Friday, January 16, 2015

Rabbi Sonsino: "Religious" vs. "Observant"

Rabbi Sonsino
Many people say “I am not religious” when they actually mean, “I am not observant.” What is the difference between the two?

The way I see it, “religious” refers to beliefs and values, whereas “observant” involves ritual practices and carrying out daily Mitzvot (“commandments”). Most people who are religious are also observant, but there are many, like me, a liberal rabbi of non-theistic persuasion, a religious naturalist by self-definition, who is not as observant as many Orthodox Jews. It is said that the famous Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was “a non-observant Jew” (Merriam-Webster).

The difference between “religious” and “observant” is relatively new. Traditional sources do not seem to be aware of any tension between them.

The Bible often refers to individuals who “fear God/the Lord.” This “fear” is more than reverence; God was then viewed as a mysterium tremendum who could reveal His awesome power and even punish people who strayed from the expected path. Thus, for example, Abraham “feared God” (y’re Elohim) (Gen. 22: 12); so did the midwives in the story of the Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 1: 21). The prophet Malachi speaks of those who “feared the Lord” (yire Adonay). In the Apocrypha, Susanna “feared the Lord” (1:2). No distinction is made between “fear God” and “fear the Lord.” Often, “fear of God/theLord” is used in warning Israelites against idolatry (e.g., Ex. 20: 17), but also as a means to encourage them to “walk in God’s ways” (Deut. 10:12-13), namely, to put into practice the many biblical teachings. Even though we do not know how “observant” biblical Jews were, and there are many indications that they did not always follow the teachings of their prophets and leaders, in the literature itself, “fear God” and fear the Lord” refer to the power of the divine but also to religious beliefs, personal piety and traditional practices.

In the late biblical period and in the early Persian times, the Hebrew term dat appears in classical texts. This word often refers to laws, customs and royal decrees. For example, in the book of Esther, the term dat often means the law of the king (Est. 4: 16; 11, 16) and is only secondarily applied to religion and religious practices. Similarly, the expression dat Moshe means both “Mosaic ritual law” as well as “Jewish faith.” (In Deut. 33:2, the term dat is corrupt). Religion and observance are here closely related.

In the modern period, one who is pious as well as religiously observant is called a dati. However, there is no modern Hebrew term for someone who is religious but not observant. In Jewish life today there are many who fall in this category and are often  referred to as “cultural Jews.” It needs to be stressed that devout Orthodox Jews are not the only ones who are religious as well as observant. Many liberal Jews are also practicing Jews in line with their Reform Jewish tradition/s.

What am I? I am not a dati, as a Hasidic rebbe, yet, as a Reform Rabbi, I am seriously observant, in my own way, based on the critical study of tradition and my own theological outlook. Someone suggested the Hebrew term dati reformi, namely, observant a la Reform Judaism.

Most Jewish people I know are religious, i.e., they hold values and beliefs, theistic or not, that are derived from the Jewish tradition and nurtured by our own culture. Our task is to encourage them to set up a discipline of religious practices that are compatible with their personal views, thus ensuring the continuity of our traditions and culture. This job belongs to dedicated parents, insightful teachers, and great role models. Are you one of them?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Jan, 2015

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hanukah Was No Miracle

The traditional explanation of why the festival of Hanukah is celebrated for eight days is based on a Talmudic passage: Oil for one day, miraculously lasted eight. (See below). However, this is a late development. Early texts do not mention this so-called miracle. It is time we give up this irrational explanation and find a better one. And that historical explanation does exist.

The history behind Hanukah is, briefly, this: In the second cent. BCE, Antiochus IV, the Syrian king, set out to conquer Egypt. While he was fighting there, Jason, who was deposed from his position as the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem, left the Ammonites with whom he had taken refuge, and attacked Menelaus, his brother in Jerusalem, in order to regain the High Priesthood. A civil war broke out between the two, and Jason successfully entered Jerusalem. King Antiochus was furious. On his way back from Egypt, the king attacked Jerusalem, imposed restrictions on Judea, and eventually desecrated the Temple. In reaction, a priest by the name of Mattathias, and his sons (called the Maccabees), fought against the Syrians, and were able to clean and rededicate the temple of Jerusalem to the worship of one God in the year 165 BCE. This rededication is called Hanukah (“dedication” in Hebrew). 

The First Book of Maccabees (c.mid-2nd cent. BCE), states that Hanukah ought to be celebrated for eight days but does not indicate the reason for it (see, 4:59). It is in the Second Book of Maccabees (c.125 BCE) that we find a rational explanation: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev.  And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths [Sukkot], remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. (10: 6). So, Hanukah was really like a delayed Sukkot that lasts seven days plus Atzeret, a one day festival (See, Lev. 23: 33-36; cf. v.39).

The first reference to the lights of Hanukah appears in the writings of Josephus (1sr cent. CE) who calls the festival “Lights” by saying: I suppose the reason was this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us and that hence the name given to that festival. (Antiquities, 7:7). 

In it only in the Talmud, which was edited in the 5-6th centuries CE in Babylonia that the so-called “miracle” makes its appearance (under Persian influence?): What is [the reason of] Hanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislew [commence] the days of Hanukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.  For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty (i.e. the Maccabees) prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (BT Shab. 21b, Soncino). 

Later on a midrashic text (c. 9th cent.) provides another explanation: When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they entered the temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on these spears and kindled them. (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 5). 

It is clear that the explanation of why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days changed over the years, some legendary, and some more historical. The festival today proclaims many important values, such as courage, dedication, thanksgiving, and, above all, the right to be different. These are the values we need to stress, and not the miracle of oil which is not rational, historical or even believable in our time.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Lies My Religious School Teacher Told Me

Rabbi Sonsino
In the mid 70s, a Canadian-Jewish movie called “The Lies my Father Told Me” became popular. It dealt with the relationship between a kid and his father and grandfather at the turn of the century and about what he learned from them-most of them not true.

Inspired by this movie, I submit that we are still teaching a bunch of lies to our children and students. Here are three examples:

1.    How did the Israelites get out of Egypt?

According to an old Jewish joke, a youngster tells his mother that after the Israelites walked safely through the Red Sea on pontoon bridges, the Egyptians followed, and Moses used his cell phone to radio for air cover! His mother asked: “Now, did your teacher really teach you that? “No,” said the kid, “but if I were to tell you the way he said it, you would never believe it!”

Biblical scholars tell us that the Israelites did not cross the “Red” Sea but, perhaps, the “Reed (suf in Hebrew) Sea.” Besides, we are told that the family of Jacob came down to Egypt with 70 people (Deut. 10:22), and after 430 (some say 400) years of captivity (Ex. 12: 40) the Israelites left with 600,000 men plus women, children and others who joined them (about 2 million) (Ex. 12: 37). This is impossible! Some critics today argue that not all the Israelites went down and left Egypt, maybe the Levites were the only ones. It appears that, years after, as the Israelites remembered the freedom they gained when some of their ancestors departed from Egypt, the whole “story” of their liberation was projected back into ancient times, and greatly exaggerated.

2.    Is the Story of Noah historical?

Very often the story of Noah, with all the animals saved on a single ship, is taught as if it were historically accurate. In reality, the Bible contains two different (but parallel and integrated) Noah stories. Besides, as most scholars recognize, the legend of Noah was taken into the Bible from a popular ancient Near Eastern literary source, where the hero is called “Gilgamesh” in Akkadian or “Ziusudra” in Sumerian. At most, it may have been based on a local flood that was magnified many times over.

3.    Hanukah “the miracle of oil.” Really?

Most school texts state that the reason why Hanukah lasts eight days is because of the so-called “miracle of oil” (found in the Talmud. Shab. 21b) when the oil that was sufficient to light the Hanukah candles only one night miraculously lasted eight days. In reality, ancient Jewish texts are not unanimous on why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days. One rabbinic source states that “upon entering the Temple, they (Maccabees) found there eight rods of iron which they grooved out and then kindled wicks in the oil which they poured into the grooves” (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 1). On the other hand, the Second Book of Maccabees (10: 6-8) says, more plausibly perhaps, that Hanukah “was celebrated for eight days…in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles” (that is, seven days of Sukot plus Atzeret on the 8th; see Lev. 23: 33-36).  Why then do we need to center the holiday on an unbelievable “miracle” when there are other, more realistic, interpretations?

Lessons to be learned:

a.    The fact that a story is popular does not mean it is historically correct.
b.    Texts that mention miracles often stress certain religious values, and are not concerned with historical truth. In the examples cited above, the Exodus teaches us, among others, about the importance of freedom; Noah reminds us that life is precious and, like Noah, we too must save lives whenever possible; and Hanukkah teaches us the values of Jewish pride and loyalty.
c.     We should not teach anything that will need to be unlearned later on. When I discovered the historical background of the stories mentioned above, I felt as if my religious foundation was cracking up, and I lost all trust in my religious school teachers.
d.    Where can you find reliable information? Not in the daily press or in popular books but only in serious studies and encyclopedias that are written from an historical/critical point of view.

We need to teach our children and students self-reliance through critical thinking and not dependence on “bubbe meises” (i.e., Yiddish for old wives’ tales!!!).

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Nov. 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Prayer Can and Cannot Do

Rabbi Sonsino
Many people turn away from prayer because they realize that it can rarely produce concrete results. Therefore, it is important to understand what prayer can do and what it cannot accomplish. For me, this is the scope of prayer:

1.    One should not pray for the impossible. Nature will not respond just because we pray with reverence. Our rabbinic sages already knew that “to cry over the past is to utter a vain prayer” (Ber. 9: 3). They even give a few examples: for instance, a person whose wife is pregnant should not say, “May it be Your will that my wife should have a boy” (idem). Such a prayer is “vain,” they add, because the sex of the child was already determined at the time of conception, and no prayer, however sincere and heartfelt, will change it. Similarly, they taught that if a person, coming home from a journey, hears cries of distress in his town, he should not say, “(God) grant that this not be in my house,” for this, too, is a vain prayer (idem), here for two reasons: a) if the problem is in his house, it is too late for this type of prayer; b) then, the prayer implies that the distress should be in someone else’s house; and that is unethical.  

2.    Prayer alone does not modify the course of nature. It can, however, affect the worshiping individuals. It can give them a new insight; it can deepen their understanding of how the world operates; and both can prepare them to face the world with courage and clarity of mind.

3.    We often worry about the acceptance of our prayers when we should be more concerned about our ability the express them with a certain sense of realism. Mordecai Kaplan once wrote: “Religious prayer is the utterance of those thoughts that imply either the actual awareness of God, or the desire to attain such awareness” (The Meaning of God, 1962, 33). The key word here is “utterance.” High expectations can lead to disappointment. By expressing our hopes and aspirations properly and within reason, we can take the first step towards their realization. Every prayer becomes a program of action, motivating us to work towards its fulfillment.

4.    We must remember that the main goal of public worship is to strengthen the bonds that unite the community engaged in prayer. When we get together for worship, even though some of us may not be in the mood, we are still given the opportunity to identify with the hopes, aspirations and goals of the congregation. By joining the worshiping community, we strengthen the group as we strengthen ourselves.

5.    We have come a long way from the ancient days when worship in the ancient Near East meant taking care of the individual needs of the gods. The challenge today is not only to ground the prayers in an acceptable rationale but also to formulate them in such an equivocal language that they will reflect the different theologies of the praying individuals, and thus unite us in our endeavors to create a society in which everyone has the maximum opportunity for self-realization. Regrettably, we are not there yet.

Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2014

PS. For more and other details on prayer, see my 6 Jewish Spiritual Paths (Woodstock, VM: Jewish Lights), 2002, 72-92.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Rabbi Sonsino: "Against Extremism; Choosing the Middle Road"

Rabbi Sonsino
In confronting daily struggles, some people remain apathetic and ignore them, hoping the problems will go away; others, confront the issues with full force, at times, even acting blindly and with anger; however, the best way is to take the middle road and resolve them by learning how to live with the ambiguities of life.

Thus, for example, the prophet Ezekiel criticizes those people “who have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not” (12: 2). Biblical law decries this uncaring attitude and, in fact, states, “You shall not stand (idly) by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19: 16; cf. Rashi based on the Sifra).

At the other extreme, the zealot is characterized in the biblical tradition by the hot-blooded Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, who attacked and killed a non-Jewish woman and her Jewish husband in their tent, presumably because of some idolatrous practice, thus putting an end to a plague. For this act, Phineas received God’s “pact of friendship” (beriti shalom) as well as “a pact of priesthood” (berit kehunat olam) for all time (Num. 25:12). Later rabbinic tradition shows a great deal of ambivalence regarding Phineas, some considering him a hero, while others view him as  a dangerous fanatic who needs to be contained (See, for ex., “Coping with Zeal,” N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, 328.ff). I still remember Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention of 1964 when he said: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I disagree: extremism is always a vice.

Between these two poles, the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, suggests a third option. He calls it “the middle road,” or “the happy medium” (midah benonit). He says this is the most desirable path, as it requires the individual “to be angry only for a grave cause that rightly calls for indignation, so that the like shall not be done again” (Mishneh Torah, Knowledge: 1: 4).

I admit that the “middle road” is not an easy path, because it requires the individual to learn how to live with lack of precision and within the shades of gray. Some people simply cannot handle it. They want clear and cut answers. It is “yes” or “no.” Life, however, is never “black and white.”  It is not always an uphill road. It meanders; there are low points followed by great achievements. As we become more mature, we all need to learn how to live with uncertainties, with sudden deviations, with momentary greatness, with long range goals and broad perspectives, so that when we look back, we can say, “Not bad; I did all right.”

Apathy is inhuman. Extremism is easy but dangerous; it is even arrogant. The middle road, though far from being smooth, is wholesome. Thus, Maimonides suggests that those who follow it should not be “tight-fisted nor a spendthrift…neither frivolous and given to jesting, not mournful and melancholy” (idem). He ends by saying that those who follow the “middle road” are termed “wise.”

Regrettably in our time, especially in the political scene, many people choose an extreme path. They view themselves as saints and consider others as villains. It is regrettable that the social and political agendas of many societies have now been high jacked by narrow-minded fanatics. Many countries in the world (e.g. the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe) are suffering because of this malaise. This is not helpful. It is simply wrong.

So, don’t be an apathetic person, ignoring what is going on around you. On the other hand, stay away from intolerance, because it only leads to mental blindness. The middle road is the wholesome road.

Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rabbi Sonsino: There Is No Perfection

Rabbi Sonsino
Recently I learned that Perfection Valley is a fictional place in Nevada where the ex-silver mining town of Perfection was located. It served as the primary setting for the 1990 film called Tremors. It does not exist—just as perfection itself. Hebrew does not have a good word for perfection. The closest one, shlemut, means “wholeness.”

I have reached a point in my life where I no longer expect or seek perfection in anything or anyone. Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish/Catalan painter once said: “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it.” Human beings, being fallible, make mistakes, either small or big, and need to learn how to deal with their consequences. I only try to do better, and hope that my errors are rather benign or correctable.

Everything we do and have in life ends up being short of the ideal. Examples:

1. There is no perfect joy. It is always tinged with some shade of darkness. During the Jewish wedding ceremony, it is customary to break a glass. Rabbinic sources provide various interpretations for this act. According to one, this is a reminder that even at the height of our happiness we need to remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE and then in 70 CE. For me, it means that the bride and groom must acknowledge that they will experience moments of joy as well as times of sorrow in their lives. However, the love they have for each other will enable them to meet the future challenges together with optimism and hopefully with success.

2. There is no perfect friend or spouse. What we need in life is not a perfect partner, but a good one; one who has a kind heart and an empathetic soul. One cannot live with someone who claims to be beyond reproach. This would drive you crazy, because you would always feel that you cannot meet that person’s expectations. And that is not a good recipe for friendship. Better accept each other for who you are, and complement each other lovingly.

3. There is no perfect job. I don’t know of anyone who is totally happy with his/her work. Every profession has its highs and lows. We frequently overlook the difficulties in our work because we derive so many other benefits by doing what we love best.

The realization that there is no such a thing as perfection does not mean that we should lower our standards. That is simple laziness and would represent a personal let down. We should acknowledge our limitations, do our best, and make the necessary corrections as we go along.  And if we do that for ourselves, shouldn’t we also tolerate and, at times, even overlook other people’s imperfections?

According to a rabbinic text, everything that was created at the beginning of time needs “fixing,” such as, “The mustard seed needs to be sweetened, the wheat needs to be ground, the lupine needs to be soaked and man needs to be repaired (tzarikh tikun, i.e. circumcised) (Gen. R. 11: 6). The Hebrew Bible tells us that only God’s deeds are perfect (tamim in Hebrew, meaning, wholesome, pure, complete, perfect; cf. Deut. 32: 4; Ps. 18: 30; 19: 8), whereas human beings are limited creatures who can and should improve themselves. That’s all we need to do.

Rifat Sonsino
Sept. 1, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

CJ Kaplan: What My First-Grade Son Taught Me About Art

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project

After seeing his son’s excitement about Degas, Picasso, and Warhol—CJ Kaplan realizes that teaching is an art form.

My son Eric is a little obsessed. As the youngest of three, he is in a constant struggle to keep pace with his older brother and sister. His efforts have made him hyper-competitive, especially in sports. Where my daughter Samantha considers all athletic endeavors (and I’m quoting here) “stupid” and my son Alex relishes the game more than the result, Eric treats even his Boys U8 soccer matches as a life or death proposition.

Part of this is a consequence of Eric being four years younger than Alex and always having to “play up” and prove himself in any contest involving Alex’s friends. It’s made him a hell of an athlete and a fearless competitor, but it’s also made him place too much weight on the outcome of something as inconsequential as a two-on-two game of hoops in the driveway.

Cohabiting alongside the fierce warrior persona within this little boy there is also a very sensitive soul. Eric has a small army of stuffed animals that he anthropomorphizes through a series of imagined personalities, voices and backstories. (I have a lot to do with the last of these traits since I’ve spent nearly every long car ride of Eric’s childhood making up stories about my kids’ stuffed animals to pass the time. To date, Fuzzy, Foof-Foof and Ring Dog have individually or collectively won the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Series of Poker and an episode of Jeopardy!) Because his stuffed animals have inherited these very human characteristics, Eric has also given them feelings. He worries that they miss him while he’s at school and that they might be sad or lonely while he’s away. Often, my wife Lisa or I will place a few chosen dogs and bears in the window next to our front door so that they appear to be waiting for him when he gets home. My son deserves a hero’s welcome at the end of the day.


Recently, Eric completed his year in first grade in such spectacular fashion that I feel compelled to share it with anyone who will listen. His teachers, Gabrielle Gelinas and Kristen Willand, delved into Eric’s sensitive side and made him care passionately about something other than sports.

For the past several months, Eric’s class has been studying influential artists of the past five centuries. They started with Michelangelo and worked their way up through Dale Chihuly. Along the way, they covered such greats as Monet, Degas, O’Keefe, Calder, Picasso, Pollack and Warhol. Pretty heady stuff for a group that considers Sponge Bob Square Pants high culture, no? Yet the whole class was enthralled, embracing and absorbing each successive artist with a zeal usually reserved for a Disney premiere. And nobody in the class was more captivated than my son the sports nut.

The first time we noticed this phenomenon was when we were discussing a dancer we had seen on TV. I remarked offhandedly that this particular dancer was very small in stature.
“You mean like “The Little Dancer?” Eric piped in.

“Uh…” I began slowly, buying time. “Do you mean “Tiny Dancer,” the Elton John song? (Eric has had a full dose of classic rock in his lifetime.)

“No, I mean like “The Little Dancer” by Edgar Degas,” Eric replied, looking at me like I was as dumb as box of rocks.

“Oh,” I answered, doing nothing to change his opinion of me.

After that, I would go to tuck him in at night and he would regale me with what he learned that day about Cubism or Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism. He lectured me on brush strokes and the use of forced perspective and the inspiration one could find in cow skulls. He talked about these things with the same casual confidence he has when discussing the efficacy of the Bruins’ third line in the playoffs.

“How,” I asked Lisa, “are they getting him so excited about art?”

The answer came in two signature events that culminated the school year.

The first was a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Eric’s class and another first grade class that had been studying these artists went into the city to see real art—live and in person. Ms. Gelinas and Ms. Willand had gone to the MFA earlier in the year and researched what was going to be on exhibit in the spring. So when the children burst into the hallowed halls of the gallery, all the pieces that they had loved and admired in their books and slides were on display before them. Lisa was a chaperone on this field trip and she describes the scene as follows:

“Every time they found a piece that they had studied, they jumped and cheered. Honestly, they could not have been more excited if they found Dustin Pedroia in the museum.”

“The Little Dancer” was there and Eric had his picture taken in front of it. We he told me about the experience, I shared his joy.

“Isn’t it amazing that there is artwork so special that it travels around the world so people can see and enjoy it?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said. “There’s only one “Little Dancer” in the world and I got to see it today.”


The second event that made me understand and appreciate how my son had fallen in love with art occurred on one of the last nights of the school year. We parents were invited to “A Night At The Museum” in the elementary school auditorium

As we sat expectantly in the theatre seats, the first graders filed in and took their places on the stage. The teachers welcomed us to the show and then the children took over. What followed was a retrospective of the entire semesters’ study of art. Each artist was given an introduction by the children without notes or cue cards, followed by a slide show, song or skit that represented the artist’s work.

For Calder, they staged a circus complete with a ringmaster, pantomimed strongmen and acrobats walking imaginary tightropes. For Degas, there was a “history of dance” which included The Twist, The Loco-Motion and The Hustle. For Warhol, they sang a song called “Pop Andy” in reference to his pioneering work in Pop Art. (The subversive part of me hoped they would sing “Venus in Furs” from the album The Velvet Underground and Nico, for which Warhol did the famous banana cover art. Alas, there was no mention of Lou Reed or any of the Factory Superstars.)

As the revue played out, it became evident from the still images in the slideshows why the class was so invested in these artists. Ms. Gelinas and Ms. Willand had taken pictures of the children “becoming” each artist they studied.

To understand what it was like for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, they had taped paper to the bottom of their desks and lay on the floor painting upside down. To appreciate the joy and freedom of Pollack, they went outside and splashed paint over a giant canvas (and each other). To mimic Chihuly, the painted the inside of empty plastic water bottles and strung them together in a hanging sculpture.

At a time when interactive has become synonymous with an app or a website, Ms. Gelinas and Ms. Willand made art a living, breathing thing for the children in her class. How could they not help but fall head over heels?

The show was a full hour without interruption and the kids executed it with the precision of a Broadway production. You could see them mouthing each other’s lines as they waited for their cues. Even the dance choreography was flawless.

Afterward, we were invited downstairs to the classrooms to view each child’s own personal “gallery.” When we got there, we discovered that every student had been given a two by six foot section of wall upon which hung their most prized creations from the semester affixed to a giant piece of construction paper. Eric’s “gallery” featured drawings, poetry, sculptures, 3-D art and his reflections on his favorite artists.

I have been fortunate enough to wander through the exhibits at the Louvre and the d’Orsay, but neither could elicit the surge of emotion I felt standing in front of Eric’s collection of work. The entire installment is currently draped across our dining room table while we figure out how to frame or otherwise preserve it.

There is a reason we hold special teachers in our hearts forever. They help us discover something about ourselves that we never would have known otherwise. So, it didn’t surprise me that Eric was ambivalent about the end of the school year.

“I’m happy that school is over for the summer,” he said. “But, I really loved my first grade class.”

Yeah, I thought, so did I.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remarkable People I Have Known: Ina Glasberg of Needham

Rabbi Sonsino
During my congregational rabbinate, I was fortunate to work with dedicated leaders and board members. However, among them Ina Glasberg occupies a very especial place.

Ina was part of the rabbinic search committee of Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA, when I came in 1980. She was a member of the Board of Trustees and then became a vice-president and finally the president of the synagogue. She served with distinction in whatever she undertook as a layperson.

Ina, an eshet hayyil (a “woman of valor”), is married to a wonderful and kind man, Ron. She is a devoted wife, a beloved mother and grandmother. After her presidency, she became a national board member of the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as taking on major roles in many of the social and religious associations of the greater Boston area.

Ina Glasberg
Ina is a presence in our temple. She has functioned in many capacities as a temple leader. She knows how to deal with people with kindness, yet without ignoring the rules and regulations that move the institution.  You cannot get mad at Ina because of the gentle way in which she says things, and because you know she means well and she is right. When Ina chaired a committee, it included more people than necessary, because she wanted to involve temple members in congregational functions as a learning tool.

I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of her wisdom and kindness. In 1991, during her presidency, Ines and I took a three-month Sabbatical in Israel. This was during the Gulf War with Iraq when Saddam Hussein was launching his rockets into Israel. Securely living in Jerusalem, I remember seeing the Scud missiles flying over our heads in the direction of Tel Aviv. Ina was beside herself. She kept calling us making sure we were safe and gently implying that we return. We assured her that we were safe, based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein would not be foolish enough to bomb Jerusalem and accidentally destroy the sacred Muslim shrines.

Presidents and rabbis meet regularly to discuss temple matters and strategies to achieve the goals of the synagogue. It is during these private meetings that Ina could tell me, in a very subtle way, the things that I either overlooked or ignored. She did that out of love and concern for my family and me, and I responded in kind. Ever since, I believe that every Rabbi deserves an Ina, and I was blessed to have her as a dear friend, for which I am eternally grateful.

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Rabbi Emeritus,
Temple Beth Shalom, MA
July 6, 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jai Anguita of Barcelona

Rabbi Sonsino
For the last few years, every summer, my wife, Ines, and I went to Barcelona, Spain, spending from two weeks to a month, in order to help out a small but slowly growing progressive Jewish congregation called Bet Shalom, led by a hardworking leader named Jai [i] Anguita, who is a Jew-by-choice and a lawyer by profession. There are two liberal congregations in Barcelona: Atid and Bet Shalom. Both are affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Jai was a member of Atid but left in order to establish Bet Shalom.
Though I am retired from the congregational rabbinate and worked with a dozen of wonderful synagogue presidents in the past, I have rarely interacted with someone as charismatic as Jai. He leads Bet Shalom with his sometimes unorthodox style. Along with his partner, Adele, he identifies good workers for the temple, trains them, and gives them responsibilities. He is well connected, extremely focused on his goal and works tirelessly, along with a group of dedicated individuals, in order to advance the cause of liberal Judaism in Spain.

In 2008 I discovered online that Bet Shalom was looking for a Rabbi to spend some time in Barcelona to lead services and coordinate the final stages of a conversion process to Judaism. I volunteered to help out. Jai invited me to come in and spend about a month in his beautiful city. The fact that I could speak Spanish was a great advantage to them. [See my blog posting on this synagogue, dated April 29, 2010]. Since then, Bet Shalom has become affiliated with the European Union of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (located in London), moved from a garage-size synagogue to a larger location, set up a new web page (, and continues to offer regular Shabbat and festival services (every Friday night the service is followed by a pot-luck meal) as well as introduction to Judaism classes ably taught by Jai himself.  It is now looking for a full-time Rabbi to lead this 60-70 family congregation, with great potential for further growth.

Jai was not satisfied with setting up a synagogue in Barcelona, but extended his help to other emerging groups in Galicia, Seville, Madrid and other locations. Jai has become the undisputed leader of the progressive Jews in Spain today, and deserves to be supported by Jews all over the world. It has been my pleasure and honor to work with him, and will continue to do so as long as I can.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Boston, Ma
June 12, 2014

[i] Pronounced as “chai” or, better “hai”, in Hebrew meaning, “life.”

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mezuzah Study by the TBS Kindergarten Enrichment Kids

What is a Mezuzah?:
On Monday, Kindergarten Enrichment kicked off a new inquiry: What is a mezuzah? The children shared their initial ideas. Josie explained, "It's something you hang up on your wall and it's made of glass." Evan followed up with, "Is a mezuzah with a little scroll in it? I have two at my house. One's in the front of my mom and dad's room and one's on the side like as we just come in front of my house." They then shouted, "There's one!" as they pointed to a mezuzah hanging right on the doorway of our classroom. This led us into the great Mezuzah hunt through Temple Beth Shalom. The children used their science notebooks to make observational drawings of the different mezuzot we found through out the school and temple. They had lots of ides as they walked around searching and observing:

Evan: They're on every door here (downstairs classrooms)
Noah: The Kohavim room has a mezuzah!
Evan: This one (Room 14) is different then the others.
Josie: I found one! (Mezuzah hanging on Mayim office made of rainbow mosaic glass).
Evan: Someone made it. It's not real.
Talia: There is a slot if you want to put anything in it.
Josie: None in the bathroom.
Evan: None in the elevator.

The children continued walking and found a glass mezuzah they could see inside of:
Evan: This one has a scroll.
Jesse: What do you think is on the scroll?
Evan: Hebrew letters. It must be about a story.
Talia: I think every scroll must be about a different story.

After finding many mezuzot the children were left with many ideas and questions: Why are their mezuzot on some rooms, but not all? What is on the scroll inside the mezuzah? Are some mezuzahs real and some not? Can you make your own mezuzah? Why do some Mezuzahs have the hebrew letter shin on them and some do not? Stay tuned to find out what happens with our Mezuzah investigation over the next few weeks! 

from left to right
Top Row: Mezuzah we observed, Julian's observational drawing, Noah's observational drawing.
Bottom Row: Josie's observational drawing, Talia's drawing, Evan's drawing

Mezuzah Observations:
The kindergartners continued their investigation of mezuzot this week. Today, they made up close observations of a mezuzah Ellen let us borrow. They noticed the mezuzah had a Hebrew letter at the top. Some children realized it was the Hebrew letter, shin. They also noticed some other Hebrew letters. It was the word, Jerusalem in Hebrew. After making detailed drawings, the children noticed their was a scroll inside the mezuzah. They immediately asked if we could take out the scroll to find out what was inside. To read more about what we discovered, check out the blog post, "What's inside a mezuzah?"

What's Inside the Mezuzah?:

The kindergartners were eager to find out what was inside the Mezuzah. We carefully took the scroll out and slowly unrolled the paper. Did you know that the scroll is made of parchment paper, just like what the Torah is made of? We took a close look at some of the writing on the scroll. The children discovered it was Hebrew writing. We examined the first word in the scroll. Josie explained she thought the first word was "Shema." The children were surprised to find they knew the beginning words written in the Mezuzah scroll. Together, we sang the Shema practicing the American Sign Language that Emily had taught us to go along with the prayer. We discovered the answer to our question, "What's inside a mezuzah?" We can't wait to investigate some of our other ideas and questions about Mezuzot.

Writing the Shema:
Do you know what is inside a Mezuzah? Well, your kindergartner does! On Monday, Kindergarten Enrichment practiced writing the Shema in Hebrew. Inside a Mezuzah, the Shema is handwritten in Hebrew by a scribe called a Sofer. The kindergartners became Sofers for the day, writing the Shema in Hebrew. They enjoyed writing in Hebrew so much, they wrote the prayer over and over again!