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
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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.”