Sherwin Wine was one of the most revolutionary rabbis in Jewish history. His original synthesis of Jewish religious forms with explicitly secular and Humanistic philosophy and liturgy broke new ground in Judaism, and his amazing depth and breadth of knowledge in both Jewish and general history and culture made him a modern-day “renaissance man.”
Sherwin Wine was born in Detroit, Michigan. His parents immigrated to the United States from part of the Russian Empire that is now in Poland. His father, whose name was originally Herschel Wengrowski, joined family members in Detroit in 1906. Wine’s mother, Tieblei Israelski, emigrated to Detroit in 1914. Wine attended Detroit public schools with almost completely Jewish student bodies. His religious upbringing was in Conservative Judaism, at Shaaray Zedek synagogue. His parents kept a kosher home and observed Shabbat.
Wine attended the University of Michigan, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree and later a Master of Arts degree, both in philosophy. As an undergraduate student he was most sympathetic to empiricism, particularly its then-current manifestation logical positivism. At the same time, he was attracted to the humanistic outlook of some faculty members.
Despite his movement away from theism, Wine decided to join the clergy rather than academia, and in 1951 enrolled in the rabbinic program at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College. Wine volunteered for service as a chaplain in the U.S. Army after his ordination as a rabbi and served as associate rabbi at the Reform Temple Beth El in Detroit for six months while awaiting induction. Wine began his service as an Army chaplain in January 1957 and was stationed in Korea. In November 1958, he returned to Temple Beth El in Detroit. In the fall of 1959, he joined a group in Windsor, Ontario just across the Detroit River in Canada to organize a new Reform congregation, also called Beth El.
In 1963, a disaffected group from Temple Beth El in Detroit contacted Wine and asked him to meet with them about forming a new Reform congregation in the northwestern suburbs of Detroit, where the members now lived. He began leading services for the new group, initially eight families, in September 1963 in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Working with members of this small group to develop language which reflected their true beliefs, Wine eventually made the decision to eliminate the word “God” from the services and instead to use new liturgy that extolled Jewish history, culture, and ethical values. This decision was to lay the foundation for the development of Humanistic Judaism as separate from Reform Judaism or any other existing Jewish stream.
A storm of controversy arose when it became known that Wine, who had by then left his Windsor congregation, was leading a temple that did not recognize God. The Detroit Free Press ran an article in December 1964 with the headline “Suburban Rabbi: ‘I Am an Atheist.’” This was followed by stories in Time magazine and The New York Times. Wine explained that his views were not precisely atheistic. Rather, reflecting his acceptance of the basic outlook of the logical positivists, he declared that it was not possible empirically to prove or disprove the existence of God and, therefore, the concept was meaningless. He referred to this stance as “ignosticism” rather than atheism.
The Masonic Temple in Birmingham, in which the congregation was meeting at the time, expelled the group early in 1965 because of the Jewish congregation’s rejection of theistic language. The congregation, now known as The Birmingham Temple, purchased land in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and moved into a newly constructed building in 1971. The Torah scroll was placed in the library rather than in the sanctuary. Instead, the sanctuary was adorned with a large sculpture spelling out in Hebrew the word Adam, meaning “man” or “people.”
The notoriety received by The Birmingham Temple and Sherwin Wine created much interest in the message of Humanistic Judaism. By 1969, the Society for Humanistic Judaism was formed to support existing Humanistic Jewish congregations and support new ones. Continued growth of interest in the movement led to the formation of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 1985, and an International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in 1986. All of these organizations were formed with Wine’s active participation, encouragement and activity.
Wine served as the rabbi of the Birmingham Temple until his retirement in 2003, at which time he began devoting most of his efforts to his work as Dean for North America and Provost of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He also lectured on a wide range of topics under the auspices of the Center for New Thinking, which he had founded in 1976. Sherwin Wine died in a car accident in Morocco in 2007, where he was vacationing with Richard McMains, his life partner of over 25 years.
1950: Graduates the University of Michigan with a degree in Philosophy
1957-8: Serves as US Army Chaplain in South Korea.
1958-9: Serves as Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth El, Detroit, Michigan.
1959: Helps Organize Temple Beth El, Windsor Ontario.
1963: With eight families, organizes the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, Michigan. Within a year, what began as a liberal Reform congregation quickly evolved into the first Humanistic Jewish congregation. Controversy ensues.
1965: Featured in Time Magazine as “The Atheist Rabbi”. Writes the song “Ayfo Oree,” which would become an “anthem” of Humanistic Judaism.
1967: Organizes the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.
1969: With three congregations, the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ) is formed.
1971: The Birmingham Temple building is dedicated in Farmington Hills, Michigan. It would later expand to add a meeting room and more offices by 1979.
1976: Meditation Services for Humanistic Judaism is published by the SHJ. Founds the Center for New Thinking as a public forum for new ideas in the arts, sciences, philosophy, religion and politics.”
1978: Humanistic Judaism is published by Prometheus Books.
1979: The Humanist Haggadah is published by the SHJ.
1982: Helps organize the North American Committee for Humanism, which would sponsor the creation of The Humanist Institute two years later. Also helps organize The Leadership Conference of Secular & Humanistic Jews, bringing together lay and professional leaders from both Humanistic Judaism and Secular Jewish organizations.
1985: Helps found the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) with campuses and activities in both Jerusalem and North America. Publication of Judaism Beyond God by the SHJ; a revised edition would be published by Ktav in 1995.
1986: International Federation of Secular Humanistic Judaism is initiated at the Birmingham Temple.
1992: Initiates Rabbinic Program of the IISHJ and serves as primary faculty.
1994: Pivnick Center for Humanistic Judaism opens, providing offices for the IISHJ and SHJ.
1995: Organizes first IISHJ Colloquium on “The Unaffiliated Jew.” Future Colloquium programs on “Reclaiming Jewish History,” “Beyond Tradition: The Struggle for a New Jewish Identity,” “Secular Spirituality” and more would be conceived and led by Wine. Staying Sane in a Crazy World published by the Center for New Thinking.
1999: Ordains first Secular Humanistic Rabbi.
2003: Retires from the Birmingham Temple while continuing work with the Center for New Thinking, the IISHJ, and other activities. Receives “Humanist of the Year” award from the American Humanist Association.