Friday, April 4, 2014

Discovering Reform Judaism and Getting Lost in It

Rabbi Sonsino
My religious training began in Istanbul, in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (ritual slaughter for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua (the main liturgical leader) of my temple. My teacher, I now realize, was a well-intentioned but narrow-minded individual.  In law school, when I discovered Reform Judaism, he quickly dismissed me from the pulpit. I was no longer kosher for him.

For me, however, finding a liberal expression of Judaism was liberating. I could now, in good conscience, become a religious and observant Jew. During my military service in Turkey, I applied and was accepted by the Reform rabbinic seminary (the Hebrew Union College) in Cincinnati. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish rabbinic school associated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I came to the States in late August of 1961. I was in heaven!

In the 60’s, Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinions among us—we are Jews after all—we all had a general idea of what Reform Judaism stood for: We supported progressive revelation; we believed in the immortality of the soul; we had a common liturgical style and prayerbook etc. Now things are different. At times, I don’t know where Reform Judaism stands.

I realize that it is in the nature of Reform to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective of the Reform Rabbinate (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that, “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today, however, we have more theological discord among ourselves. For example, we cannot even agree whether we support tehiyyat hametim (resurrection) or immortality of the soul, and our new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, has to include both options. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity; and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices.

The only continuity we have is the particular rabbi’s style of worship and philosophy in his/her congregation. When I was a congregational rabbi, I, too, influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a religious naturalist, my services certainly reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. Every rabbi does this in his/her temple. I understand that, and congregants do too. As a rabbi who has been on the pulpit close to 50 years and a shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader) for almost 60 years, I would suggest that once in a while, rabbis and cantors review their prayer practices, and vary them as necessary. Not all services have to start with, “Let us take a big breath.”  After a while, it is boring.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

April, 2014

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Eating Rice on Passover

Rabbi Sonsino
According to Jewish tradition, it is not permitted to eat fermented grain products (called hametz) during the entire Passover week. The Mishnah specifically mentions wheat (hittim), barley (seorim), spelt [also known as farro] (kusmin), rye (shifon) and oats (shibolet shual) (M. Pes. 2: 5). [Danby translates kusmin as “goat-grass”]. Ashkenazic Jews add to this list of prohibited food items rice, millet, corn, beans and other legumes (called kitniyot) in Hebrew. Most Sephardic Jews do not follow this custom and eat rice and other legumes during Passover.

What is the reason for this prohibition that emerged among Jews of Eastern European background?  Apparently, the custom originated in France in the 13th century and from there it spread to other Jewish communities in Europe. According to some sources, the reason is that these legumes resemble grain. Some point out that rice also “rises” when cooked in water. Others argue that some people could become confused and actually resort to making flour out of them.

In 1988, a prominent conservative Rabbi in Israel, David Golinkin, wrote a responsum on this subject and stated that the actual reason for this custom is unknown, and in fact contradicts an explicit statement in the Talmud (BT Pes. 114b). He also quoted another medieval Rabbi, Rabbi Yeruham, who called it “a foolish custom.” [See a longer article online by Jeffrey Spitzer, “Kitniyot, Not Quite Hametz” in My Jewish Learning].

Similarly, the CCAR, in its 1996 responsum on this subject, indicated that the early Reform Jews in Europe found this custom unnecessary and burdensome, and abolished it. It also stated that the “Reform practice, following the standard of the Talmud, permits the eating of rice and legumes during Passover,” but added that some observant Reform Jews may continue to follow the Ashkenazic tradition, if they wish.

I think it is time to eliminate this unnecessary burden on our congregants. As a Sephardic Jew, I will continue to eat rice and other legumes, without any sense of guilt.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
April 2014.