The Interview

I interviewed Rabbi Sherwin Wine in 1988, in his study in the Birmingham Temple. I was working on a story about secular Judaism, which included interviews with members of Yiddishist organizations such as the Sholem Aleichem Institute and Workmen's Circle. Here are excerpts from the section of the article in which Rabbi Wine appeared. The quotations are all from Rabbi Wine.

    David Holzel

“[The Yiddishists’] culture centered around Yiddish. But a new form of culture has emerged, created by Zionism. So there is this exciting new culture built around Hebrew. There is all this music. There is all this poetry. There is all this to study and to participate in....”

“We share with Jewish secularists an orientation toward Jewish identity and Jewish life.” Where they differ, he continues, is in the “strategy of organization.”

“Historic secularism was so anti-religious that they refused to accept any of the structures that traditional religion provided. I think there’s an increasing recognition in the more traditional secular circles – if I can use such a phrase – that this community structure us needed and there’s a need for a trained leadership.”

Secular-Humanistic Jews define their belief as a religion. “Humanistic Judaism is a secular religion, if you define religion as an organized philosophy of life.”

“We define Jews essentially as an ethnic group.” Belonging to the Jewish people is a matter of identification with the group rather than its rituals.

On intermarriage: “People have the right to marry whom they choose. We are interested in keeping within the Jewish community those who wish to intermarry in an open society.” In response to intermarriage, “one response is to say to people: ‘Intermarriage is horrible and sinful and if we catch you doing it, you’re through, and certainly your partner is not welcome here.’

“Our feeling is that we welcome into the Jewish people who wishes to identify with the history, culture, the community and the fate of the Jewish people. From their behavior we surmise their loyalty.”


"There’s no doubt that segregation is the avenue toward the preservation of anybody’s identity. But at what price?”


Is the Humanistic-Jewish option a way to preserve Jews for Judaism, or is it, like a house without walls, an easy way out, allowing those with marginal identities to avoid hard choices and condemn their children to further confusion and assimilation?
 “I don’t think our problem is peculiar,” Rabbi Wine says. “That is: if you’re secular you have a greater chance for assimilation. Believing in God is shared by


millions of other Americans. If one wants to have a temple in which one talks to God in English...” he breaks off, laughing. “What the Reform movement discovered is that having a theistic ideology is not a barrier to assimilation. What they needed was a greater ethnic quality.
 “The key – obviously – which doesn’t only apply to secular Jews – is segregation. There’s no doubt that segregation is the avenue toward the preservation of anybody’s identity. But at what price?”
 Quoting turn-of-the-last-century Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am, Rabbi Wine argues that it was not religion, but a drive for ethnic survival, that preserved the Jewish people over the centuries.
 “So in every generation a people chooses a technique which is best suited for its survival. It may be that in a pre-scientific age, the best way to ensure Jewish survival was to emphasize prayer and worship. They didn’t have to force themselves to believe it. But in the 20th century it might not be the best method. In fact, in the 20th century, the best method has nothing to do with religion – Zionism.”
Asking Jews to go through the motions of prayer and worship if they do not believe in those acts is dishonest and immoral, he argues. “What is important in Jewish life, if it is to have an ethical quality, is integrity.”


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