Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SOFTBALL: A Reflection, in Seven Innings


Baseball and softball have always been important parts of my life. I grew up playing catch with my dad and my mom, and all summer long my older brother John (a good hitting lefty and an above-average fielder) and I would ride our bikes to a nearby field where anywhere from four to twenty kids would play baseball until it was too dark to see the ball. In high school my temple’s NFTY group had no softball team, so I also joined the local BBYO to play softball with the AZA team. I played intramural softball with John during the one semester we were at college together, and I have been playing softball – and occasionally helping coach little league – ever since.


A few years ago, Jon Cohan pitched the idea of starting a TBS Brotherhood softball team. He gathered a group of interested players, found a league for us to play in, and undertook the thankless task of organizing us into a softball team. Not very easy, given the unruly, opinionated, and vocal group of players – myself included - who joined the team. The diversity in age, athletic ability, softball experience, and temperament was extraordinary, but that first season we managed to practice once or twice without suffering too many injuries, field a team each week without forfeiting, and have a lot of fun while getting to know each other. Within a couple of years, the roster grew to more than 25 players, and when it became apparent that those of us hitting 22nd or 23rd in the order risked going an entire season with only one at-bat per game, the team was divided into two.


Softball is played with 10 fielders, and between 12 and 14 players usually show up for our games. It’s not so few that we lack variety of skills and personalities, but not so many that we lose our close connections with each teammate: it is a good size. It takes 10 to form a minyan – wasn't there something about Abraham trying to field a 10-man team of innocents so Sodom could be saved (Genesis 18:32) - and Moses sent 12 tribal leaders to scout the home team when the Israelites first approached the Promised Land (Numbers 13:2). Groups of this size are common: most juries have 12 members, and the basic fighting unit of many armies is the squad, usually consisting of 10 to 12 soldiers. It has been suggested that 12 “was a natural size for a hunting party of the Stone Age, and that men were predisposed to feel comfortable in a group of about that size” (Neal Stephenson, Anathem, Harper (2009), p. 346). Literary examples include Tolkien’s 9-member Fellowship, and the 11 courageous pioneers, led by the heroic rabbit Hazel, who went forth from their native land to establish a new home on Watership Down.


How many connections with classmates, friends and Temple members have I made over my decades of playing softball? Too many to count. When someone asks if I know a lawyer with a particular area of expertise, the first people I think of are my law school softball teammates. Most of the men I know best at Temple are guys I first got to know playing softball. Softball buddies Morris Porter and Richard Atkind were instrumental in setting up our employment assistance program; I have shared terrific music with some teammates; I’ve worked on Temple boards and committees with others; and I have led shiva services at the homes of some of my softball friends after the death of a parent.


Every summer Sunday morning after I graduated from law school, I played in a long-standing pick-up game in Brookline. (A few of the other regulars were Orthodox, and I enjoyed watching their fringes fly as they ran the bases). I stopped playing in that game in the mid-1980s after moving to Needham, but one Sunday morning about 3 or 4 years ago, I decided to see whether the Brookline game was still going. When I arrived at the field, I recognized three or four of the players, and a couple of them saw me and yelled, “Hey, Kenny – we need a second baseman.” Two decades absent, and they welcomed me as if it had been two weeks. Clearly, there is some intangible bond that forms on the softball field. (Or maybe they just really, really needed someone to play second base).


Reflecting on Brotherhood softball compels me to point out a serious problem with the Mens Shul Softball League: women are not allowed to play. I believe that this ban is in deference to Orthodox players’ concerns about forbidden physical contact with a woman not one’s wife or close relative. For its adherents this may be a matter of religious observance, but its effect is discriminatory. Women cannot play on our TBS team, solely on the basis of their gender. When I first heard of this rule, it bothered me, but I rationalized my concerns away somehow, and it did not bother me enough to protest - or to quit the team. Our 2011 season is now over. Writing this has made me think more seriously about this problem, and I do not know whether I will choose to play again next year.


Softball brings back great memories and allows me to meet and get to know other Temple members. It can even be an occasion for hearing good things about our Temple. Last summer, before a game with Mishkan Tefillah’s team, one of their players came over to me and said, “I was at a B’nai Mitzvah service at Temple Beth Shalom recently, and I want to tell you what a great place it is.” I started talking about the sanctuary renovation, and how the space is now so much more open and light, and he interrupted me: “I wasn’t talking about the physical structure – I was talking about how warm and welcoming the people are at your Temple.” I thanked him, and walked away feeling proud of TBS and the impression we had made on this visitor. And I felt even better after we won the game by a dozen runs.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Maimonides - Then and Now

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

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Sonsino's blog, “From Istanbul to Boston

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thirty Conversions In Barcelona

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

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Sonsino's blog, “From Istanbul to Boston