A few years ago, at a rabbinic meeting in Boston, we were asked to write a statement, which could be read in 30 seconds or less, about Judaism and the role we play as clergy. Obviously, the exercise was to force us to identify the essence of our religion in a clear and concise manner. This is what I wrote:
“For me, the essence of Judaism as a religion is found in its teaching of empathy for other human beings who are facing existential issues. As a Rabbi, my role is to be a more derekh, a spiritual guide, pointing to viable alternatives that lead to wholeness and personal integrity.”
What Unites All Jews
I have often been asked: If you maintain that there are various definitions of God in Judaism, just as there are different paths of Jewish spirituality, what then binds us, Jews, together? My answer is this: we share the same history; we have the same tradition that is optimistic and “this-world” oriented; we cherish the same sacred books; we celebrate the same holidays and life-cycle events; we have a strong “tribal” connection; and we welcome anyone who wants to share our life and fate. To be a Jew is a privilege, and we should be proud of it.
Religious beliefs are stronger when they are authentic. They cannot be imposed; they have to be accepted freely. During my entire professional career, I sought a path that reflects my personality. I made it my cause to elucidate the religious alternatives promoted by our sages, and have encouraged my readers and listeners to find their own way within this diversity. This is one of the strengths of Judaism. For centuries, Jews have created a way of life and a system of community discipline that bound one Jew to another. However, in matters of belief, Jewish teachers were much more open to alternatives. After having proclaimed a few principles of faith, such as the belief in one God, the foundational myths about the giving of the Torah at Sinai/Horeb and our hopes for the future, they still allowed individual Jews to choose from the traditional sources those that are in consonance with their own thinking, even allowing them to add newer ones in line with the traditional Jewish spirit. We can ignore this tradition or we can embrace it. I opt for the latter, and urge other fellow Jews to do the same.
Life After Death
Judaism has espoused various views, all of them projected from our own existence here on earth, about the afterlife. No one believes today that after death, he/she will go to Sheol, an undisclosed place perhaps located under the earth, where they shall live a shadowy kind of existence.. This idea went away by the end of the Biblical period. During the rabbinic period, resurrection of the body became a dogma disseminated by the Pharisaic teachers. Later on, some Jews subscribed to the idea of immortality of the soul or reincarnation, just as others maintained that after death there is a total disintegration (For more details, see our book, What Happens After I Die?, R. Sonsino and D. Syme, URJ, 1990).
After viewing all the Jewish alternatives, I believe that one lives on biologically through children, through an association with the Jewish people, and, ultimately, through his/her good deeds. Personally, I assume that after I am gone, the energy I represent will blend with the energy of the universe. I hope, however, that whatever influence I have had on others through my books and other types of teaching will remain in the minds of my students and congregants.
In the meantime, I hope to live as long as it is possible fully, creatively, with personal integrity, with good health and surrounded by family and friends. And to all this I say, dayenu! (“It is just enough for me”).
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino teaches at Boston College and retired from Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, in 2003.
Originally posted at Blog Shalom