I would leave myself plenty of time for surprises and unplanned events. I also conducted religious services on time, began meetings promptly, and taught classes as scheduled. Even now, at the University I expect my students to turn in their assignments as indicated in my syllabus.

Regrettably, many people I know have a hard time managing their time well, and function with the mentality of “mañana” (Spanish, for tomorrow). They are perennially late, or promise and do not fulfill, or leave things to the last moment. Their thinking is, if I can do it tomorrow, what bother today? I have a hard time dealing with this type of behavior.

I have been accused of having an A-type personality. I gladly accept this accusation, but believe it is better this way than interacting with unreliable people and their vague promises. Being “on time” is simply a matter of courtesy and respect for others. In the “Merry Wives of Windsor,” Shakespeare wrote, with a bit of exaggeration, “Better three hours too soon than a minute late”. Similarly, The French King Louis XVIII is reported to have said, “L’exactitude est la politesse des rois” (“Punctuality is the politeness of kings”), a trait we should all try to emulate. I believe things ought to be done, as the Good Book says, “beito, “in its time.” And not leave people constantly wondering if they will ever happen or not.

Rifat Sonsino

Feb. 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962) makes an interesting observation: “In the Bible, the key word for man’s response to God is ‘hearing,’ rather than ‘seeing’” (Vol. 2, p. 1). The reason for this may be because, according to biblical teaching, humans “cannot see My face” (Ex. 33: 20), even though a few have done it without providing a clear description of the divine (e.g., Ex. 24: 11; Isa. 6:1). The watchword of the Jewish faith is: “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal (YHWH) is our God, the Eternal is unique” (Deut. 6: 4).
The term ozen is used in the Bible to identify the human “ear” as part of the human body. It is the organ for hearing (Deut. 29:3). Just as humans have oznayim (dual of ozen), “ears,” (e.g. Gen. 20:8; 35:4), so do animals (e.g. Am. 3:12; Prov. 26:17). Figuratively speaking, God, too, has “ears” (Num. 11:18:“ozne YHWH” lit. “the ears of the Eternal”), for, as the psalmist points out, “Shall He who implants the ear not hear?” (Ps. 94: 9). On the other hand, idols, which do have ears, cannot hear and pay attention (Ps. 115: 5).
One can have “heavy ears” (Isa. 6: 10), refusing to hear God’s message or be deaf: “deaf, though it has ears” (oznayim lamo”) (Isa. 43: 8).
To “incline the ear” means to pay attention (Ps. 45:11; Jer. 7: 24). “Stopping the ear” refers to willful ignorance (Pr. 21: 13). An “uncircumcised ear” implies disobedience (Jer. 5:21). To “uncover the ear” has to do with showing respect for the other (I Sam. 20: 2) or to “disclose” the truth (Ruth 4: 4). To “pierce” someone’s ear is symbolic of servitude (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15: 17). For God to give ear (ha-azina) means to listen to prayers (Ps. 55:1; 80:2). Even nature is called upon to give ear (ha-azinu) as witnesses to one’s pronouncements (Deut. 32:1; cf. Isa. 1: 2).
One can speculate that one of the main reasons why the Bible speaks so much about “hearing” is because most biblical Israelites had an “oral” culture and did not know how to read and write; they got their information by listening to oracles, prophetic speeches or priestly instructions (“Torah”). One scholar claims that “Ancient Israel before the seventh century BCE was largely non-literate” (Schniedewind). Literacy was most likely limited to those in the higher echelons of society, such as priests, scribes and wisdom teachers. The earliest known piece of writing in ancient Israel (in Hebrew/Canaanite) are the Gezer Calendar and the four ostraca found at Tel Arad (both from the 10th cent. BCE). Some of the oldest examples of biblical literature include “The Book of Yashar” (Jos. 10: 12-13), “The Song of Moses” (Ex. 15) and “The Song of Deborah” (Judg. 5). The Bible makes reference to written documents too: For example, “a bill of divorce” (sefer keritut) (Deut. 24: 1) and a scroll written by Barukh, Jeremiah’s secretary (Jer. 36: 4); it also requires that kings read the Torah (Deut. 17: 19), and mentions king Hezekiah reading documents (“sefarim,” II K. 19: 14)—all activities reflecting the actions of the intellectuals in society--, but it never refers to a “school” or to ordinary people reading or writing. The level of literacy increased as times went by. Already, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that during the First Revolt against the Romans, the rebels in Jerusalem “carried the fire to the place where the archives were deposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors in order to dissolve their obligations to pay their debts” (Jewish War 2. 247).
Rifat Sonsino

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


In the Hebrew Bible, the ordinary word for a human foot is regel. The plural is the dual form, raglayim. The word raglim (plural of ragli) means “foot soldiers” (cf. Jer. 12: 5), and the word regalim simply refers to the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Weeks (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukot).
When Abraham welcomed the three guests in Mamre (without knowing they were divine beings), he told them to “bathe your feet (rahatzu et raglekhem) and recline under the tree” (Gen. 18: 4). Human toes are called etzbaot raglayim (lit. fingers of the feet; cf. II Sam. 21: 20). Animals too have raglayim: At the end of the forty days of the Deluge, Noah let out a dove, but it “could not find a resting place for its foot” (l’kaf ragla) ( Gen. 8: 9).
Raglayim is also used metaphorically. Tables, for example, have “feet.” After the Exodus, God told Moses to ask the Israelites to set up a portable sanctuary, the Tabernacle, and, among other items, to build in it a table of acacia wood with four rings attached “to the four corners at its four legs” (arba’ raglav) (Ex. 25: 26). Even God has “feet.” When Moses and his entourage went up to Mt. Sinai, one biblical myth states, “they saw the God of Israel; under His feet (raglav) there was like the pavement of sapphire” (Ex. 24: 10; cf. Ps. 18: 10). During the medieval times, many philosophers rejected the idea of divine corporeality. Maimonides agreed with Onkelos (2nd cent. CE), the author of the Aramaic translation of the Bible, who rendered the 3rd pers. suffix as “its” (i.e., “its feet”), referring thus to God’s throne, and not to God’s feet.” Similarly, he adds, “God’s feet” in Zech 14: 4 refers to causation, namely, to “the wonders that will then become manifest at that place” (Guide, #28).
The psalmist spoke of the “foot (regel) of arrogance” (Ps. 36: 11) and of God laying the world under “the feet” (raglav) of human beings (Ps. 8:7), as symbol of domination. In the rabbinic period students “sat before the sages,” as a sign of respect. (See, Ethics of the Fathers, chap. 5: 15; Cf. Luke 10: 39 [“Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet”]; Acts 22: 3; Sitting “at the feet of teachers” is also mentioned in the Zohar 1/4a; 2/55b).
At times, “feet” refers, euphemistically, to “genitalia.” During the period of the Judges, the courtiers of the king Eglon of Moab thought that the king was “relieving himself (mesih et raglav, Judg. 3: 24) in the cool chamber,” when in reality he had already been killed by Ehud, the Benjaminite. (The verb mesih, from the root suh, literally means, to anoint oneself after washing). During the monarchy, an Assyrian representative insulted the Judean soldiers by saying that they “drink their urine” (me raglehem; literally, the water of their feet (II K. 18: 27). At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, among the curses listed as punishment for not observing the commandments, we are told that during a foreign invasion, each woman shall eat “the afterbirth that issues from between her legs” (miben ragleha)” (Deut. 28: 57). The prophet Ezekiel accuses the Judeans of copying the idolatrous ways of the gentiles by saying, you “spread your legs (raglayih) to every passerby, and you multiplied your harlotries” (Ezek. 16: 25).
Most likely this is also the kind of euphemism used in the following texts: In the book of Ruth, we are told that when Ruth met Boaz, her future husband, in the threshing floor, she “uncovered his feet (vategal margelotav) and lay down” (Ruth 3: 7). While some scholars claim that she slept chastely, others more convincingly argue that she actually had sex with him. Similarly, during the period of the Judges, when Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, drove a tent peg through the skull of Sisera, the Canaanite general, the poet says, “between her feet (ben ragleha) he sank” (Judg. 5: 27). Some scholars think the general died after she slept with him. More problematic is the case of the circumcision of Moses’ son. In an obscure passage, we are told that on the way down to Egypt, God tried to kill “him” (Moses? or, Gershom, his son?). So, “Zipporah [Moses’ wife] took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his (whose?) leg (raglav)with it” (Ex. 4: 25). One biblical scholar maintains that Zipporah took the bloody piece of skin that she had removed from her son’s penis and touched Moses’ “feet” (that is, Moses’ penis) in order to save her husband’s life by “tricking the homicidal deity into thinking that Moses himself had just been circumcised” (M. Coogan).
The term “feet” may have also been euphemistically used to refer to the private parts of angelic divine beings. In his famous vision, the prophet Isaiah relates that he had seen seraphim (winged divine beings) attending God in the Jerusalem Temple. Each seraf, he added, had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his “legs” (raglav), and with two he would fly” (Isa. 6: 2). Were these seraphim covering their own genitals? G. B. Gray says, yes: “their feet, i.e., their nakedness.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible (2001) agrees: “Feet, genitals.”
Thus, a simple word, meaning “foot” in the Bible, may, by extension, refer to animals, objects, and even to God.
Rifat Sonsino