Friday, December 28, 2012

The Nature of Our Relationship with Temple Beth Shalom

Julie and I recently had the opportunity to hear Harvard professor of political philosophy Michael Sandel speak about the change that has occurred in the political culture of the U.S. He argued that our culture has changed from one of “citizens” to one of “consumers.” I personally understood this to mean that rather than feeling that we define our nation by our participation in it, we see ourselves as consumers who stand outside and seek value for our investments (our taxes). Afterwards I reflected on whether there was a parallel notion that could be applied to how people approach congregational life. I think that Professor Sandel’s concept does have some relevance for us. We can view our relationship to Temple Beth Shalom as one of participation in community. From this perspective, our relationship is one that may directly benefit us from time to time, such as by providing us support in moments of loss and sorrow, but it is a relationship that we value because we care about the Temple Beth Shalom community for what it is today and will be in the future. In this type of a relationship we care for Temple Beth Shalom because it literally and figuratively cares for all of us. In juxtaposition, we can also view our relationship to the temple as one of consumer and supplier. I recently spoke with someone who defined his relationship with Temple Beth Shalom by mathematically dividing his membership dues by the number of services he and his wife attended each year. By considering himself as a consumer of Temple Beth Shalom services – rather than as a member of the community - he was evaluating what he was getting for his money. In essence - "here is what I pay Temple Beth Shalom, and here is what it gives me back in return". I understood these words because I think many have come to view our relationship to our country – and in some cases our religious communities – as customers looking for a good deal. Yet, while I understood them, I was also pained by them. I know that my personal aspiration is for us to be a community in which we participate and to which we are devoted because of our commitment to and love of what the temple does for all of us – and will do for the generations of Needham-area Jews after we are gone. I believe that being a part of Temple Beth Shalom means being a part of a whole and looking after and caring for that whole, not because of what it is doing for us, but because of the rare and precious goodness it creates for all. As we prepare to light the Shabbat candles this week, I want to encourage us to appreciate how not only how they shine in our own faces, but also in those of the others who surround the table.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Religious Philosophy - Part Four

Rabbi Sonsino

A few years ago, at a rabbinic meeting in Boston, we were asked to write a statement, which could be read in thirty seconds or less, about Judaism and the role we play as clergy. Obviously, the exercise was to force us to identify the essence of our religion in a clear and concise manner. This is what I wrote:

“For me, the essence of Judaism as a religion is found in its teaching of empathy for other human beings who are facing existential issues. As a Rabbi, my role is to be a more derekh, a spiritual guide, pointing to viable alternatives that lead to wholeness and personal integrity.”

I have often been asked: If you maintain that there are various definitions of God in Judaism, just as there are different paths of Jewish spirituality, what then binds us, Jews, together? My answer is this: we share the same history; we have the same tradition that is optimistic and “this-world” oriented; we cherish the same sacred books; we celebrate the same holidays and life-cycle events; we have a strong “tribal” connection; and we welcome anyone who wants to share our life and fate. To be a Jew is a privilege, and we should be proud of it.

Religious beliefs are stronger when they are authentic. They cannot be imposed; they have to be accepted freely. During my entire professional career, I sought a path that reflects my personality. I made it my cause to elucidate the religious alternatives promoted by our sages, and have encouraged my readers and listeners to find their own way within this diversity. This is one of the strengths of Judaism. For centuries, Jews have created a way of life and a system of community discipline that bound one Jew to another. However, in matters of belief, Jewish teachers were much more open to alternatives. After having proclaimed a few principles of faith, such as the belief in one God, the foundational myths about the giving of the Torah at Sinai/Horeb and our hopes for the future, they still allowed  individual Jews to choose from the traditional sources those that are in consonance with their own thinking, even allowing them to add newer ones in line with the traditional Jewish spirit. We can ignore this tradition or we can embrace it. I opt for the latter, and urge other fellow Jews to do the same.

Judaism has espoused various views, all of them projected from our own existence here on earth, about the afterlife. No one believes today that after death, he/she will go to Sheol, an undisclosed place perhaps located under the earth, where they shall live a shadowy kind of existence.. This idea went away by the end of the Biblical period. During the rabbinic period, resurrection of the body became a dogma disseminated by the Pharisaic teachers. Later on, some Jews subscribed to the idea of immortality of the soul or reincarnation, just as others maintained that after death there is a total disintegration (For more details, see our book, What Happens After I Die? R. Sonsino and D. Syme, URJ, 1990).

After viewing all the Jewish alternatives, I believe that one lives on biologically through children, through an association with the Jewish people, and, ultimately, through his/her good deeds. Personally, I assume that after I am gone, the energy I represent will blend with the energy of the universe. I hope, however, that whatever influence I have had on others through my books and other types of teaching will remain in the minds of my students and congregants.

In the meantime, I hope to live as long as it is possible fully, creatively, with personal integrity, with good health and surrounded by family and friends. And to all this I say, dayenu! (“It is just enough for me”).

Rifat Sonsino
Note: If you wish to receive other postings, please sign up as a fellow in

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Religious Philosophy-Part Three: “Prayer” and “Spirituality”

Rabbi Sonsino

Of the three major types of prayer (i.e., praise, gratitude and petition), it is the prayers of petition that create problems for some people. The reasons vary: we expect an immediate answer that fails to materialize; the text of the prayer is inadequate either because of its archaic nature, patriarchal language or non-inclusive character; sometimes we even equate nobility of expression with profundity of thought. In reality the crux of the problem is theological. Heschel once said, “The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God” (Man’s Quest for God. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1954, 58). Consequently, if you believe, you can then pray. For a long time I, too, subscribed to this notion. However, recently, I realized that people could struggle with prayer and theology at the same time. As theological views become clearer, prayers too become more authentic. Prayer is a natural need of every human being. The question is what we expect from it? Here below are my conclusions:

a) To help create a positive prayerful mood, one needs an inspiring text and sublime music within an appropriate physical setting.
b) Prayers should be read not as legal briefs but as poetry pointing to something higher.
c) One should refrain to pray for the impossible, for God works through the laws of nature, and God is not likely to change the course of events no matter how fervent the prayer or pious the individual.
d) It is more important to express one’s goals and aspirations through prayers than to expect an answer for them. If we are able to formulate our thoughts clearly and turn them into a program of action, the deed itself becomes our answer.
e) Prayers do not change the world outside, but give the worshipers a better insight into themselves. As the Gates of Prayer had it, “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.”
f) Even if, at the moment, it is not possible to enter into a prayerful mood, one can and should identify with the community as part of the worship experience. By praying together we can strengthen one another.


I do not see any difference between religion and spirituality. The second is an expression of the first. For me, spirituality is “the awareness of being in the presence of God,” no matter how God is defined in Judaism. Even though “spirituality” implies a dichotomy between body and mind, which is more Greek than biblical, it is often narcissistic in scope and anti-intellectual in practice. The quest for spirituality is here to stay because it is based on the realization that we are not at the center of the universe, that science cannot answer all our questions, that we need to relate to something or someone bigger than us, and, above all, because it is grounded in our search for purpose and meaning in life.

Each individual needs to find his/her own appropriate spiritual path. In my book Six Jewish Spiritual Paths, I have identified six paths through which one can express his/her own spirituality:

a) Acts of Transcendence;
b) Prayer;
c) Meditation;
d) Ritual;
e) Deeds of Loving kindness; and
f) talmud torah - Study.

These are only examples. It is possible to add other paths. However, it is important to include a social component to any of these paths in order to avoid the accusation that they are “me-oriented.”

Spirituality cannot be imposed. It has to be discovered. I found mine through torah lishmah, the “study for its own sake.”

Prayer for Healing

The following words were offered this past Shabbat as our community prayed for healing.
We continue to keep the families of Newtown in our hearts.

Holy One of Healing…..tonight, all of our hearts are broken…
While we keep in our prayers those we know and love who are in need of healing,
this night we keep in mind the families and neighbors in Newtown who experienced a tragedy beyond words.

During this time of darkness, we seek light in the love of our own families…..our own children….
and in our hope that through their efforts, inspired by our example,
that our world will be brought closer to a time when violence shall be no more.

May the community of Newtown find strength in a global community of compassionate outreach.
May the families whose lives have been forever changed be embraced and comforted by Your abiding love.
And may our nation come together as one – in memorial and resolute to bring speedily the day when we shall hear only news of peace.


Friday, December 14, 2012

My Religious Philosophy - Part Two: “Religion”

Rabbi Sonsino
The universe works in wondrous ways. However, this recognition does not eliminate the problems we face in our daily life, either because of the limitations of our  bodies, the unfairness we encounter in our dealings with others, or even when we fight natural disasters not of our own making. We are devastated when tragedies mar our existence. Most of us can understand and accept that people will eventually pass away, but we find it very difficult to deal with the death of loved ones, either at the hands of others or because of natural calamities. We do not live in a perfect world, and certainly do not know all the intricacies of the universe.  Life is mysterious, and, at times, even unpredictable, requiring a wholesome perspective. For many, religion does that.

But what does the word “religion” mean? Some people derive it from the Latin “relegare” meaning to re-examine carefully, and others from “religare” meaning to connect (with God). Even though the second one is the most popular understanding of the word today, it is still vague. What does it mean to connect with God? What does God mean? Hebrew does not have a proper word for “religion.” In medieval times, we find dat, which can mean law, custom or faith. In modern Hebrew a dati is a religiously observant person.

Of the various definitions of religion, I believe, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) has provided the broadest one. He argued that religion gives the individual a “frame of orientation” as well as “an object of devotion.” Each of us has a “frame of orientation” through which we view the world, and “an object of devotion” to which we pledge ultimate loyalty. The question is how to identify these “frames” and “objects?”

Maimonides (d. 1204) defined religion as “to (intellectually) know God.” For Mordecai Kaplan (1991-1983), “the essence of every religion is the human quest for salvation (i.e.., self-realization).” In Abraham J. Heschel’s (1907-1972) view, “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” Roland Gittelsohn (1910-1995) proposed one in line with his religious naturalism: “the study of the mutual spiritual relations between human organisms and their total cosmic environment.” I prefer the one advanced by Alvin Reines (1926-2004): “Religion is the human person’s response to the conflict of finitude,” namely, how do we deal with the realization that we are all limited and are destined to die one day?  In this sense, I consider everyone religious because we all have the same concerns and expectations. Whether we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim (or other), how we personally respond to our existential questions becomes our religion.

My Concept of God
In my book, The Many Faces of God, I have summarized my view on God in these words:
“Like others, I, too, went from stage to stage in my theological development. I consider myself more of a researcher and teacher rather than a systematic theologian. I like to look for legitimate options, and make them available to my students and readers as viable and authentic responses to matters of life and death. As an individual I, too, had to struggle with questions of existence, and looked for explanations that made sense to me. I gave up my childhood notion of classical theism, because my logical mind and inquisitive nature would not yield the conclusions I was asked to accept. I find mysticism appealing but not totally compatible with my rationalistic tendencies. I am not satisfied with the claim of the religious humanists that God, as the highest images of ourselves is capable of answering our queries. Also, I cannot conceive of a theology that looks at the universe from the divine perspective. I believe theology starts with our own questions, and ends with our tentative answers.

I am more attracted to the views of the religious naturalists who maintain that there is an energy that sustains the universe. Based on observation and analysis, I see a certain order in the world around us, and conclude, much like some of the medieval thinkers and even a few early rabbis, that this order implies an ordering mind, or in my case, an ordering power and energy that stands for God. The laws of nature, I argue, are simply a manifestation of this universal energy that makes possible for me to exist. And for this, I am very appreciative, and express my thanks to God through prayers of gratitude and works of loving-kindness that benefit my family and community. I affirm the freedom of the human will, and can live with the realization that I don’t have all the answers for the tension that exists between the realities of good and evil, because I do not know all the inner workings of the universe. In the spirit of Spinoza, I say that if we knew how the world operates, we could predict our next move. But alas, this is not within our ability. So, we live in an imperfect world and with limited abilities to understand the mysteries around us, while desperately looking for meaning and purpose in our daily struggles” (pp.250-1).

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Religious Philosophy; The Life of Informed Choice

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
Over the years, in different lectures and publications, I have identified the main points of my religious philosophy. In an attempt to bring them all together, albeit in a succinct form, I wish to share it in various installments in my upcoming blog postings. Here is the first one:


I have always been interested in history, for, I believe, we cannot know who we are and what we have done unless we find out where we have been before, and learn from it, for, as George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, Scribner's, 1905, p. 284). Yet, I recognize that there is no such a thing as an “objective” history, because facts still need to be interpreted, and that is purely subjective. Even if one assumed that “facts” could be established through scientific methods (e.g. DNA), they still need to be evaluated, analyzed, sifted through, kept or discarded. As we know, two people can witness the same accident and come up with two different views of it. There is also the possibility that the witnesses would ignore or discard some of the facts, just as every historian picks and selects those events that make a difference. There is no end to recording every detail of what happened in the past.

For centuries, philosophers have been trying to find out how we know, and have developed a series of epistemological theories to explain this puzzle, none of which answers all our questions adequately.  I agree with the empiricists that we know what we experience, and that, limited human beings as we are, complete knowledge of the “thing in itself” (das Ding an sich) is, as Kant remarked, beyond our comprehension or ability to grasp, collect and record. Consequently, if all knowledge is subjective and if we cannot have full knowledge of things, we are only left with historical novels.

The realization that our knowledge is limited has led me to concentrate on concepts and values in historical and religious texts that are open to interpretation. Now, that is something we can argue about. Some will approve of these notions, others will take exceptions, but at least no one would claim that we are dealing with “the Truth,” which is both elusive and unattainable.

The discussion about values, however, requires that we acknowledge the variety of valid positions on similar subjects. This search for choices has informed my entire rabbinic and academic career from the very beginning. Thus, for example, in Finding God (NY: URJ Press, 1986) and in Many Faces of God (NY: URJ Press, 2004), I pointed out that throughout history Jewish thinkers have maintained a variety of God concepts that are based on the principle of the divine unity. We don’t know what or who God is, but we can cite a number of Jewish views about God from which people could select as one as their own. Similarly, in my book, Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2000) I viewed spirituality from a wider perspective, and offered a few options (such as, spirituality through study, meditation, ritual, good deeds etc.) to highlight the variety of spiritual experiences in Judaism.

The search for religious choices can only be possible through study. Hillel used to say lo a'm haaretz hasid (“an ignorant person cannot be pious.” See, Avot 2: 6).  Reform Jewish teachers have insisted that the choices we make must be “informed” choices. We must know in order to choose.


When I wake up in the morning and realize that I am alive in a world that operates in reliable yet mysterious ways, I am moved to express gratitude to God that made me part of it. Abraham J. Heschel once wrote, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.” (See, God in Search of Man;  Philadelphia: JPS, 1962, 45). The awareness that the universe has an intricate composition has led many, including me, to revere life. Not only am I in awe before the workings of the world, but I am equally struck by the way our bodies operate harmoniously most of the time. I view human beings as bulks of energies stimulated by an inner force. How does the heart know to beat regularly? It is marvelous to realize how our digestive system works. The ancient rabbis, noting this wonder, even penned a prayer to be said after one wakes up: “Blessed are You, God, who has formed the human body in wisdom, and has created in it intricate passages, vessels and openings. It is clear to You that if one of them is blocked or opened, we could not stand before You. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh in a wondrous way.”

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Would You Live in Paradise?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
For thousands of years, people have dreamed of living in the hereafter in a place called Paradise, enjoying a comfortable, easy life. To me that would be the most boring place in the universe. Let me explain.

The idea of “paradise” (an old Persian word that is also found in Hebrew, pardes, meaning “orchard” or “garden”) goes back to the ancient Near Eastern as well as other Mediterranean societies. The Sumerians referred to it as “Dilmun,” the Greeks spoke of “Elysian Fields”; the Hebrew Bible has gan e’den (Garden in/of Eden) and the Arabs mention “Djennet.” According to some ancient Rabbis, in paradise (also referred to as ‘the world to come’) “There is neither eating nor drinking; no procreation of children or business transactions, no envy or hatred or rivalry; but the righteous sit enthroned, their crowns on their heads, and enjoy the luster of God’s presence” (BT Ber. 17a). The Quran describes Djennet as a place where people enjoy all kinds of delicious food and wines, but also the company of wide eyed-beautifully shaped wives (Sura 54).

In medieval times, Dante (14th cent.) and, his Jewish counterpart, Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, came out with different images, all of them based on speculation and wild imagination.

To me paradise, however conceived, sounds like a dull place, with nothing to look forward, where work has no meaning and, no matter what you do, your future is assured. Is this the kind of life we want?

I prefer to live in a world, here on earth, which, though not perfect, is open to possibilities for personal growth, where work gives meaning and purpose to one’s life, where love creates deeper bonds, where the realization of our human limitations and our eventual death provides an incentive to do something good for others. I go with the Psalmist who declared, “The righteous shall inherit the land, and live here in it forever” (Ps. 37: 29). I personally would skip the “forever” part. After I am gone, the energy I represent will, I assume, become part of the energy of the universe, and my name will endure as long as some people remember it.

The Bible mentions that Adam and Eve lived in gan e’den but were kicked out, because, having eaten from the tree of knowledge, they could now attempt to eat from the tree of life and become immortal like God (Gen. 3: 23). Most Christians refer to this story as the “Fall.” Though there were some Jews who did share this belief (see, II Esdras in the Apocrypha), mainline Judaism has viewed this parable, not as a Fall, but as the emergence of conscience, which, for me, is a good thing. I think the biblical story of Paradise is telling us that humans must accept their limitation and mortality, and that with knowledge comes the responsibility of making moral choices.

So, keep dreaming about paradise, if you wish. As for me, I am happy to live in a real world, here on earth, with all of its imperfections, where I can grow, feel, love, learn, and mature. I admit, however, that a good health and a few bucks would make things much easier.

Rifat Sonsino
Nov. 2012

Note: If you wish to receive Rabbi Sonsino's blog postings regularly, please sign up as a fellow in

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bucket Filling and Chesed

This fall, the teachers of the Children’s Center have been on a journey of learning in the course, “Teaching and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.” Last week’s stop on our journey, allowed us to explore the concepts of chesed (love and kindness) and tzdaka (justice and charity).

Ronit, our teacher, eloquently connected our current curriculum of bucket filling to chesed. In the story, “Have you Filled a Bucket Today?” it is written, “All day long everyone in the whole wide world walks around carrying an invisible bucket.” Ronit explained that what we fill these buckets with is in fact, chesed. Together we explored many texts and interpretations regarding chesed. One interpretation that particularly rung true of bucket filling was, “The challenge of activism is to ignite the divine spark present in the human spirit (Rabbi Avi Weiss, Spiritual Activism.”

As a room of educators, we discussed this idea of doing chesed and igniting the divine spark in each child. In the Kohavim class, we are thinking a lot about how when you fill someone’s bucket your bucket is also filled. When you do chesed, it ignites this spark within you. The spark is in everybody, but it needs to be ignited. As educators, we are striving to understand each of your children and support them to ignite their own spark. As we left the wonderful day of teacher learning, many of us were inspired by the natural connection between bucket filling and Jewish values. We are eager to expand on our bucket filling curriculum by connecting it the chesed, as well as igniting the spark in each child.

-Jesse Feigenbaum, Children's Center Teacher

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"God Created" - What Does "Created" Mean?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
When we read an ancient text, we tend to read it through the eyes of our contemporary culture, but that does a disservice to the original material written under different assumptions. A good example is the famous Creation story in the Bible.

When medieval thinkers discussed the biblical story of creation, they maintained that this had to be “ex nihilo,” namely “[creation] from nothing.” Otherwise, God would have to compete with another divinity that is eternal, negating the belief in monotheism. However, when ancient people thought of creation, they did not worry about whether or not creation they to be “out of nothing,” because that was not the way in which they usually conceived of “creation.” For people in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, creation was more like assigning a function to an already existing matter. In fact, in ancient Egypt, creation was thought of taking place daily! This reminds me of the Midrash that tells us that God went on creating other worlds and destroying them until God created the one in which we live (Gen. R. 3: 7) as well as the rabbinic prayer that praises God for renewing the works of creation daily: “In Your goodness, You daily renew creation” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 228).

In the Bible, there are two parallel creation stories: In the first (Gen. 1: 1-2:4a), God creates the world by uttering a word: “God said,’ Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1: 3),” whereas in the second (Gen 2:4b-24), God, working like a potter (yotzer), creates (yatzar) Adam (see, Gen. 2: 8) by giving shape to matter, as if it were, with his hands . The editor/s of these stories did not consider the issue of creation out of nothing. It is only modern translators who, reflecting the medieval debate, rendered the very first verse of Genesis as: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is a wrong translation, as some medieval rabbinic commentators, Rashi included, already pointed out. In Hebrew bereshit is not “In the beginning,” but “in the beginning of” [creation]. Thus, the new Jewish Publication Society correctly translates, “When God began to create heaven and earth..….God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Therefore, the first created item was “light.” This approach seems to be more in line with modern scientific explanations of the “creation” of the universe, the “big bang,” when billions of years ago, a huge molecular cloud collapsed and fell under the influence of gravity; ever since, the universe appears to be expanding.

“Light” --This is what we need in our time: not medieval assumptions or superstitions, but a scholarly and critical study of ancient texts that would give justice to the editors’ intention, whether we agree with them or not.

Rifat Sonsino
Nov. 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Mazal Tov"--What Does It Really Mean?

When Jews wish to congratulate other people, they usually exclaim in Hebrew “Mazal Tov.” I am glad we do not dwell on the literal meaning of these words, because if we did, most of us would not say them at all. But words change meaning, and “Mazal Tov” is one of them.

Literally, “Mazal Tov” signifies “good fortune.” In Hebrew, “Tov” means “good” and “mazal” (pl. mazalot; from the Akkadian mazaztu or mazazu) is an astrological expression, referring to the heavenly constellations or the stars in the zodiac, which presumably have influence on human beings and, in fact, determine their destiny. So, when we wish others “Mazal Tov,” we are hoping that the stars will be favorable to them.

Traditional Jewish texts reflect an ambivalent attitude regarding astrology. Many Biblical texts consider it of foreign origin. Thus, for instance, some prophets scoff at “star-gazers” (cf. Isa. 47: 13; Jer. 10:2) among the nations, and biblical law prohibits the practice of divination and soothsaying (Lev. 19: 26; cf. Deut. 18: 10) among the Israelites. But the practice must have been extensive in ancient Israel, even in the holy temple, for in the 7th cent. BCE, King Josiah of Judah suppressed the priests who made offerings “to the sun, moon and constellations (mazalot)” (II K 23: 5).  On the other hand, Job states that it is God who sets the stars (here called mazarot in 38: 32) in their courses.

Post biblical literature knows of astrology but presents a mix bag. While the Book of Enoch (2nd cent. BCE) considers it a sin (8: 3), the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that it was very popular among Jews (Wars, 6: 288f). The Talmud, too, is ambivalent about the subject. Though the majority of the Rabbis argued that God established the constellations (see, BT Ber. 32b) and that each human being is under the influence of the planets ( BT Shab. 53b), Rabbi Johanan maintained that “Israel is immune to planetary influence” (BT Shab. 156a).

During the medieval times, most Jewish philosophers supported astrology, but Moses Maimonides (12/3th cent.) considered it a superstition (Yad, Avodah Zarah, 11: 8-9). Another Jewish philosopher, Hasdai Crescas (14/15th cent.), too, argued that it is impossible to attribute a decisive character to the dictates of the star configurations (Or Adonai 4: 4). On the other hand, the Zohar, the main texts of the Kabbalah, took astrology for granted. In the glorious days of Spanish Jewry, a number of Jewish scholars wrote books on astrology, and defended its practice.

Today, a number of people begin their day by checking their horoscope, and make important decisions based on these predictions. To me, this is pure superstition and borders on idolatry. However, I am not willing to give up the practice of wishing someone “Mazal Tov,” because of its past meaning. Presently, for most people, this expression is devoid of its original intent, and simply means, “May it be well with you.” I can drink to that.

So, Mazal Tov, to all of you.
Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 2012

PS. There a good article on “Astrology” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2007, Vol 2, pp.616-620) by Alexander Altman, which also appears in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Torah in Noah's Ark

On Sunday, October 7, Noah Gorden (TBS member and 1st grade student at the Rashi School) was Consecrated along with 80 other young learners at our Erev Simchat Torah and Consecration service. Consecration literally means to set apart as holy; to dedicate and to cause to be revered or honored. 

During the Erev Simchat Torah service we sing and dance, carry flags and march around the synagogue in honor of the Torah, our most precious possession.  The joyous celebration provides the perfect opportunity to consecrate our children, our most precious gift.  TBS and the Gorden Family were celebrating Noah's Jewish learning journey at the Rashi School. 

Our Consecration ceremony affirms and celebrates the Jewish learning journey that our children have embarked upon. On Sunday evening, each Consecrant received a certificate of Consecration, a honey stick (so that Torah may always be sweet), a $250 gift certificate to be used towards tuition at Eisner or Crane Lake Camp, and a mini Torah. Noah, like many of our Consecrants was very excited to receive his mini Torah.

As soon as Noah got home he began building an Aron Kodesh or ark for his Consecration Torah. We were so moved by his process that we asked Noah to share his thoughts behind building an ark for his Torah with you.

Noah's words: 

I am Noah and I built an ark for my baby Torah and it is very special to me. I got this idea by thinking about my Torah. My mom gave me an idea for the sides of my ark and it came out looking like a mosaic. I added the ladder because I think it is cool. Lego guys can use the ladder to get to the top. At the end I added my eternal light. My Torah is special to me because I really have been counting down the days to me getting my baby Torah. It is special because I am Jewish and the Torah belongs to the Jewish people. The end. Thank you for reading my story.

 Thank you to the Gorden Family for sharing Noah’s mini-Torah story with us.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Moses' Circumcision

Was Moses circumcised as a baby before or after he was found by the Egyptian princess or at any time during his life?

There is no clear reference to Moses’ circumcision in the Bible. We do not know when or even if he were circumcised at all. It is possible that he may have been circumcised by the Egyptians, because circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt. But there is no mention of it anywhere.

There is only one biblical story that involves Moses and circumcision in Ex. 4: 24-26, but the text is corrupt.  We are told that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, carried out the act of circumcision on a family member on their way down to Egypt, but the text does not clearly state who was circumcised, Moses or one of their two sons, Gershom or Eliezer.

The text reads as follows (my remarks are highlighted): “At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him [who is “him”? Moses or his son], and sought to kill him [Moses or his son?]. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs [whose leg? Moses or the son’s] with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him [Moses or the son?] alone, she added,’ A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision” (NJPS).

Given the uncertainty of the text, commentators have suggested various interpretations.

According to some Rabbis, Moses was among those few grandees of the past who were born already circumcised (e.g., Tanhuma, Noah 5; Avot de Rabbi Natan 2: 5) as an expression of human perfection. For them, the question was who was then circumcised in the Exodus text? Some Rabbis maintained that God wanted to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his second son Eliezer (Ex. Rabba 5: 8; cf. Rashi). On the other hand, a talmudic Rabbi argued that the victim was not Moses but “the child”, but the Talmud does not identify whether this “child” was Gershom or Eliezer. One Rabbi opined that Moses was punished because he was apathetic towards circumcision; another one denies it (e.g., Ned. 31b and 32a).

Modern scholars, too, are divided: Some maintain that the victim was Gershom (Fohrer), whereas others say it was Moses (Childs). The text is so corrupted that one modern critic writes that “the account here is only a truncated version of a larger, popular story that circulated orally in Israel” (Sarna).

Even though the text is unclear, it becomes evident that the passage in Exodus highlights the importance and necessity of circumcision. Zipporah, facing a deadly threat, circumcised a member of her family, and saved him.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Now Batting for the Miami Marlins...

I love good news!  Hopefully  by now, many of you have followed the story I first published here right before Rosh Hashanah about baseball player Adam Greenberg and now exactly two weeks later I have some good news to report.  As you may recall Adam Greenberg was a rookie in the major leagues back in 2005.  At his very first at bat, and on his very first pitch he was struck in the head with the pitch and hasn't played in the majors since then.  A determined soul, he got back into the batting cage and has rehabilitated himself in such a way that he's probably in better shape now than he was then.  Due to a technicality, his plate appearance in 2005 was never recorded as an at bat and thus a grassroots campaign was begun on his behalf to give him one official at bat.  Just the other day, the Miami Marlins granted Adam this opportunity and on Tuesday night, Adam will have an at bat as the Marlins face the Mets.  You can watch the game here online for free at the MLB site!

So Rabbi Lenke, what's your fascination with this story?  Is it Jewish?  Is he?  Yes and yes.
Adam Greenberg was raised at Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT.  But that's not all.  
On one hand this is a great story about second chances, faith, hope and desire, and yet on the other hand it is a great example of teshuvah.  Why teshuvah?  When Greenberg was wearing that Cubs uniform on that memorable day, Chicago was facing the Marlins, and now it is the Marlins who are giving Greenberg the moment he has dreamed of his entire life.  So stay tuned.  There are happy endings.  Sometimes where you least expect to find them.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Batter Up!

Shanah Tovah! Tonight, with Jews all around the world we will usher in another new year. What do we hope 5773 will bring? Each new year brings the possibility of fresh starts, new beginnings and second chances and while I think most often we focus these changes on ourselves more than we do on others,I think that is often the intent. This is a time of introspection.  This year however, I would like to share with you an opportunity to do something for another person, a fellow Jew, and this very well might be the easiest thing you've ever done. It costs nothing and the rewards for him will be like the MasterCard commercial...priceless.

I recently read a story about Adam Greenberg, and I've been fascinated by his story.On July 9, 2005, Adam Greenberg made it to the big leagues.  He was on the roster of the Chicago Cubs, and like Cub fans believed in the potential of the Cubs. In the ninth inning facing the Florida Marlins, Greenberg was called to pinch hit by Cubs' Manager Dusty Baker. It would be the first and only time he stepped up to the plate in the major leagues.

On the very first pitch, Greenberg was struck in the back of his head with a 92 mile an hour fastball. This resulted in a major concussion, and a devastating and immediate end to his dream as a major leaguer. According to the rules of Major League Baseball,because he was hit by the pitch, there is no record of Adam Greenberg getting an official at bat in the bigs, but only a plate appearance.

Over the past 7 years, Adam has been recuperating, has never given up and remains as focused as ever to return the plate at least one more time, and this is where you, your friends and family members come in. Thanks to self described "longtime baseball fanatic" named Matt Liston, we all can help Adam achieve his goal. He created a website called and with enough signatures on this petition it is believed that the Chicago Cubs would give Greenberg his official one at bat at the end of their final home stand this season.

Time is of the essence here. For many of us baseball has left a sour taste in our mouths this year. Let's change that! If there were ever a time for second chances, the High Holy Days provide that time.

So please, visit the website. and watch the moving video, but more importantly sign on and encourage others to do the same.

Let's give Adam Greenberg his second chance!

Friday, September 14, 2012

10 Questions for 10 Days of Reflection in 5773

Rabbi Todd Markley
As this Shabbat approaches, and with it the anticipation of our Rosh Hashanah celebrations which begin on Sunday evening, we can't help but look forward with hope and excitement to a fresh new year ahead.  Interestingly, however, the Biblical name for this holiday was not Rosh Hasnahah - literally, "the head of the year" - but rather, Yom Hazikaron - a day of remembrance.  It is telling that just as we are focusing our sights on the future, on a whole new year with limitless possibilities, we are invited to remember our past as well.  No doubt, it is our past that is supposed to inform our future vision, our goals for self improvement and self realization, in the year ahead.

But this is challenging.  Quite frankly, I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday morning (though, our daughter Mia tells me that I had cereal, and she's usually right about these sorts of things).  Am I really supposed to be able to remember all the way back to this time last year?  What were the goals I set for myself then?  What was my reality as 5772 was arriving?  About what was I excited, anxious, concerned?  What was I trying to work on then, and how did I do at achieving those goals over these past twelve months? 

While the rapidly developing technology in our lives brings with it the potential for both blessing and curse, I have discovered an online tool that has made this process of cheshbon hanefesh - an annual accounting of my soul - much more meaningful for those of us who have a challenging time recalling last year's goals and resolutions.  Last year, Ellen Dietrick, our Director of Early Childhood Learning, suggested that I visit  I created a free username and password, and during the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was invited to answer one question each day.  Biggies like "Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?" or "Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you're especially proud of from this past year?"  Each day I shared real and heartfelt reflections on the question of the day.  Going through that process itself was renewing, cathartic, and transformative for me, but that's not even the best part.  The website then "locked my answers away in their secure vault" for an entire year, and this past week they e-mailed last year's answers back to me.  I had an immediate and real time reminder of where I was one year ago - how I've grown and how I haven't, where I've achieved and where I have not.  Soon, a new set of questions will begin to arrive, and this year's reflection process, informed by last year's, will begin again.  Whether you use the as a tool or not (and I recommend it highly!) I encourage each of us to engage in a similar ritual as we welcome a new year.  As Rabbis Byron Sherwin and Seymour Cohen teach:

"One of the most popular and regularly observed rituals in America is the annual medical checkup.  Each year, millions of people are examined, tested, and evaluated in order to determine the state of their physical health and well-being...When sickness is diagnosed, a regimen is prescribed to help restore health.  What may be ascertained during the examination period can lead to a change of life-style for the rest of the year, indeed, for the remainder of one's life.  During the High Holiday season, Jews undergo a kind of 'spiritual checkup.'" (Sherwin and Cohen, How to be a Jew, p. 59)

As you engage in your own rituals of spiritual checkup, may your memories of this past year inspire new growth, strengthened resolve, and fresh hope for the upcoming months of 5773.

Michele, Mia, and Adam join me in wishing you and your family a peaceful Shabbat and a new year that is filled with blessings and sweetness!

Shabbat Shalom v'L'shanah Tovah,


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kaddish As Part of Our Caring Community

By David Berg

According to the song we sing as we carry Torah around the synagogue, the song taken from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the world is based on three principles: the Torah, worship and the performance of good deeds. The study of Torah and worship lead us to the performance of good deeds, and through these good deeds we create a good name. Our good name brings honor to our forebears, from whom we received our names.

In the beginning pages of Gates of Prayer, there is a writing that says, essentially, that a people will survive only if it remembers its ancestors. And so we have survived for millennia. We can remember them in many ways, in our prayer (Eloheinu v’Elohay avotainu v’emotanu – “God of our fathers and our mothers”), offering the Yizkor prayer on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, as well as the reciting of the Kaddish during the initial days of mourning and on the anniversaries of their deaths. Interestingly, although the Kaddish prayer is associated with death and its remembrance, there is no mention of death. And although it is a doxology, a praising of G-d, there is no mention of G-d’s name.

The Kaddish prayer originated early in the Common Era, and was originally recited at the conclusion of a sermon, the study of a specific portion of Torah or other course of study. In addition to glorifying G-d’s name, it praised the teacher-rabbi as well as the students and the students’ students. The language of the Kaddish, like the language of sermons back then, was Aramaic, the common language of the Jews of that era. Towards the end of the first century C.E. or beginning of the second, the portion of the Kaddish “al Yisrael…” praising the people of Israel, the rabbi(s) and the students was omitted and the remainder became known as the “mourner’s Kaddish’, the form with which we are most familiar.

There are also other forms of the Kaddish, among them, the Chatzi Kaddish, (the “half Kaddish”) commonly occurring as punctuation for the service, and yet another form of the Kaddish that traditionally is recited only at the grave.

For the past twenty years or so, Temple Beth Shalom has been blessed with a lay led minyan which meets on Monday and Thursday mornings at 7:00 am. This group fulfills all three of the basic principles mentioned above. We read from Torah, we pray, and we provide a venue for those in mourning or commemorating the anniversary of a loved one’s death to recite the Kaddish in the presence of a minyan, as is traditional.

Our weekday minyan is a community that is open to all. We have had temple members and non-temple members join us in our service. From time to time, people who have come to recite Kaddish have stayed on as frequent members of our group. We invite you to join us, whether occasionally or regularly, to help others fulfill their mourning obligations, to perform the three principles on which the world rests, and to become part of our community.

We look forward to welcoming you. May the memory of your own loved ones continue to be for a blessing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11, 2001

On this day of remembrance, I thought I would share the benediction I wrote for the an interfaith town wide gathering shortly after 9/11. 

As we prepare for this new year 5773, each in our own way, let us never forget the importance of memory, of witnessing, and of being there for one another in times of need.   May each of you have a new year filled with God's blessings.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu
Our God, God of our mothers and fathers,
Our names for You are many,
we who have come here are
from different traditions,
but our need for You is the same.

We thank You
for giving us the courage and strength
to come together tonight
in worship and solidarity.

Through our faith in You,
we are beginning to understand
what it means to love our neighbor
as ourselves,
as we mourn together as a nation.

We have marveled
at the heroic efforts of firefighters,
police officers, and otherwise ordinary people,
and for them and to You we are most grateful.

We have seen how important
a phone call home can be,
and we will try to tell those we love
just how much,
from this day forth.

We have learned that what we are
is defined not by what we do,
but by who, and what, and how we love.

When our hearts are tempted
by revenge and hate,
turn us toward the paths
of compassion and love. 

When we are consumed by our anger,
help us to see the humanity
that has been exhibited across our glorious country.

We who have been created in Your image
thank and bless You for keeping us safe.

Help us now, to return feelings of safety
to those in our community
who are feeling so lost and alone.

To love You is to love each other,
to work to make our lives better.
To love You is to love the world
You created, and to work to perfect it.
To love You is to love
dreams of peace and joy that illumine all of us,
and to bring that vision to life.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Our TBS Chavurah

When I was first asked to compose a few paragraphs describing our Chavurah* Experience over the past 2 years, I was unsure of what to write. Should I simply mention the shared dinners, excursions to Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Needham for enlightenment and enjoyment together as well as our sacred time at the temple?

Then one member suggested a group photo, a moment that, I was thinking, would clarify the special relationship our four couples continue to develop. I am thrilled that the Selichot Dinner, Learning, and Service last evening provided me/us once again with the opportunity to spend time with these dear, although recently made, friends.

We share some obvious facets of life’s journeys = we are all post – 60 years of age and share a deep love of Judaism and Temple Beth Shalom. Still, meeting the first time was a bit awkward; forging new friendships in the autumn of one’s life may not be as easy or comfortable as meeting new acquaintances in our younger years. However, from the time we first met for dinner at the Weinberg’s home in 2010, there were intertwining kindred spirits especially due to the apparent and appreciated candor and care of this newly created group. We have not only shared these positive times, but also opened our arms to one another during the unhappy moments of the illnesses and deaths of elderly parents and beloved friends. We have shared the triumph and wonder of the birth of a grandson and the burgeoning career of a daughter. Together we have examined beautiful creations of Judaica and Art while some have listened to Oldies on the Boston Esplanade. Two husbands have spent work day lunch times together after discovering the Cambridge proximity of their workplaces. Even summer afternoons swimming together have added more layers to our ever growing bonds of friendship.

As the New Year Season returns once again, each couple has expressed a keen interest in finding more opportunities to learn and play together. Looking at our photo from Selichot, you may not notice the subtleties – one woman’s hand lightly and sweetly placed on another woman’s hand or the genuine camaraderie and glowing warmth among our eight Chavurah members. We are no longer strangers; in fact, we are proud and pleased that we have taken this important step in our middle years to expand and extend ourselves through the true meaning of Chavurah.

No matter in what stage of life you find yourself, consider taking this courageous and fulfilling plunge through membership in a Chavurah.

Cheryl Weisman-Cohen

*The word chavurah means a group of friends. In this program, people that sign up are matched to other families/couples from the temple to spend time with, either at temple programs or outside of the temple. It's a way to make the community smaller and more friendly. Interested in joining a Chavurah? Look for registration materials this fall. (For more information, contact Jenny Small, Co-Chair of Member Relations, 781-559-3153 or

At Selichot services on September 8, 2012
back row = Bob Lurie, Marc Weinberg, Michael Cohen, Neil Kushner
front row = Ann Lurie, Judy Weinberg, Cheryl Weisman-Cohen, Roz Kushner

Friday, August 3, 2012

Rabbi Jay on Aly Raisman, Needham, and Jewish Identity

Yesterday, Emily, Liana, and Jonah were excited to join over 300 Needham neighbors and friends at Town Hall to cheer Aly Raisman.   Everyone with whom I have been speaking in recent days is thrilled for Aly and her family. I was contacted recently by reporters from the “Needham Patch” and from Israel’s “Haaretz” newspaper and asked ‘how the Needham Jewish community is responding to Aly’s success.’ I shared that – to the extent that I can speak about our entire Needham Jewish community – just as is true for all residents of Needham, there seems to be a sense that something wonderful is happening to someone in our extended family. I also mentioned that a number of people have commented that they found it refreshing that Aly chose “Hava Nagila” for her floor routine…..that Aly so proudly shared her Jewish identity with the world.

In the “Boston Globe” this week, after the team’s winning the gold, Aly was quoted as saying that “I would hope that we will be able to inspire a new generation.” The idea that our actions matter and that, through how we live, we have the opportunity – the responsibility – to positively impact the way that others live is one of Judaism’s core values. Whether we are striving to stand atop the medals platform or simply live day-to-day, our tradition reminds us that what we do… we live…..makes a difference to those around us. Others are watching us…..and listening to us: our friends and neighbors…..our co-workers and life partners……our children. What are we modeling in how we speak and in what we do? What are we showing of ourselves? What impact is it making? These are very Jewish questions. And they apply whether we are on the world stage, in our work place, in our own community, or simply on the home front.

Aly, not surprisingly, was exceptionally gracious following (as she was graceful during) yesterday’s individuals competition. She celebrated her teammates. And she expressed appreciation for all that she had accomplished and for those who have supported her. We are so happy to see Aly shine as a role model of dedication, hard work, and team work. And I know that we all look forward to – soon – welcoming her and her family home to Needham.

Shabbat Shalom!


Saluting The Captain

My new article for The Good Men Project. A tribute to our hometown girl-Aly Raisman.
Saluting The Captain

Monday, July 30, 2012

Jerry Wasserman to Record Live CD August 10

Be a part of history - Friday August 10, 2012: 7:30 to 9:30pm Chair of the Needham Board of Selectman, Jerry Wasserman with his band, Jerry and the Great Experiment including Jerry, Bo Veaner, Bill Okerman, Faith and Dan Senie, with special guest blues singer Carolyn Waters will perform. Jerry Wasserman is recording a live CD of the performance. Well, the CD isn't alive; it’s made of plastic, but will be recorded in front of a live audience. This is where you come in; you can be part of the audience. It all takes place at the First Parish Needham Unitarian Universalist Church on August 10 at 7:30pm. The concert, food and refreshments are all free. Many of Jerry’s songs are on the satirical side so we’ll have some fun. I really need an audience, and you really need fun, music, food and drink. What a convergence of needs! It's a concert, a party, and who knows what else! You’ll have to come and see. RSVP for count. Email or call 781-444-3771. We hope you can make it. Jerry

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Copy That

This blog post from Temple Beth Shalom's CJ Kaplan originally appeared on The Good Men Project. If you have kids at overnight camp this summer or have in the past, you'll really appreciate this. If you like this essay follow this link to see his other essays on The Good Men Project.

CJ Kaplan finds out what it takes to be both a father and a brother to his son.

My little boy is at sea in every sense of the word. I stand beside him as he dives fearlessly into the rugged surf that pounds the shoreline of Gloucester’s Good Harbor Beach. It is one of those rare, precious days when the North Atlantic reluctantly grants elevated water temperatures in concert with the warm, summer air. This is a day that we will recall wistfully in January when winter is tearing at us with its icy fangs. And yet, despite the ideal conditions, my youngest child is adrift.

Eric has been in a semi-funk ever since his older brother left for overnight camp in New Hampshire two weeks ago. Alex is Eric’s hero, although even that lofty moniker seems grossly insufficient to describe their relationship. Eric worships Alex. Blessedly, Alex is the best kind of hero. He returns the love in equal measure.

Though Alex is ten and Eric is not quite six, they are a peer group unto themselves. The two of them spend nearly every second of free time with each other. When Alex gets together with his friends to play ball after school, Eric joins them. When Alex flips on the TV, Eric squeezes up next to him on the couch until the two of them are essentially occupying the same space. When Alex is invited to a sleepover party, Eric packs his pajamas and tags along.

Alex and Eric. Eric and Alex. They are a package deal.

When Alex decided to join his older sister at camp this year, we knew it would be a bumpy transition. I spent many summers at an overnight camp in Maine as a kid, and I was a big advocate of my children doing the same. My wife, who never spent a significant period of time away from home until she got to college, was a tougher sell. But, after seeing how much our daughter Samantha enjoyed the experience over the past two years, she was less reluctant with Alex.

So, a week after school ended this June we packed Samantha and Alex into the minivan and headed north. On the way there, Samantha did everything you could want a big sister to do. She told Alex about all the great things he’d get to do that summer. She placed special emphasis on all the sports he’d surely be playing, even though she herself favors the arts and culture side of camp. She even assuaged his fears about being away from home, saying that every night was like “a giant sleepover with your best friends.”

But, Alex still looked worried. Not about himself, as I guessed and later confirmed. But, about Eric.

We’d left Eric in the care of my mom that day. She took him to day camp in one car while we left with Samantha and Alex in the other. We figured it would be much easier to say goodbye at our house in private than in front of Alex’s new bunkmates. There were tears, but we got through it. Later, as Alex struggled with his own emotions while he watched us get into the minivan and leave, my wife voiced what both of us were thinking.

“How do you think Eric will be?” she asked.

The answer turned out to be mixed. Eric reveled in the undivided attention he suddenly commanded. There was always a parent available to play ball or make lunch or read books. He didn’t have to wait for anything. He’d even taken great delight in micromanaging the remote control to the point that he never had to watch a second of anything that didn’t interest him.

Then, there were other moments. Like recently, when I was writing to Alex and Eric was playing nearby.

“Is there anything you want me to tell Alex in my letter?” I asked.

“Tell him that I miss him so much that I cry sometimes,” replied Eric without hesitation.

Redacting like Viet Nam-era Army editor, I wrote: “Eric says that he misses you, but that’s he’s having lots of fun and hopes you are too.”

In hopes of helping Eric pass the time happily, I’ve fashioned myself into a surrogate Alex. I play all the games that Eric usually plays with Alex, including the ones that they’ve made up themselves. I sit and watch all the TV shows they enjoy together. I even try to match Eric’s enthusiasm for the Red Sox like Alex does, even though the team itself refuses to show any enthusiasm for the game of baseball. If nothing else, I am a physical presence that approximates Alex. I am a 43-year-old man pretending to be a 10-year-old boy.

And despite all that, here we are, standing in cathartic tides of Good Harbor on this impossibly beautiful summer day. And my son is still floating.

“Hey, Boo Bear,” I say as he dives over another wave. “You wanna learn how to bodysurf?”

“Sure,” he says.

I show him how to anticipate the break of a wave and then to dive ahead so you can feel it lift and carry you toward shore. At first, he is hesitant. But, gradually he trusts the waves and himself enough to succeed.

I applaud as he goes further and further with each attempt.

“Does Alex know how to bodysurf?” he asks as we wait for another swell.

“Yeah, I taught him a couple of years ago,” I reply.

“I can’t wait to show him now that I can do it,” he says, smiling.

At that moment, my wife wades in to join us. Upon seeing Eric catch a wave and ride it a few yards, she cheers.

“I can see Daddy has taught you everything in his bag of tricks,” she jokes.

“Yeah, I was copying him,” boasts Eric. “That’s how you learn. From copying your Daddy.”

That may be so. But, sometimes you also learn from copying your son.

Monday, July 16, 2012

King Manasseh of Judah and the Reinterpretation of History

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

The writing of history is based on interpretation of past events. Depending on who is the interpreter, the record changes considerably. Modern historians often challenge the myths created about ancient times. So, it is not always possible to evaluate the reliability of an historical text, unless you know the perspective of the narrator. A good biblical example of this issue is found in the long reign attributed to King Manasseh of Judah.

There are two parallel and contradictory stories about Manasseh: one in II K 21 and a later one in Chr 33. Each one has a different take on what transpired during his rule. Manasseh, the son of King Hezekiah of Judah, became king in 698/7 BCE at a young age (the Bible says, twelve years old). Like his father, he, too, was a vassal of the Assyrians (cf. ANET, 291). However, unlike his father who was a supporter of YHVH, Manasseh, for reasons that are not clear, became an idolater, and worshiped other gods (II K 21: 2 ff). In fact, the biblical tradition considers him the worst of all the Judean kings in this respect. [In the Talmud, he is also known as the one who had the prophet Isaiah killed; cf. Yev. 49b; Pesikta Rab. 4]. Yet, he reigned a very long time (the Bible says, fifty five years), more than any other king in Judah.

The Book of Kings operated with the belief that if you follow YHVH you are rewarded; if you don’t, you are punished. So, the example of a sinful king reigning a very long time created a dilemma for the biblical narrator. The probability is that Manasseh remained on the throne for more than five decades, because he was a loyal vassal. But that is not the way Kings and Chronicles see it, for their respective author/editors were primarily interested in a religious evaluation of personalities involved in the monarchy. The Book of Kings solves the problem by saying that it was Manasseh’s unfaithfulness that caused Jerusalem unexpected tragedies, an oblique reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians later on in 586 BCE: “Because King Manasseh of Judah has done these abhorrent things…..and because he led Judah to sin with his fetishes…I [God] am going to bring such a disaster on Jerusalem and Judah….”(vv. 11-13). However, this value judgment created an additional theological problem; namely, innocent people who lived after Manasseh were punished for the sins of the king and the presumed participation of his generation. That is not fair, and later biblical texts repudiated this notion by establishing the principle of individual responsibility, as the prophet Ezekiel states, “The person who sins, only he shall die” (18: 4; cf. Jer. 31: 27-30; Deut. 24: 16).

Another answer to the king’s longevity is found in the parallel text of Chr 33. There, according to its author/editor, King Manasseh was allowed to live that long, only because he ultimately repented of his sins, an important detail not found in Kings: “In his distress, he entreated the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers” (II Chr. 33: 12). And, because God is merciful, God accepted his repentance, and returned him to his glory. Interestingly, even though our biblical text does not include any prayer by Manasseh, the Apocrypha, edited during the second temple period (2nd or 1st cent BCE), actually provides such a text (see “The Prayer of Manasseh”). It is not clear where the author/editor of Chronicles got his information about Manasseh’s repentance. It seems that, by including it, he wanted to justify God’s justice, and thought that if Manasseh lived that long is because he must have been rewarded by turning back to Yahwism.

Who is right? Which version is more reliable? It is unlikely that the two texts complement one another. There are too many differences in details. To me, they read like two different interpretations of the same basic events in order to justify the ideology of each narrator.

So, next time you read an historical text, ask yourself, what is the author’s agenda? Much will depend on this answer.

Rifat Sonsino