Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism who was known as “The rabbi who doesn’t believe in God,” died last week in a car accident in Morocco.
Rabbi Wine was killed when the taxi in which he was riding in the Moroccan town of Essaouira, during a vacation, was struck by another car. He was 79. His partner, Richard McMains, was seriously injured in the accident.
The rabbi, who grew up in a traditional Conservative home and was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, was for decades a controversial figure within mainstream Judaism, creating a secular liturgy and several institutions that preached his brand of Judaism without a deity.
Rabbi Wine in 1963 founded the Birmingham Temple, near Detroit, with eight families as the first congregation in his humanistic movement. The movement now claims about 40,000 members in the United States.
“He actually created a secular religion … it’s much smaller than many chasidic sects,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
Sarna said Rabbi Wine articulated the feelings of many Jews who identified with the communal and cultural aspects of Judaism, but eschewed a religious belief. “He broke a taboo, because who ever heard of a rabbi who didn’t believe in God?”
Rabbi Wine was a bridge between non-believing Jews and the Jewish community, Sarna said. “He argued, ‘I can rebel against the tradition without leaving the Jewish fold.’ He said you could belong to a synagogue — you didn’t have to pretend to believe in God.”
Humanistic congregations eliminated the word “God” from their services, which extol Jewish history, culture and ethical values. At humanistic bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, speeches are delivered about outstanding Jewish personalities — usually secular individuals. In humanistic congregations, a Torah scroll is kept in the library, not in an ark in the sanctuary.
Rabbi Wine would say he preferred to call himself a humanist, which emphasizes the primacy of people’s powers and responsibilities, rather than atheist, because he didn’t wanted to be labeled according to a concept — God — which he considered irrelevant.
Stating that it was impossible to empirically prove or disprove the existence of God, he said he called his position “ignosticism” rather than atheism.
“Being Jewish is primarily and fundamentally an ethnic, cultural identity, not a theological or philosophical one,” he told the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.
“Certainly there were people who were outraged” by Rabbi Wine’s beliefs or non-beliefs, Sarna said. “In Reform [circles], he was anathema. There was the fear that people would say, ‘That’s where Reform is leading.’”
Humanistic Judaism, Sarna said, “forced Reform Judaism to figure out what the boundaries of Reform Judaism were.”
A humanistic congregation was turned down for membership in the Reform movement in 1994, Sarna said. For leaders of Reform Judaism, “that became the boundary,” he said — “You could not be a Reform Jew and not say ‘Shema Yisroel.’” “I represent a constituency of people who are sick and tired of using a vocabulary that does not fit what they believe,” Rabbi Wine said in a 2002 interview with Moment magazine editor Hershel Shanks. He said Humanistic Judaism “derives a humanistic conclusion about life from the experience of the Jewish people. After the Holocaust, the meaning of the Jewish experience is that you cannot count on the kindness of the faiths. Human beings have to rely on their own power, their own efforts, their own courage.”
“Rabbi Wine … was an incorrigible dreamer and optimist [who] championed the notion that we cope with the travails of life with our endowment of courage, with the support of community, with the honest acceptance that life is not, by definition, fair,” said Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan.
The son of immigrants from Russia, Rabbi Wine was born in Detroit. A philosophy major at the University of Michigan, he was ordained by HUC in 1956 and served as an Army chaplain. He worked at small congregations in Detroit and nearby Windsor, Ontario, before forming the Birmingham Temple.
Using that congregation as a base, working out of an office that featured a framed drawing of dancing chasidim, he traveled around the country giving speeches, establishing humanistic institutions and serving as a liaison with the wider humanistic community. He earned the reputation as a forceful speaker and a prolific author.
“He was a maverick. I have wonderful memories of him,” said Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, former president of HUC and a classmate of Rabbi Wine.
Rabbi Gottschalk officiated at the ceremony where rabbis ordained by the school received an honorary doctorate degree on the 25th anniversary of their ordination. When it was Rabbi Wine’s turn to receive his diploma, Rabbi Gottschalk declared that it was an honor to award the “Doctor of Divinity,” stressing the word divinity.
“It brought the house down,” Rabbi Gottschalk said. And Rabbi Wine, he said, joined in the gentle reminder of his non-belief. “He roared.”
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