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.”

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