Thursday, May 29, 2014

And God Spoke These Words: An Interview with Author Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

[Originally posted on]
Throughout his long and distinguished career, Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD, has helped thousands of readers find God, and uncovered the truths and legends behind the foundational myths of Judaism. In his newest book, he explores one of the best known – and least understood – texts in the Bible: the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments loom large as ethical and moral guideposts in the Western world. The Bible recounts how, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel proceeded to Mount Sinai in the desert. Moses ascended the mountain to meet God, who gave him the Ten Commandments, which were written on two tablets to be delivered to the Children of Israel.
These statutes have informed much of Judaism and Christianity over the past two thousand years, and stand at the center of many modern legal and political debates. However, attention to the remarkable and well-established influence of these words often glosses over the actual text and context of the biblical sources themselves.
In And God Spoke These Words: The Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, Rabbi Sonsino draws on commentators from Maimonides to Mel Brooks to explore how the Ten Commandments have been interpreted – and misinterpreted – for generations. He examines the religious and legal texts of the Israelites' neighbors in the Ancient Near East, surveys centuries of Rabbinic commentary, and engages with contemporary secular and Jewish thought. Sonsino's thorough contextualization and discussion of the Decalogue provide the reader with an understanding of where these iconic commands originate, how they have been understood by Jews throughout the ages, and what moral direction they can still provide in the 21st century.
Stephen Becker, director of sales and marketing at URJ Books and Music, sat down with Rabbi Sonsino to discuss this fascinating new book.
URJ Books and Music: Why did you write this book?
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino: I wrote this book because I became aware of the fact that many people have the wrong information about this famous text. For example, many people think that the Decalogue contains the so-called Golden Rule, "treat others as you want to be treated." In reality, the Golden Rule is based on a saying attributed to Rabbi Hillel who lived in the 1st century C.E. and it is not found in the list of the Ten Commandments.
Secondly, I wrote the book because I realized that many people project onto the text their own religious views. For example, those who oppose abortion and pacifists who are against war at all cost argue that the Ten Commandments says, "Do not kill." A linguistic study indicates that this law can easily be translated as "You shall not murder," implying premeditation, changing the scope of the commandment. We simply do not know how the original norm was understood in biblical times. The Bible knows of the death penalty and is not against wars. So, "You shall not kill," is not likely to be the original intention.
Finally, I wanted to provide a modern interpretation of the Decalogue, especially stressing its relevance in contemporary ethical situations. For example, in reviewing the norm against stealing, I discuss not only stealing property, but also kidnapping, encroachment, unfair competition, identity theft, copyright issues, Ponzi schemes, and so on.
URJBAM: What is the relevance of the Ten Commandments now?
RRS: The Decalogue contains certain basic legal and moral norms that are found at the foundation not only of Judaism but also of Western civilization. For many people the Decalogue simply stands for law and order. It represents our high religious standards. That is why so many judges and religious leaders want to display them in the courts of law.
URJBAM: How can this book be used in class?
RRS: I would suggest that students first share their personal information about the Ten Commandments, and then, by studying my text, try to figure out how each one of them can be applied today. I would also suggest that at the end of the sessions, students should attempt to come out with their own set of ten commandments that are reflective of modern life.
URJBAM: Why call it "Ten Words," and not "Ten Commandments"?
RRS: The Hebrew text does not refer to the Decalogue as "ten commandments," but only as "ten words." This is also the meaning of the word "Decalogue." In Greek, this means, "ten words." These "words" become "commandments" when they are internalized and attributed to the divine. How these ten norms were revealed is a mystery. We do not have a clear picture of it in the Bible. We are dealing here with a fundamental myth. Obviously, to become effective, each of the ten words needs to be elevated from the level of "legislation" on the books to the level of "commandments," when a person feels that these norms have fundamental value and are addressed to every person.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD, is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, and adjunct professor of theology at Boston College. Born in Turkey, he received his law degree from the University of Istanbul, his rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and his doctorate in Bible and Ancient and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Rabbi Sonsino is the author of numerous books, articles, and blog posts.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Children's Center Teachers Honored

Five TBSCC teachers have received special honors in recent weeks. Their achievements are a sign of the high quality of our faculty.  Please join me in congratulating Sylvia, Jesse, Steve, Sasha and Laura on their accomplishments. A hearty mazel tov goes to...

Sylvia Cohen, Levana teacher, was accepted into the Teaching & Technology Fellowship of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). This intensive program allows teachers to use new tools to re-envision their roles (inside the classroom, and beyond) and offers the training they need to effectively deliver content, interact with children and their families and shape a positive experience for learners. Sylvia joins Rena Gray Fein, 2nd/3rd grade teacher in the TBS Mayim program on our TBS team. We look forward to learning so many new technology tools from Sylvia!

Jesse Tobin, Kohavim Teacher, was selected as one of only 16 educators nationwide for the prestigious Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute. She recently returned from four days of study with the program and will continue for the next 18 months. Jesse will focus on Jewish study and leadership development and bring her learning back to the TBSCC community.

Steve Shimshak, Etzim teacher, has been working with CJP and researchers from Brandeis University to study the needs of area Jewish parents with young children. If you got a survey by email about your school choice, you've seen part of Steve's work on this project. As we plan for the new TBS building and our needs as a school community for the future, the data obtained from Steve's work will guide our decision making process.

Sasha Kopp, Levana teacher, was accepted by Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where she will pursue a Master of Arts in Jewish Education. Sasha was also accepted to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, a selective fellowship for outstanding graduate students in Jewish education, Jewish professional leadership, and the rabbinate. We are sorry to see Sasha leave TBS next fall, but we are so proud of her!

Laura Walsh, Etzim teacher, along with co-teacher Steve Shimshak and Lauri Cohen and Gabi Soble, Adamah teachers, has been participating in an on-going study of Social Thinking. Laura's story of the work that has been happening in the Etzim class was recently featured in the newsletter from Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, an area organization that helps children with special needs access Jewish education.  Read the story Laura shared:
Temple Beth Shalom Children's Center, Needham: Preschool teachers of young four-year-olds introduced a strategy begun at the outset of the year in response to finding the 'right' job for a returning student. On a rotating basis, one child takes on the role of the "problem solver" for his/her peers to serve as the support person of the week, whose job it is to help when there is a conflict or problem. The 'problem solver' wears a special necklace with a big 'question mark (?) hanging prominently from it. Whenever two or more children appear to need a neutral third party to help negotiate the sharing or 'mixing' of ideas, the problem solver steps forward and 'listens' diligently to each child and then together they work out the solution to the problem. At first this process required a lot of the teachers' attention. However, the children quickly began to use the social thinking skills of thinking thoughts and feeling feelings. The problem solver asked each participant: "What's in your thought bubble?" and the work of problem solving began. Children continued to cultivate the important skills of perspective taking, size of the problem, and dealt with what happens when unexpected situations emerge. They progressed to making a group plan where none existed.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Torah Study by the TBS Kindergarten Enrichment Kids

Torah web: Over the course of the year, we have been following the Kindergartners' interest into a deeper investigation of Torah. We have learned the reasoning behind each cover of our five Torah's kept in the sanctuary's ark, we have read stories from the Torah, and have explored our own classroom Torah. On Friday, the kindergartners made a web of all of their ideas they know or think they know about Torah and what they are wondering about. In the web, the children's thoughts are written in orange and their questions are written in purple. Below are some of their ideas and questions. Children's Ideas about Torah: 
It has lots of Stories like Noah's Ark, Passover Story, and Adam and Eve.
It lives in the Ark and on the doors there is a picture of fire and hebrew letters.
The torah has lot of different parts. There is a cover and it is made of special paper that they think comes from animal skin.
You can't touch the words, but can use something to point at the words.
Rabbi Jay took a Torah to London for a party. It was a Torah that almost got destroyed.
The Torah has all Hebrew words.
If you drop a Torah you can't eat for 40 days.
I have a small Torah at home.

Questions about Torah:
Why is the Torah so special?
Can we make a Torah?
Who makes a Torah?
How do you make a Torah's cover?
Why is it called "torah"?
Where did the Torah come from?

It is amazing how much the children already know about Torah and how much they want to learn.

Scientists of the Torah: After creating a web of our many ideas and questions about Torah, Brett S., Brett E., and Adam headed to the sanctuary to conduct some close-up observations. They carefully worked together to open the Ark revealing Temple Beth Shalom's five beautiful Torahs. They observed each Torah cover. You can notice the detail in Adam's observational drawing of the five Torahs above. As they worked, Brett S. exclaimed, "We are like scientists of the Torah!"

While observing, we recalled which story each cover represented and have learned about. (from left to right) The first Torah displays an image of Shabbat Candles and a Kiddush cup which reminds us of Shabbat and when God created the world on the 7th day God rested. The second Torah shows the parting of the seas, a spectacular moment from the story of Passover. The torah in the middle shows the burning bush which is when God spoke to Moses. The next torah shows a tent and part of the rainbow from the story of Noah's ark. The last Torah (far right) illustrates the olive branch and rainbow from Noah's ark. Each cover represents moments of stories from the Torah in which God was present.

The Beginning of Our Torah: Together, we decided to create our very own Torah. The children are working in pairs or small groups to represent different stories we have learned about from the Torah. Brett S. and Zack are working together to paint the creation story. They are using seven canvases to represent each day of creation. Above, you can see Brett S. painting the first day when there was darkness and God created light. Together, the painted the second day when got created the sea and the sky. You can also see the painting Zack made to represent the day God made the land, grass, plants, and trees. Through creativity and interpretation, Zack and Brett are creating the the creation story! 

Torah with Emily: This past Friday, the sanctuary was being used so we met with Emily in the community room. Upon entering the community room, we were surprised to find a surprise waiting for us. The Torah was waiting covered by two tallit. We sang prayers and songs and then discovered something new about the Torah. All year, we have been discussing the Torah covers of our five Torahs at Temple Beth Shalom, but Emily was about to teach us something new! We knew that this particular torah cover (shown above) had candles and a kiddish cup which we believed represented Shabbat from the creation story, but Emily drew our attention to the brown strips of fabric behind the candle and cup. The children noticed that the brown illustrated something tall and began guessing what it could be. Together they determined it was a mountain and that maybe it was Mount. Sinai. They were exactly right! What a wonderful discovery! We know that the Torah covers represent stories from the Torah in which God was present. Mount Sinai is when God gave moses the Torah! After learning this, the children decided we would have to include this story in the Torah we were making as a class. 

Sculpting a mountain: After learning that Mount Sinai was represented on the Torah covers, the kindergartners insisted we include this story in the Torah we were creating. Adam decided he would begin work on representing this story. He followed a recipe to create three batches of play dough. Each batch was a slightly different shade of brown and gold. He is planning to use the play dough to sculpt Mount Sinai. We will continue our study of Shavuot and how Moses received the Torah from God upon Mount Sinai next week. It is amazing to see how each kindergartener is working to interpret and represent these stories from the Torah in their own unique way.

by Jesse Tobin, Kindergarten Enrichment Teacher

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Erdogan Calls A Protester “Israeli Scum”

Rabbi Sonsino
On May 13, 2014 there was a terrible explosion in a Turkish mine, 8 miles away from Soma (popl. c. 25,000), a small town in the district of Manisa in the Aegean region of Turkey. It was one of the worst tragedies in modern Turkey that claimed the life of 302 individuals. When the Turkish prime-minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan visited the area, he was confronted by an angry mob. During the melee, the PM confronted someone in the group, and reportedly said something like “What the f. do you think you are running to? O Israeli scum (“İsrail Dölü”).” Except that the word translated here as “scum” in English has a vulgar sexual connotation in Turkish. This is the same Erdogan who, during the 2009 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, gave a short talk accusing Israel of indiscriminately murdering Palestinian children, and walked out of the dais, leaving behind a totally surprised Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, as well as other members of the panel.

The scandal of Soma affected Turkish citizens deeply; they are demanding whether or not there was a cover up for criminal negligence on the part of mine’s owner and manager. It also shocked the dwindling Jewish population (now at c. 17,000) in Turkey, fearing that this could be the beginning of a new anti-Jewish wave by other Turks.

The Turkish friends with whom I am in touch are terribly upset. Some stated that they need to apologize to their Jewish neighbors for this unacceptable slur.  Can you imagine any Western political leader saying something similar, and getting away with it? No way! He/she would be out of a job the next day! This time Erdogan showed his real face when he uttered those despicable words.

There are anti-semites everywhere, but I do not consider all Turks anti-Jewish or anti-Israel. I did not experience anti-Jewish attacks when I was in law school or when I was in the Turkish military (I was an officer in the tank corps and a member of military court). I still have dear friends there who are Muslim. Does that mean that Turkey is devoid of prejudice? No. I remember when I was child, my mother and I were on a boat crossing the Bosphorus, and as usual we were speaking among ourselves in Ladino, when an obnoxious guy approached us and yelled, “Jew, speak Turkish!” I was in shock. But I also recall that during Easter we never went by a Greek Orthodox Church for fear that Greek thugs would come out to beat us kids because “we killed Christ.”

The Turkish government has started an investigation of this tragic event. I hope they will discover the real cause of the fire, take precautions so that it does not happen again, punish the culprits, and learn how to confront people, especially the mourners, with dignity and respect.

As to Erdogan, I hope this is the end of the rope for him. He must apologize and perhaps leave politics to those who are better than him. Will this happen? I don’t know.  He is still very popular among many people….

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

May 2014