Reform Judaism

What is the Future of Religion?

At a recent TV interview in Westborough, MA, I was asked: “What is the future of religion”? I do not know what prompted this question but, I guess, the interviewer thought that, as a Rabbi, I would have a special insight on this subject at a time when religion is under attack in many quarters: Attendance at religious services is down, many religious leaders have been accused of sexual misconduct, and quite a few synagogues and churches in the Boston area have either closed or have recently combined their activities with others. On the other hand, religious fundamentalism keeps getting stronger and more rigid. Recently, I was looking for a particular channel on TV when I came across a Christian program during which the minister was making assumptions about Judaism that were totally biased and factually wrong. I was about to call the station but then I changed my mind knowing that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation with a religious fanatic.

Not too long ago, I came across a list of statistics which shows that, in America today, 20% of the population is not affiliated, but 68% still believe in God and 37% call themselves simply spiritual, whatever that means.

I maintain that religion will survive, simply because it deals with ultimate values that we need them in our daily life. However, I would urge that it be based on reason and rationality. Being a Jew, I would argue that the Judaism of the present and of the future has to be 1) based on the best scientific information we have; 2) that it must be progressive, answering the existential questions of our time, and, 3)  that it needs to be inclusive, reflecting the different experiences of Jews around the world, in particular remembering that there are a variety of valid Jewish concepts of God, and different religious traditions and rituals (e.g., Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic).

Religion has to be believable, and not based on unproven assumptions, for, if it is, people will not take it seriously and simply ignore it. I take religion seriously but not literally, and am comfortable to say that, for example, many of our classical religious texts (like the Hebrew Bible or the New-Testament, and, less so, the Quran), were completed much later, and that most of these texts were “attributed” to, and not “written by” their “authors.” I also maintain that these texts represent the thinking of their own time, and that new ideas were developed by Jews throughout history. For example, Maimonides was an Aristotelian; Kabbalah mysticism formally originated in the 13th cent. Southern France, and Erich Fromm was a humanist. Today, religion must struggle with our present existential questions using new perspectives.

I am a religious naturalist, following the teachings of Kaplan, Gittelsohn, and Spinoza. I am convinced that Scriptures emerged after a long period of oral transmission, and reflect the thinking of their own time; that miracles do not exist, and if something unusual occurs, it is because we still do not know how the world really operates; that prayers are not answered but reflect our expectations and hopes; that Mitzvot (commanded deeds) must be carried out, not because of the presumed reward in the world-to-come that does not exist, but because it is the right thing to do now; and that after death the only thing that remains of us are our name and actions.

I can live with these assertions and am comfortable with them. What about you?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA.



At the end of the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (2016), Michael Phelps, 30, a highly decorated US competitive swimmer with 28 gold medals to his name, announced that this would be his last international competition. Mind you, this is the second retirement for Michael. The first one was after the 2012 London Games.

Some, like Michael, retire multiple times. Others retire but do not know what to do with themselves. And there are those like me, who call it quits without hesitation, after a satisfying career, but this one takes time and advanced planning.

Why and when people retire depend on various circumstances: e.g., health issues, moving to other communities, or sadly because they are terminated by their bosses. Others, however, choose to retire and often plan for it. I am among the fortunate ones who thought about ending my full-time career as a congregational Rabbi when I turned 65, about 13 years ago.

Throughout my life, I have always been associated with synagogue life. In my youth, even during Law School in Turkey, I acted as hazzan kavua (a permanent prayer-leader) in my Orthodox congregation in Istanbul. During my rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, I held student pulpits in McGehee, Ark.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Kokomo, Ind. After ordination I served in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Philadelphia, Pa.; Chicago, IL and, finally at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA. But when I was about to turn 65, I decided it is time to stop.

The inspiration for retirement came from a rabbinic teaching. According to an ancient source, when Rabbis sat in the Sanhedrin (rabbinic court), they took their seats in a semi-circle fashion, with three rows of scholars facing the Chief Judge. When an opening occurred, they would move a judge from one row to a closer one from the front (Sanh. 4: 4). Later on, Rabbis, commenting on the significance of this move, stated, “It is better for people to say to you ‘go up,’ than for them to tell you to ‘go down’” (Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 1:5). What a wonderful insight, I said to myself. Having accomplished most of what I had intended to do in my professional life, I would retire at will, at the top of my career, instead of waiting for someone telling me, “Rabbi, you are getting older; it is time to take it easy!”

When Ines and I decided to take the plunge, we first went to a retirement seminar sponsored by the Pension Board of our rabbinic association (CCAR) to learn how to say good-bye. Then I approached my lay leadership and informed them of my plan. My president and board accepted our decision with regret, and offered us a wonderful retirement package, including health benefits, convention allowance and, most importantly, a “reserved” spot in the parking lot of our synagogue. This whole process took about a year.

After announcing my retirement to the congregation, we had a special celebration in May of 2003, which we enjoyed very much. On June 30, 2003, I turned in the keys to the office manager and walked away. Ines and I also decided to leave town and move to another suburb in the greater Boston area in order to allow my successor, Rabbi Jay Perlman, a total immersion in the life of the synagogue.

What to do after retirement? I now had more free time to spend with family. I taught, part-time, at Boston College, and now I am on the faculty of Framingham State University, much closer to my home in Ashland. MA, teaching Ethics to two different classes. Ines and I travel more, visit our children and grandchildren in California, and spend more time with our daughter and grand kids in our area. I help out Bet Shalom of Barcelona, an emerging liberal congregation in Spain. I also blog and lecture on a variety of topics. Recently, I learned how to play bocce!!!

I still keep an association with my former Temple. I am the “Rabbi Emeritus.” I give the sermon on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, a talk on Yom Kippur in the afternoon, and lead a discussion during an old-day Kallah (study session) for temple members. We, obviously, continue to see many of our friends in the Boston area, and our Rabbinic Study group of more than 30 years meets every Monday morning at our Temple building in Needham. But otherwise, I am not involved in any details of our congregational life. This is ably handled by other rabbinic colleagues.

This pattern has worked well for us. But it took thinking, planning, understanding and good will on both sides, mine and the temple leadership’s.

I highly recommend it to others who wish to follow a similar path.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR Rabbi. 


Discovering Reform Judaism

My religious training began in Istanbul, Turkey in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua of my temple. When I discovered Reform Judaism in law school, it changed my life for ever. Now I could become a religious, as well as an observant Jew, in good conscience. During my military service in Turkey (1959-60), I applied to and was accepted by the HUC-JIR as a rabbinic student. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish progressive rabbinic school, I came to the States in the Fall of 1961.

After five years in Cincinnati I was ordained as a Rabbi and sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina as the representative of the WUPJ as well as the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, a small liberal congregation of about 100 families. It was there that I got married to Ines Goldstein, my now wife of almost 50 years, and where our son Daniel was born. In Latin America I dealt with Orthodox opposition and Conservative competition but was successful in solidifying the foundations of Reform Judaism in Argentina. In 1969, I decided to leave the congregational rabbinate and was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania where in 1975 I received my Ph.D in Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Our daughter, Deborah was born in Philadelphia, where, in addition to my studies, I also became the Education Director of Main Line Reform Temple, in the suburbs, on a part-time basis.

My first full-time job was at North Shore Congregation Israel, in Glencoe, IL as the Education Director of a large religious school (about 800 students). In 1980, however, I decided to have my own pulpit and accepted an invitation to become the Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, MA where I remained for 23 years, retiring in 2003. During my tenure, I became active at Camp Eisner, was elected president of the Boston area Reform Rabbis, wrote a number of books on Judaica, served as the editor of the CCAR Journal, and trained many Mohalim/lot.

Since my retirement, I have been in academics, teaching part-time Comparative Religion at Boston College and now Ethics at Framingham State University (closer to my new home in Ashland, MA). In addition to my academic obligations, I continue to blog and lecture, and support, through trips and Skype lectures, a small but emerging Reform congregation in Barcelona, Spain, called Bet Shalom. I also love to spend time with my children and grandchildren, two in the Boston area and two in California.

In the 60’s Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinion among us, 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 a special prayer book etc. It is in the nature of Reform Judaism to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today we have many more theological differences among ourselves. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity, and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices, making the rabbinate even more challenging.

When I was a congregational rabbi, I influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a non-theistic religious naturalist, my liturgy, sermons and writings reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. My rabbinate taught me to be patient with people, empathetic with individuals, and accept greater diversity. I learned to be well organized, prompt with my appointments, always respecting time and place. I also assiduously set aside a few hours a week to study, for without it, I would have nothing substantial to teach.

Looking back, I consider myself very fortunate for having a rich and fulfilling life, and am grateful to the Reform movement in the USA for allowing me to realize my dreams.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR Rabbi.