Sherwin T. Wine: An Apprecation

This essay first appeared in Jewish Currents May-June 2009, pp. 51-55. It also appears as the Afterword to A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews (IISHJ, 2012). For a book-length appreciation of Sherwin Wine’s life and work from a variety of contributors, see A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism (print and e-book).

Jewish tradition allegedly values questioning, but it also decreed in the Kitsur Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative code of traditional Jewish law, that “it is forbidden to give [a student] to an apikoros (heretic), which is much worse [than giving him to a non-Jew], for there is concern the child may follow in his footsteps.” If we learn that science and archaeology challenge traditional Jewish narratives, from Creation to the Flood to the Exodus and beyond, can we teach that to children? If you find more inspiration in modern Jewish literature than the Torah or the Talmud, can you study that instead? If you see no convincing evidence of a God that answers prayers, writes Torahs, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, feeds the hungry, and fulfills the many other flattering attributes of traditional Jewish liturgy, can you say so out loud? If our actual behavior demonstrates a reliance on human power and human knowledge that contradicts the popular pieties we say we believe, can you point out the contradiction and inspire us to live and speak in one voice? Can an apikoros insist on staying Jewish, and even be a rabbi?

When Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine found his “calling” in the mid-1960s to be the first Humanistic rabbi leading the first Humanistic congregation, he heard it from all sides. Religious Jews, from Reform to Orthodox, said, “How can you call yourself a rabbi? Being a rabbi is all about God.” Never mind that many of their members were just as philosophically secular in private but joined congregations to feel Jewish community. Secular Jews, from Labor Zionists to socialist Yiddishists, said, “Why call yourself a rabbi? Being a rabbi is all about God.” Never mind that what Wine called “Humanistic Judaism,” a cultural Jewish identity celebrated through a human-centered philosophy of life, was largely how they celebrated their Jewishness.

Since most American Jews use religious terminology—Jewish identity is “Judaism,” a Jewish leader is a rabbi—this synthesis of secular Jewishness, humanistic philosophy and religious formats had the potential to reach Jews who didn’t yet realize who they really were. Sometimes having a foot on both sides, rather than sitting on a fence, gives you the best of both worlds.

When Sherwin Wine was killed in a car accident in Morocco in July 2007, he was not quite at the peak of his skills, but he was definitely at the height of his organizational achievement. From that one Humanistic congregation in suburban Detroit, he could now claim over thirty like-minded congregations in the Society for Humanistic Judaism. From his lonely status as the first Humanistic rabbi, he was now one of over fifty leaders, educators, spokespeople and rabbis trained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), of which he was the Dean and Provost, including several Israelis ordained as “secular rabbis” to serve and represent secular Israeli Jews in their battles for personal status. And Wine’s coalition work with the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (through the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, IFSHJ) spread his message even wider. Though Wine himself preferred “Humanistic Judaism,” in coalition with organizations and institutions the approach is often called “Secular Humanistic Judaism.”

At a minimum, Wine was a memorable figure—and I am not only writing (full disclosure) as someone raised in his congregation from babynaming through bar mitzvah and confirmation, as a student of the IISHJ Rabbinic Program ordained by him, as a groom married by him, and as a professional colleague of his as rabbinic intern, assistant rabbi, and Assistant Dean at the IISHJ until his death. Anyone who heard Wine speak, and certainly those who heard him many times, came away impressed by his knowledge, his clear thinking, his strong beliefs, and his humor (he loved the irony that his middle name, Theodore, meant “God’s gift”). Understanding, insightful, a brilliant synthesizer of information, he was always teaching. He was also a masterful and sensitive pastoral counselor, 100 percent present for you in times of need no matter how busy he might be. Like all of us, he was not perfect, but let us apply the spirit if not the literal  meaning of ale kales saynen shayn, ale mayssim zaynen frum—all brides are beautiful, all dead men are pious. In other words, I come to praise Sherwin, not to kvetch [complain] about him.

No philosophy of Jewish identity springs like the original Adam from the dust of the ground—they evolve from earlier forms, and in many variations. The Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) led to Reform Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism (in response), and Conservative Judaism, and Jewish socialism, and cosmopolitan “just Jews,” and Yiddishists and Zionists and, a generation later, Humanistic Judaism. Many early secular Jews were clearly apikorsim; having left Orthodoxy behind, writers like Y. L. Peretz and his audience knew traditional sources and rituals so well they could spoof them—thus, for example, the “Grand Yom Kippur Ball” at the Brooklyn Labor Lyceum in 1890 mentioned in Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (p. 106). The challenge has been to ensure that the next generation gets the joke: if you’re raised with a Yom Kippur Ball, that’s your version of the tradition. If you do nothing at all, however, it may not be as effective as drawing on the strengths of tradition with integrity and creativity so you can still be true to your convictions.

The other challenge is not taking your secularism far enough; for some secular Judaisms, their secularism was more incidental or “lowest common denominator” than central to their self-understanding. Jewish socialists were cultural Jews, and socialism was the philosophical “filter” through which they lived their Jewish identity. But they didn’t always follow through on the challenging implications of contemporary knowledge. For example, from Mayn Folk, a 1962 Workmen’s Circle children’s history book (my rough transliteration and translation from the Yiddish):

Ven yidn hobn gelebt in midber iz zayr firer geven moshe. Er is geven der firer fun ale yidishe shvotim. Ale yidn hobn im gefalgt. Moshe hot gelerent di yidn vi azoi tsu lebn sheyn un gut. Er hot gegebn dem yidishn folk tun kluge un gute gezetsn. Er hot gegebn di yidn di toyre.
When the Jews lived in the wilderness, their leader was Moses. He was the leader of all the Jewish tribes. All Jews obeyed him. Moses taught the Jews how to live properly and well. He gave the Jewish people wise and good laws. He gave Jews the Torah.

God is edited out of this book, which instead focuses on the “organizer” Moses. However, despite all the evidence of archaeology and biblical criticism that the Torah was compiled centuries after Moses (if he existed), the traditional teaching of the Siddur (prayerbook) that “this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel” persists.

In Humanistic Judaism, philosophical secularism is the core, and a naturalistic philosophy of life that emphasizes human power, human responsibility, human knowledge and human needs independent of supernatural authority is the filter through which Jewish culture can be celebrated with integrity. Where secular philosophy had taken Felix Adler out of Judaism and the rabbinate and into Ethical Culture, Sherwin Wine fought to create a vehicle to celebrate both. He kept the forms of a religious Judaism (rabbi, congregation) while infusing them with secular knowledge. His Torah was in the congregational library—with all the other human-authored books.

Wine himself was a product of many environments. He was raised in the densely and diversely Jewish neighborhoods of Detroit, in a traditional Yiddish-speaking household with immigrant parents who joined a Conservative synagogue. His interests in world history and his tremendous appetite for reading led to the University of Michigan and a philosophy degree, but his love of the Jewish people led to the Reform rabbinical seminary, which was then much more open to theological questioning. His experiences as an army chaplain in Korea convinced him that Jewish identity was more than religion—the soldiers were much more eager for kosher salami than for another religious service. After a stint as an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Detroit, he struck out on his own, first at a new Temple Beth El in Windsor, Ontario, and then at the Birmingham Temple; as he put it to me once, “I was not temperamentally suited to being an assistant.”

The first challenge he faced in this new Judaism was what to do with traditional Jewish religion, and his innovative solution was to not throw out the synagogue with the mikvah (ritual bath). Previous secular Jewish approaches had largely left to the individual, or left behind, those “irredeemably religious” occasions—Shabbat, bar mitzvah, Yom Kippur. A Passover seder about a worker’s rebellion had been done, but could you really change the traditional “Oseh Shalom” (He will make peace) to “Na’ase Shalom” (we will make peace)? Could Shabbat be a celebration of Jewish community feeling and philosophical inspiration, Yom Kippur a time for personal reflection, and the bar or bat mitzvah a coming-of-age ceremony celebrating both personal values and a connection to the full range of Jewish civilization, even beyond the Torah? Many secular Jewish communities today have moved in this direction, but Sherwin Wine was doing this a generation ago.

How much could “religious” Jewish forms be adapted to be consistent with a secular or humanistic worldview? Wine was impatient with the small, incremental liturgical changes made by Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism—“To the skeptical, analytic, and sophisticated mind,” he wrote in his slim volume Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus, 1978, p. 9), “worship is difficult; and to the devotee who has redefined God as a natural impersonal force, prayer is silly. Why bother to improve prayers for people who . . .don’t want to pray? Perhaps more drastic alternatives are needed.”

This led to the second challenge: how to balance one’s humanity with one’s Jewishness. Wine was deeply committed to a humanistic world view, and found real inspiration in humanist philosophers, both Jews and non-Jews; Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud, and also Epicurus, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Santayana were major figures in his thinking. As Humanistic Judaism evolved and had more contact with secular Jewish organizations, Wine began to explain his approach not just as a combination of personal philosophy and family culture, but also as a personal philosophy that grew out of one’s family culture. In other words, the humanism that emerges from a secular understanding of the Jewish experience could be confirmed by outside philosophical study, but was not purely the product of abstract rational thinking. And, at the same time, “we cannot be fully developed human beings if we cannot dip into the pool of universal creativity for inspiration.” (Wine, “Response” in Life of Courage, p. 300)

As many Jewish organizations as he initiated, Wine also worked with many non-Jewish groups—The Voice of Reason to fight religious fundamentalism, the Humanist Institute to train humanist officiants (in collaboration with the Ethical Culture movement and others), the Center for New Thinking to explore the wide range of ideas that stimulated his interest, and many others. To his everlasting credit, Wine was always open to officiating and even co-officiating at intermarriage and gay commitment ceremonies, long before the organized Jewish community was willing to face those realities. His personal thirty-year partnership with Richard McMains, while never granted legal recognition, lasted longer than many marriages. The thousands of intermarriages at which he officiated opened a door to future Jewish connection that otherwise would have been slammed shut. And for those Jews who were just looking for a rabbi for their wedding, he opened their eyes to a cultural Judaism they never would have discovered otherwise.

Wine was a speaker in search of an audience, delivering hour-long inspirational and educational lectures from one salmon-colored note card (and in his last decade with no notes at all) and presenting many programs a week. He contributed at least one article for every issue of the journal Humanistic Judaism for forty years, though his book writing was limited by his busy schedule as rabbi of a four-hundred-family congregation, ceremonial officiant for weddings and funerals for anyone, an in-demand public intellectual, and leader of an international movement. Incidentally, he also insisted on writing everything in fountain pen (even e-mail responses, which staff would then type and send).

From his earliest works, it was clear that he was both provocative and insightful. In his first substantial collection of essays (Humanistic Judaism, 1978), here is the inspirational:

An honest Judaism does not describe what Jews used to believe; it clarifies and articulates what Jews do believe. Since Jewish identity is . . . an ethnic identity, Judaism changes from century to century. In Solomon’s day it was polytheistic; in Hillel’s day it was monotheistic; in our time it has, by any behavior standard, become humanistic. As long as a Jewish people persists, whatever beliefs the overwhelming majority of the people subscribes to is justifiably called Judaism. Our task is, therefore, to discard pretense, to observe our actions, and to discover what we truly believe. Without honest self-insight, we are condemned to the futile task of improving illusions.

And the outrageous:

There can be no idea, word, value or ritual that is a sanctum, an untouchable item of reverence. Even Jewish survival must be periodically reviewed, with the option of rejection as perfectly respectable. . . . The attempt to equate Jewishness with a set of eminently respectable social values is an act of moral boorishness. It suggests, by implication, that these values (if they are defined as virtues) are absent from the behavior of non-Jews. Such an act of gracelessness is typical of the self-righteous. . . .

Neither the Bible nor the Talmud is structured in the logical way that would meet the minimum standards of a competent abstract thinker. Although literacy and Torah study were widespread among Jews, neither suggested intellectuality. For the character of the intellectual is not determined by the ability to read or the amount of study. It is always determined by how one reads and studies. The curriculum of the Polish kheyder or yeshiva was no more intellectual than the study program of the Algiers Koran school.

While this may inflame the Jewish solidarity instinct, there is too much truth behind it to dismiss it out of hand.

While Wine could be outrageous, his destruction always had an eye to rebuilding on a more solid foundation. His systematic articulation of Humanistic Judaism, Judaism Beyond God (1985, revised 1995), includes personal philosophy and ethics; responses to other Jewish alternatives (from Orthodoxy to Reform and Reconstructionism, from Ethical Culture to Yiddish Nationalism and Zionism); his approach to Jewish identity, Jewish history and Jewish literature; and explorations of celebrations of Jewish holidays and life cycle events, including intermarriage and conversion. As he put it himself, “Skepticism with regard to the divine origins of Jewish history may be the attitude of Humanistic Jews, but it is less important than our affirmation that Jewish culture is the creation of the Jewish people. . . . Believing is better than non-believing.” (pp. 228, 231)

To fully understand Humanistic Judaism, one must experience it.  Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews (1988) contains many of Wine’s Shabbat and holiday celebrations from his first twenty-five years at The Birmingham Temple. Each “service” includes inspirational readings (in English) and Hebrew, Yiddish and/or English songs. There are several pieces on philosophical themes like “Ethics,” “Love,” or “Reason,” which often refer to Jewish history or culture, as well as some on Jewish-focused themes, holiday celebrations for both children and adults, and life-cycle ceremonies. Although celebrations in Humanistic Judaism have moved beyond this model, this is still the foundation of Humanistic Jewish liturgy, such as it is.

The most mature formulation of Wine’s philosophy, and a fitting conclusion to this review of his life and work, is in A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism. Originally conceived as a festschrift in honor of his 2003 retirement as rabbi of the Birmingham Temple, this volume includes two biographical essays on his life and work, personal and philosophical essays on Wine’s work and on Humanistic Judaism, and a thirty-three-page response essay by Wine himself in which he sums up his life, his work and his beliefs. In discussing his original liturgy, he wrote,

Of all my creations for these new liturgies, my favorite is the song “Ayfo Oree.” . . . I wanted to write short lyrics that would summarize the essence of Humanistic Judaism and its message of personal empowerment and ethical responsibility. “Where is my light? My light is in me. Where is my hope? My hope is in me. Where is my strength? My strength is in me. And in you.” It will never make Deuteronomy. But it may help adults and children celebrate our message.

Sherwin Wine was a rabbi, and an apikoros, and a Renaissance man, and an inspiring speaker, and a philosopher; both his life and Humanistic Judaism are living embodiments of the secular Jewish proverb attributed to Chaim Zhitlowsky, “vos mer mentsh, als mer yid un vos mer yid, als mer mentsh—the more human, all the more Jewish, and the more Jewish, all the more human.” (Michaels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts (Harvard, 2005), p. 132).


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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2 Responses to Sherwin T. Wine: An Apprecation

  1. Pingback: Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

  2. Pingback: Secular Jewish Torah | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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