There was no God in Rabbi Sherwin Wine's world, just human effort and courage. What will his legacy be?
by David Holzel

Sherwin Wine had a point. You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral and ethical person. He made that point repeatedly in the four decades after he split with the Reform movement, which had ordained him as a rabbi, and founded Humanistic Judaism.

It wasn't a novel idea – that believing in God doesn't make you a Jew and that the  Jewish community can exist – even thrive – without reference to a deity. Socialist and secularist Jews, including those who created the State of Israel, had been saying as much for 100 years. Where Rabbi Wine differed was that his Humanistic Judaism kept the traditional Jewish bottle – rabbi, congregation, liturgy, Shabbat and holiday celebrations – but changed the formula of the wine (forgive the pun) inside.

For the renegade rabbi who created the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit with eight families in 1963, until his death July 22 in a car accident in Essaouira, Morocco, Rabbi Wine hewed his own path. And thousands followed.

Rabbi Wine and his partner, Richard McMains, were on vacation when another vehicle hit their taxi. McMains survived the crash, but the cabdriver was also killed. Rabbi Wine was 79 and since 2003 had been retired from the various institutions he founded – including the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Birmingham Temple.

Rabbi Wine created many of those institutions because he wanted the movement to survive him. There are now many Humanistic congregations, Humanistic rabbis, and the movement claims a worldwide membership of 40,000.

Yet for a long time it seemed like Humanistic Judaism and Rabbi Wine were one and the same. He founded and led his Birmingham Temple (it actually is in the suburb of Farmington Hills, not nearby Birmingham, Michigan) and put his stamp on it's form and content. He was a one-man prophet for his philosophy and trumpeted it from his bimah and in books such as “Humanistic Judaism” and “Judaism Without God.”

Rabbi Wine
To Speak

Excerpts from an interview
with Rabbi Sherwin Wine


He lectured tirelessly and his publicity machine was well-oiled if uninspired. When I worked at the Jewish newspaper in Detroit, press releases from the Birmingham Temple arrived every week. The subject of the rabbi's lectures seemed to vary little, and we were reduced to alternating between the two most descriptive headlines we had: “Rabbi Wine To Speak” and “Rabbi Wine Will Speak.”

Jews are stiff-necked and quarrelsome and there’s no shortage of petty disagreement in a modern Jewish community. For such a cerebral and rational man, Rabbi Wine unleashed the most visceral reactions. Perhaps it was that he sounded so reasonable.


Perhaps it was because he contended that his non-theistic brand of Judaism wasn't just some socialist offshoot but genuine middle-class American religion. "Humanistic Judaism is a secular religion, if you define religion as an organized philosophy of life,” he told me when I interviewed him in 1988.

Rabbi Wine considered Humanistic Judaism to be the fourth or fifth branch of Judaism (depending on who’s counting), a movement as legitimate as Orthodoxy, Conservatism and, certainly, Reform. There was a difference, and it was clear by one glance at the Birmingham Temple’s bimah. A sculpture hangs on the wall where the Sefer Torah is kept in a traditional synagogue. The sculpture announces the congregation’s creed: it says in Hebrew, adam – “man” or “humanity.”

You can’t be a sentimentalist and do what Rabbi Wine did. He surveyed the Jewish scene and saw many affiliated Jews paying lip service to prayer and service to God. Laws of kashrut were observed in the breach. If God had given the Jews the yoke of halachah, Rabbi Wine discerned that, although they weren’t saying so, American Jewry believed neither in halachah, the yoke, or God.

In the real world, the boy who announces that the emperor is naked is not rewarded, he’s locked in the dungeon. Rabbi Wine’s apparent heresies drove other presumably rational people mad. One of my jobs was to assign local rabbis to write articles on the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Wine – ordained by the Reform movement, an intellectual, a writer and the leader of a sizeable congregation – agreed to fill a slot. When my publisher discovered this, he killed the piece Rabbi Wine already had written and submitted. “That man keeps his Torah in the library,” the publisher reportedly hissed.

Wine's World

The Humanistic Jewish institutions Rabbi Wine founded:

The Birmingham Temple
His base of operations in suburban Detroit.

North American Federation
Composed of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations

International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism

International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews

Center for New Thinking

Rabbi Wine made his point clearly and neatly. His was the same argument that many non-Jewish atheistic writers have made against the existence of God or, at any rate, for our need to find meaning in the human community, rather than act in the name of, or rely on the grace of, some unknowable deity.

Partially, it was his answer to the Holocaust, to the question, “Where was God?” “Human beings have to rely on their own power, their own efforts, their own courage,” he said.

Rabbi Wine was wonderful in conversation, bright, articulate, intellectual, not at all arrogant – and very Jewish. He radiated Jewishness. It was an education to spend an hour with him.


The more I considered his point, though, the less refined it seemed. At a Friday night Shabbat celebration, I began to see the bigger picture. If the rabbi was very Jewish, his congregation was not. This is the case at many congregations, so my reaction may have been due to my relative youth. There were Hebrew songs – a reflection of the new Jewish culture being created in Israel. There were readings. There was a sermon.

My interviews with congregants were disturbing. An older woman, who had been raised in Detroit’s classical Reform temple, didn’t like the more traditional Jewish atmosphere then evolving in the Reform movement. She said she saw little difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy. Without the Birmingham Temple, she said, “I was considering the Unitarian Church.”

I spoke to a non-Jewish woman who was married to a Jew. They joined the Birmingham Temple because they wanted to be married by a rabbi and it was important to her husband that he retain his Jewish identity. Their bat mitzvah-age daughter was raised neither Jewish nor Christian. “Our daughter has a pluralistic identity,” the woman said, and explained that, anyway, Judaism and Christianity were not their primary identities. “I put my humanism first.”

I’ve written about several Humanistic groups through the years. I’ve always noted a palpable sense of alienation among those involved, little knowledge of Judaism – religious, historic, cultural or otherwise – and an adolescent view of God as a reason for their non-belief: “People use God as a crutch.” “More people have died in the name of God...  "Why should I obey a so-called God that I can’t see?” “Judaism isn't  relevant enough.”

Rabbi Wine wrote and said as much, too. And that was my ultimate disappointment with him and his bold mission. To hold the pieces of Judaism together, to create a flat surface that was orderly, rational and reasonable, meant that Rabbi Wine had to sacrifice the contradictions, the struggles and the messiness inherent in Judaism. I believe that in doing so, his philosophy lost the sense of wonder and the bottomless depth that makes Judaism so rich.

Rabbi Wine’s Judaism was certainly sane. It was also sanitized.

Copyright © 2007 by David Holzel
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