Friday, May 24, 2013

Rabbi Sonsino: Writing an Introduction to Judaism

Rabbi Sonsino
My new book, Modern Judaism, published by Cognella in Jan. 2013 and available through other venues, is a full introduction to the Jewish customs and ceremonies, the history and basic beliefs, the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and all the major Jewish platforms of our time. Written first as a college text book, it is now available to the general public.

Writing an introduction comes with its own challenges as to what to include and what to exclude. You would expect that Judaism, as an ancient religion that is well known in the West, does not need another introduction but the fluidity of the literature and the constant changes in our life-style and religious beliefs make it necessary to update the material on a regular basis. My book attempts to meet that need.

In 1961 when I arrived in the United States as a rabbinic student from Turkey, it was much easier to identify who was an Orthodox Jew and who was a Conservative or a Reform Jew. Today, the line of demarcation is not so clear. Even though non-Orthodox movements, which now include the Reconstructionist, Humanist and Renewal, have their own religious platforms, they are general in nature and tend to be inclusive and therefore vague; they do not always reflect the practice in the field. In former years, I could attend a Reform rabbinic convention (CCAR), and know exactly what to expect liturgically and theologically. Today, it includes a mishmash of all types of religious practices and beliefs. More and more, it looks like a bigger divide is emerging in the Jewish world between the Orthodox and the rest of all the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Modern Judaism discusses all of these religious movements.

Most previous introductions assumed that the Ashkenazic religious practices determined the core of Judaism, and consequently contained hardly any reference to the rich Sephardic tradition. In my Modern Judaism, I tried to present both points of view on most contentious subjects, such as the various practices regarding what to eat and not to eat during Passover, whether flowers are permitted during funerals, and what is the pattern of naming a child after a living or a dead parent and many others.

In addition to religious practices, it is important to point out that in the realm of religious beliefs, even though we all believe in the existence of One and Unique God, Jewish thinkers have advocated various concepts of God as well as other major religious concepts (e.g., freedom of will, sin, salvation, the efficacy of prayer). Furthermore, we, in the liberal community, need to approach our Sacred Scriptures through critical eyes and not take them as infallible, which they are not. My book highlights these points.

It would have been advantageous to include other subjects in the book, such as, an extensive discussion of critical biblical passages, a more comprehensive analysis of Jewish medieval thought, a full evaluation of modern Jewish approaches to various ethical and medical ethics, but that would have been beyond the scope of an introduction, and I decided to leave them out. I hope my Modern Judaism will whet the appetite of the readers and will lead them to further studies in their chosen fields. I am only opening the door, and if I have been able to excite the curiosity of my readers, I will be happy.

Rifat Sonsino

May 2013

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