Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rabbi Sonsino: My Ethical Will

Rabbi Sonsino
Ever since our patriarch Jacob allegedly gathered his children to tell them about their future (see Gen. 49), many people have written ethical wills in which they identified not their assets but their most cherished values for their progeny. A number of these ethical wills written by Jews have been published as part of the literary genre called “Hebrew Ethical Wills.” Now that I still have my faculties intact, I wish to follow this example by putting down on paper those moral teachings that have guided me so far. So, in no particular order, here are my ten recommendations (a more personalized version was already written for my children):

1.  Identity:
I was born in Turkey and grew up in Istanbul. I am grateful for my Turkish heritage but I am also a proud Jew, and lived as such since 1938 when I was born. I came to the USA in 1961.

I believe it is important to have a strong identity. For those of us who live in the States, that means having a strong American as well as a Jewish identity. Support the State of Israel and Jews everywhere else. Try to visit the land of our ancestors at least once every ten years. Be a knowledgeable Jew.

2.  Kindness and integrity:

The Bible tells us that human beings are created “in the image of the divine” (Gen.1: 27) representing the best and the highest we know. Be a caring individual. Learn how to empathize in life, and try to feel other people’s joys and pains. Treat other human beings with dignity. Do not raise false expectations for them, and do not resort to violence. Yet, learn how to protect yourselves. Forgive your enemies but do not forget their name.    

3.  Good Name:
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes says, “A good name is better than fragrant oil”(7: 11). In dealing with others, your reputation must be impeccable. If you lose it once, you lose it forever. Be on time, look clean and neat, and try to make a good impression when you meet someone, for its impact remains a long time.  

4.  Family:
Cherish your spouses. Do not take them for granted. As  years go by, learn how to grow old together, accepting with grace all the changes that will occur with you and your mate. Be prepared to sacrifice for your children. After all, your family is your greatest responsibility and your proudest legacy.

5.  Education:
Pursue general education and not job training. Read regularly, keep abreast of what is going on in the world, enjoy a good concert, an inspiring opera, a good theater. To the extent that you can afford it, try to travel around the country and the world. Have a wider perspective in life, and forgo judging things in black and white. Real life occurs within the grays.

6.  Your job:
Enjoy what you are doing. Work hard at your profession. Try to be the best, but don’t allow your job to define you. Get a hobby. Take calculated risks. Otherwise you get stuck in life.

7.  Truth vs. Peace:
Pursue truth, but give peace a priority. For the sake of sh’lom bayit (“peace at home”), be prepared to bend the truth a bit. It will save your marriage, your job and your relationship with the rest of your family and friends.

8.  Exercise:

Do not abuse your bodies or mind. You need them both in good shape. Make time to exercise regularly. Do not use drugs; do not smoke or get drunk. Pursue a path of moderation, and avoid all excesses.

9.  Way of Life:
Do not make the pursuit of happiness your life’s goal. Happiness is only a by-product. Live within your own means. Learn to be content, and be satisfied with what you have. There is no end to wanting more.

10.  One Life:
It is the realization that our days on earth are limited that infuses our life with meaning and purpose. We need to learn how to give up longevity for the sake of intensity. Learn how to enjoy the goodness of life, and try to live it fully and creatively, giving gratitude to God for who you are and what you have.

Rifat Sonsino

Jan. 2013

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Religious Philosophy; An Addition

Rabbi Sonsino
After I completed the various statements regarding my religious philosophy, I was asked to state where I stood vis-à-vis three more topics: the value of religious practices, my position on Israel and my personal approach to our sacred texts. Here below are my answers:


For us Jews, Judaism must be lived through various religious rituals and not only studied as an academic exercise. After all, non-Jews can do that as well, and often do. Jews, on the other hand, need to observe mitzvot, at least, for the following reasons:

        a) Religious practices/ rituals have an educational value: By carrying out Mitzvot we can teach Jewish values: e.g., saying a blessing over wine as a symbol of joy; reciting the motzi as an acknowledgment of our dependence on God for nature’s bounties; the wedding ring as a symbol of marital fidelity.

    b) Religious practices/rituals have an emotional value: By carrying out a mitzvah we can remember important people in our lives who do them now or have done them in the past.

    c)   Religious practices/rituals bind us to the Jewish community at large by establishing a connection to other Jews around the world.

    d)  Religious practices/ rituals point us to the source of power or energy of the universe, namely God.

However, mitzvot, to be authentic, have to be observed in consonance with our modern thinking, and devoid of superstition and false information. Furthermore, they have to be carried out to the extent that they are meaningful to the individual.


The Land of Israel is the spiritual home of all Jews. Even after the destruction of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, when Jews spread out throughout the Mediterranean basin and lived under the domination of gentiles for about 2000 years, they never forgot the land of their ancestors, and looked forward to the day when they would be gathered once again in the Land of Israel and live there freely and in peace. That event took place in 1948 when the modern State of Israel was established.

Presently, the Jews of Israel live surrounded by a Muslim community in the Middle East that is inimical to its physical existence. Even though some of them are willing to recognize the reality of Israel, others are vociferously proclaiming its upcoming destruction.  This negative attitude has compelled Israeli Jews to turn to the right in the political spectrum, which has been, in my opinion, unhealthy for the long prospect of Israel. Palestinian Arabs and Israelis have no other choice but to accept the reality of each other, and make painful compromises in order to live in peace. This goal, however, appears to be unattainable today. Jews who live outside of Israel are also conflicted, some supporting the government of Israel, which is committed to build more settlements in Judea and Samaria, and others, like me, standing behind the opposition, which is against enlarging the settlements and in favor of a policy of compromise and accommodation. So, there is no Jewish unanimity on this subject. But, except for the Satmar Hasidim who are theologically opposed to Israel as a State, what unites all Jews today is the unequivocal commitment to the independence and sovereignty of Israel in its own land.


Jews have been the historical authors of many Holy Scriptures, such as the Bible and many rabbinic texts; they represent the foundation of our western civilization. Some consider the Bible as God’s word and therefore inerrant, and others, me among them, follow biblical criticism and view it as the product of many inspired individuals and schools of thought throughout the centuries. Is the Bible authoritative? Some Jews say, yes, because God wrote it. I consider it a major source of inspiration and as the basis for my own Judaism, but , being a fallible human document, the Bible is in no way binding. I spent all my life studying the Bible because it is part of our own tradition, warts and all, and still has something to teach us about human behavior and religious beliefs.

Rifat Sonsino