The Controversial Rabbi Sherwin Wine” by Henry Kingswell II

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1976, Vol. IV, Number II

Mr. Kingswell was the interviewer for DETROIT magazine. 

“I am an atheist…school discrimination on the basis of philosophy, talent and sex should be allowed…Israel has made the Jew insular and chauvinistic…When people tell me their identity is in being a woman, Polish, a Black Muslim or a Ku Klux Klansmna, I don’t believe them…” 

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine is not one to mince words. His shoot-from-the-hip style has on numerous occasions drawn the ire of the nation’s Jewish orthodox community which has publicly denounced Detroit’s “Godless Rabbi.” Undaunted, the 47 year old maverick is located with his loyal followers in Farmington Hills. Today, capacity crowds flock wherever he speaks. 

As a 17 year-old Central High School senior. Wine was to display the brilliant intellect and sarcastic wit that would be his trademark when he was honored as the nation’s top student in American History in the annual Hearst Newspapers Awards. 

Picking up his formal and street education in the Dexter-Davison area, Wine studied philosophy at U-M and went on to graduate from Cincinnati’s Hebrew College in 1956. He then served two years as an Army chaplain in Korea. The dapperly dressed Wine is a confirmed bachelor and founder of the Society of Humanistic Judaism, which serves people in six U.S. cities. 

Wine holds that “What a man does is the only adequate tst of man’s belief.” He believes synagogues are a permanent shelter for puberty, and that urban people have very little need for God. In an urban environment people worry about human power; both the good and evil of our city, says Wine, are the creation of man. 

Humanistic Judaism has no religious restrictions. Included in the Temple Birmingham (sic) congregation are several gentiles and many young people who believe they have responded to the secular revolution of the “New Jew” who is mobile, intellectual, science-oriented, skeptical, innovative, a money expert, atheistic and aggressive. 

Detractors call Rabbi Wine’s flock “Super Jews.” 

The followers of Humanistic Judaism couldn’t agree more. Freelance writer Henry Kingswell II found Rabbi Wine in his office at the Birmingham Temple. 

DETROIT: How does an ordained rabbi, a spiritual leader of the Jewish community with a new temple and a congregation of over 300 families explain to his religious members that there is no God? 

WINE: That’s gutless and unimaginative, but a question I’ve heard a thousand times before. It’s not that I have a non-belief in God, but that I’ve chosen not to use the word. I regard the word ‘God’ as troublesome because it keeps people from dealing with their own problems effectively and leads them to do things that are totally irrelevant…like prayers and worship. Believing in God is simply irrelevant to solving human problems. It is delegating one’s own power and resources to some sort of authoritarian father figure…My decision has been to stop using the word God and instead to talk about brotherhood, love, justice…The word God is just dragging in a word that is confusing to contemporary, urban lifestyles and carries an historical meaning that, in the long run, has always proved negative and unproductive…The issue of God is an absence of imagination. There are other words, other concepts, much more creative and efficient for describing reality. We shouldn’t turn any word or person into an idol. To be totally creative is to say ‘Kiddo…I’m never trapped.’ My congregation is composed mostly of well-educated, professional and business people. Not all are Jewish, but all share a common belief in Humanistic Judaism. The only real world to us is the natural world not the supernatural…If God wants the supernatural world to play with, be my guest. 

DETROIT: What about the Bible? 

WINE: The Bible–and other traditional religious books, do not answer the questions raised by modern man. As documents for a modern technological, urban society, the Bible, Koran, Torah and other sacred scriptures defy the principal of reason. Humanism holds that truth does not belong in a book because all books have mistakes..all books have authors..Moses, Einstein, Jesus, Philip Roth or what-have-you. Tomorrow a new piece of evidence could possibly turn up that would prove a book mistake and change your mind. There are much more satisfying, informative and entertaining books to read than those written 2,500 years ago. The problem with religious texts like the Bible is that their intellectual framework is authoritarian…it was written for a society that believed in an authoritarian God. Almost everyone in the Bible was a shepherd, fisherman, farmer or some sort of king. Nobody lived in the city, the settings were usually rural. You can’t take shepherds and farmers and the problems that grew out of a pastoral, arcadian society and make them models for people who live in big cities…The modern, urban, technological man can learn a hell of a lot more from Bertrand Russell and Erich Fromm than he can from Moses and Jesus. 

DETROIT: Can Detroit’s problems be solved? 

WINE: Certainly. But first what has to be done is to eliminate all the nostalgic, good-old-days concepts adn to initiate some rational, radical concepts. The city government is going to have to understand that they are going to have to renovate. 

DETROIT: Which means? 

WINE: The future of Detroit will ultimately be as an apartment city. Much of the housing that exists now will have to be torn down…I see Detroit as a city of high rises and shopping centers. You can’t restore downtown Detroit, downtowns are out. The future is going to be very different from the past, but most people are nostalgic and live in a fantasy world. The future frightens them. They don’t want to create or build, they want to restore the old. ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if downtown were alive again–nice trees, beautiful, clean streets.’ Such mentalities are very harmful if Detroit is to survive. The Detroit of the future must be a city where the contrasts between the rich and poor will have to change, where large spaces occupied by few people will have to go, a city where private auto transportation will not be the major means of getting around town. Detroit should be a planned city of a dozen major shopping centers and community districts, as opposed to a downtown centralization, which is irrational. 

DETROIT: Is it irrational to say that you don’t live or work in the city and therefore Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine’s views are not coming from Detroit, but from suburbia? 

WINE: Hardly. For one thing the very nature of our urban civilization is evolving into one city, one world city, from Hong Kong to London, from Toronto to Buenos Aires–and surely from Bloomfield to Detroit. Suburban spread, as we know it, will ultimately be restricted because of economics–the expensive costs of fuel, food and transportation will necessitate building apartment cities. But I’m not so naive as to not know that many of Detroit’s problems stem from poor race relations. That will only end when white people learn to accept black people as power figures. Once they (white people) grow accustomed and accept blacks as equals–in some cases as superiors and authority figures–they will stop running…Whites run from blacks because they put them in a lower class image, but that is changing…Realistically, they (the blacks) will have to be accepted as power figures who will make mistakes, be S.O.B.’s and everything that white people do and are…I’m optimistic that in the future Detroit will master its environment and problems. 

DETROIT: Is there any evidence that the church–organized religion–will help bring people together? 

WINE: Well, let’s say that a young Catholic priest today has a lot more in common with a young rabbi or a young reverend than during any time in history…Modern religions are more and more humanistic in their lifestyles and approach to problems, and less and less theistic. Idealistically, they are much closer and share many of the same humanistic, revolutionary concepts. Western culture has permeated and influenced almost all the world churches. For instance, at one time nearly all religions were deeply concerned with life after death but one rarely hears that kind of thing coming from a pulpit nowadays. People care about what is going on today–how can they better their position in life–and could care less for having lectures in ancient Latin or Hebrew and all the patented promises to heaven or hell…Today a minister, priest, rabbi and what-have-you must service the audience. People want to be inspired, and that’s a revolutionary change. Entire congregations are crying out that they want to be changed in one way or another. They want variety, in some cases it’s outright entertainment and the churches are changing their emphasis from one of prayer and worship to that of fellowship and counseling. If that means more guitars, poetry, clinics and X-rated films…well, that’s how the churches are going to hold people’s attention and fulfill peoples’ needs. Ultimately the religions that survive will be those which accept humanistic goals and transcend themselves, teaching that it’s not how people relate to God, but how people related to themselves and other human beings. 

DETROIT: How important is money? 

WINE: Personally, I am non-accumulative. I earn enough to have the things I want, but I have no concept of saving…I find it very tragic that people find identity with the things they own…I do not wish to own anything I cannot use…that’s my personal style. I like generous people who are not uptight about money. I like people who live in small rooms with very sparse settings so that when you walk into their homes they become the center of attention, not some expensive antique. 

DETROIT: Tradition does not seem to turn you on. 

WINE: Not in any form…and that includes “Fiddler on the Roof.” In a world of continual change, tradition is devastating. People must find new answers to problems as they emerge. A successful society requires a lot of people who concentrate on the future. Far too many people talk about something that cannot be changed–about going back to the land–which is just another way of not finding a creative alternative. It’s similar to the numbers of people who work at a place like the GM Tech Center, where they are involved in exciting work making decisions, blueprinting new designs. But then they go home and choke themselves off from the creative world…they become very conservative, unresponsive, lack imagination, become traditionalists. They are locked in a strict routine, a rut, while all the time they could be planning new, exciting adventures. Tradition can easily wind up causing self-hate and retardation of personal growth. 

DETROIT: Would this be the same kind of self-hate that you have written about Zionism and the State of Israel? 

WINE: My feelings about that are public record. I believe Israel has a right to exist and I will do what I can to see that it does. However, I do not view Israel the way other people–especially the Zionists–do, namely, that it is the center of Jewish life. To me, the center of Jewish life is where most Jews live. I don’t believe people have to go there to reconstitute a Jewish nation…Today Detroit has giben much more to Tel Aviv than Te Aviv has to Detroit…As for Zionism, it is a direct response to anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism says that the most important thing about Sherwin Wine is that he is Jewish. Hogwash! I’m proud of being Jewish but I will not be brainwashed. Basically, Zionism has built into it the same premise of anti-Semitism…I will deal with the enemy on humanistic terms, as an individual. 

DETROIT: Your comments after returning from Israel met with much controversy. Would you care to reiterate or modify any of those statements. 

WINE: Why? I’m not afraid or embarrassed. Israel was founded to a large degree by Zionists who said the Jews are a nation and that they ought to return to their own land. From my view, Jews have stopped being a nation and have become a world people. Israel is simply not the most important aspect of Jewish life. For the most part Israel serves as a refuge for people who have nowhere to go…My problem with Israel is the same as my problem with the United States–I do not like nationalism. I am an internationalist. As a humanist I look forward to breaking down all national barriers. Indeed, the goal of religious teaching should not be to train good Israelis or good Americans but to teach people to be good world citizens. We live in an international, urban, world culture–more and more so–and we can only solve our problems if we learn to become international, world citizens…We must train Israelis not to think that Israel is the be-all-to-end-all. We must teach Americans that maybe it’s all right to give up some sovereignty to something greater and bigger… 

DETROIT: Do you believe in the international Jewish conspiracy theory that some people claim exists? 

WINE: Jews are by nature of their 2,000 year urban tradition very good with words. Their best skills are verbal. Therefore, they are bound to shine intellectually in any country they live. There is a large percentage of writers above and beyond the normal ethnic percentage. In countries like France, England, Canada…you can’t talk about literature without talking about Jewish participation. 

DETROIT: As well as the U.S,? 

WINE: Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, Malcolm, Malamud and quite a few others have certainly left their mark on contemporary American literature. But when the overwhelming majority write about Jewish life they write about pious, religious, bible-reading people who aren’t in any way, shape or form like any Jewish people I know. 

DETROIT: What about the way catholicism was presented in “The Exorcist?” 

WINE: Undoubtedly “The Exorcist” was the funniest film I’ve ever seen. First of all the little girl–the little goody-goody, cutesy-wootsy kid that gets possessed–she deserved it. And those two priests! I could ot wait for them to go at the end.They were bad news. One was a self-pitying intellectual, the other was a mumbler. The most attractive person in that whole film was the devil…He had the best lines, the best style…I really liked him. 

DETROIT: Exactly how do other religious clergy members react to  your dialogue? 

WINE: What I do is say out loud what many of them already know and think. My role: I make it easier for them to come out of the closet, because I’ve let it all hang out. Basically, I’m good for ministers, priests and rabbis. They don’t hate me, because they know that the things I say paraphrase many of their own thoughts and beliefs…Another of my roles is to articulate those things that might appear very frightening to the religious community. 

DETROIT: What is the greatest frustration you find in your work? 

WINE: The absence of laughter in religion I find that the healthiest emotion is laughter. Laughter is necessary for seeing alternatives. When people can’t find alternatives they feel trapped, they can’t relax. I like people who look at life with imagination (sic) and enthusiasm of Zorba the Greek.If something collapses…you go on and build another. If that collapses, you have a rousing laugh and start all over again. Far too many people feel that if they lose that one special person , that one book, that one house, that they are gone…The key is being able to imagine alternatives. People who can laugh a lot, generally can cope. 

DETROIT: If you would, give an instant analysis of the following persons or situation…Busing. 

WINE: To me, busing would only be a very expensive procedure with very minimal results…It’s an old liberal cliche used by an unimaginative government bureaucracy and will not produce an integrated society. 

DETROIT: Rabbi Korf? (The self-appointed legal fundraiser for Richard Nixon.) 

WINE: That’s easy. The man is either an opportunist or insane…or both. 

DETROIT: Public financing of private schools? 

WINE: Money should be allotted to individuals to use as they choose…to provide as much educational variety as possible…Discrimination on the basis of philososphy, talent and sex should be allowed… 

DETROIT: Are you ready for hell? 

WINE: Sure, why not? Besides, I’m not sure I would want to be in heaven anyway. Before I would be interested in heaven I would need more information about the place and what they do there. I don’t want to go to some eternal spot before I know what the programs and activities are. I might find heaven a bore…and I’m not too sure I would like God. Hell might be just the right spot—valhalla! For me, physical death is mental death: when the body decays the central nervous system goes. Life after death hardly seems practical, either in heaven or hell. It exhausts me just thinking about the subject. I mean you’re speaking of eternity and like I say, I’m afraid that heaven is not all it’s cracked up to be and God may be an absolutely dull and boring person…Who wants to spend time trapped in space with a dull, boring person? I don’t. 

DETROIT: That is exactly the kind of dialogue that your detractors find indignant and sacrilegious. They say you should cool it. How do you deal with their anger? 

WINE: Well, I don’t mind dealing with hostility if it’s over important matters. I enjoy the whole process of convincing, persuading, talking, arguing—I enjoy it. Some people get very uptight, I don’t. Controversy has never been burdensome to me, it has never been traumatic or terrible. Well, it’s fun. Even obscene letters, they don’t upset me. I realize that there’s a lot of sick people out there, but as a human being, a Humanistic Jew, I can’t preoccupy myself with thoughts of what others think of me. I must get on with my work. 

Sherwin Wine’s ‘Humanistic Judaism’ – A Book Review by Rami Shapiro

Humanistic Judaism, Spring_Summer_Autumn 1978, Vol. VI, Number II

“The most interesting Jews of the last hundred years never joined a synagogue. They never prayed. They were disinterested in God, They paid no attention to the Torah lifestyle. They found bourgeois Reform as parochial as traditional Orthodoxy. They preferred writing new books to worrying about the meaning of old books. They had names like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Theodore Herzl.” 

And, though Sherwin T. Wine never explicitly says so in this introduction to his first book, Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus Books), we Jews have more in common with these Jews than we will ever have with Jews like Jeremiah, Rashi, and the Baal Shem Tov. 

Initially, one balks at the idea. Why can’t I retain and strengthen my ties to such ancestors?  And who is Wine to say that the chain of tradition suddenly kinks, cracks and crumbles with the advent of quantum mechanics and the post industrial world? What is the Humanist movement to suggest that my claim to carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of the law and the prophets is just so much intramural politicking and bogus prooftexting (sic)? 

Rabbi Wine’s response is simple and direct: It isn’t he or Humanistic Judaism which is severing our links to tradition: It is ourselves and our behavior. No philosophical premise bars us from copying the lifestyle of Rambam or the Besht, rather it is our own behavior patterns that put the lie to such nostalgic desires. It isn’t theology so much that separates us from our ancestors. It is honesty. 

And honesty is just what Rabbi Wine’s book is all about. He demands it of his readers, and he wields it like a bludgeon. This is nowhere more evident than in his assessment of contemporary definitions of Judaism. Such definitions are, for the most part, academic fantasies in which the writer imagines the “ideal Jew”, and substitutes his imaginings for reality. As Rabbi Wine puts it, the Jews appear as “pious Bible lovers who can hardly wait for their next installment of Midrashic commentary.” Books on Jewish life in America deal in depth with the covenant between God and Israel and the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. Yet honesty demands a revision of these nostalgic musings. 

“If a person claims to love prayer but rarely prays, if an individual lauds the meaningfulness of God but never invokes God for the solution of his daily problems, if a man describes Torah as the greatest of all possible books but never reads it, he is either lying or self-deceived.” (Wine, p.18). 

Rabbi Wine believes it is self-deception that leads to this hiatus between espoused belief and exposed behavior; and self-deception is the most difficult deception to correct. If one believes the world is flat, only not falling off its edge will prove otherwise. 

In the case of Humanistic Judaism, however, Rabbi Wine is more apt to push one over the edge than to ask one to make that step on one’s own. With a combination of gestalt reality punching and fluid style, Wine pushes the reader to look objectively at his or her beliefs, and compare them to his or her behavior. If they are not consistent, one of them must go. And in a toss-up between belief and behavior, belief is usually the loser. 

“The lifestyles of most contemporary Jews, even those who profess a love of tradition, are in total opposition to the decrees of both the Bible and the Talmud. A nude bathing pre-medical student who lives with her boyfriend and refuses to eat pork as an affirmation of her Jewish identity is hardly a return to tradition. Even without pork she would give Hillel a heart  

attack.” (p. 4) 

The actual behavior of the Jews is a more accurate measure of our mores and beliefs than our rote mouthing of pious platitudes, and present Jewish practice does not point to a community motivated by the standards of the past. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, “preferring Moses to Freud is irrelevant in an environment where nobody reads Moses.“ (p. 10). 

The point, then, is not very esoteric: our behavior suggests, or rather heralds, a break with the past. The mores and styles of medieval Jewry no longer apply to our lifestyle. And why should they? The rabbis never tried to mold their post-Biblical world to fit the Bible’s environs of priest and prophet. Quite the opposite: they created the talmudic dialectic in order to metamorphose pastoral patriarchs into urban savants. No Jewish society felt so bound to tradition that they refused to alter it to suit their own ends. It is only in the 20th century that we Jews have deified our heroes, and built a fence of guilt around our tradition; a fence which corrals fewer and fewer Jews, leaving those within comfortable and self-righteous, while the escapees flounder about seeking a cogent alternative to help them coordinate and articulate their break with tradition and their coming to grips with reality. 

It is Rabbi Wine’s hope that Humanistic Judaism will meet the need of these refugees by affirming a dynamic and creative alternative to tradition bound Judaism. Whether Humanistic Judaism will succeed in uniting these people is questionable. No inkling of success or failure can be garnished from Rabbi Wine’s book. Yet there is a precedent for this attempt to make Jews honestly confront the split between their actions and their words. This precedent is Reconstructionism, and it is a precedent which failed. 

Reconstructionism strove to articulate in a consistent philosophic framework the functions and needs of the folk. It, like Humanistic Judaism, is an elucidation of Jewish folk religion: what the Jews do religiously as opposed to what they say they are doing. Yet folk religion is by its very nature comprised of inconsistencies in practice, principles and beliefs. Kaplan and Wine are uncomfortable with inconsistencies, however, and hence a little uncomfortable with the folk as well. 

What makes the situation all the more fascinating is that both Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism claim to support the folk and their behavior. Their only desire is to consciously guide the development of that behavior in order to achieve swiftly and more efficiently the very goals for which religion unconsciously strives; the establishment of a society in which the individual can achieve happiness, balance, and self-actualization. Yet it is this conscious elitist ideological formulation of folkr practice that causes the folk to reject the elitists. 

Elitist religions like Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionism are expressed in terms of ideology. Folk religion is expressed in terms of everyday behavior, customs and rituals. In fact the beliefs underlying the behavior of the people may well be incompatible with each other, and Even incompatible with the higher rationalism of the individual doing the action, yet this is never a problem until someone insists on formulating folk religion philosophically. 

Once such formulations are made, the contradictions become obvious, and then the ideologue seeks to adjust the behavior and beliefs to fit a more philosophically consistent system. This is done by establishing the primacy of ideology over behavior, which by definition does violence to the folk religion the ideologist sought  to help. 

In other words, Wine’s reliance on the people’s behavior to put the lie to the people’s espoused beliefs may very well backfire (as it did with Reconstructionism), leaving him with a small nucleus of ideology conscious Jews who cannot relate to the rest of us no matter how violently we transgress our pious mouthings. Nobody wants to be shown how inconsistent she or he is, and she or he will reject any attempt to do so. Being stripped of one’s inconsistencies may be ideologically necessary, but it isn’t very comfortable. Stripped of the theologically meaningless, yet psychologically comforting language of classical faith one is confronted with the awesome task of creating one’s own meaning in the world. Such a task may well prove to foreboding and harsh light of Humanistic Judaism which illuminates this very area may be too stark to capture the hearts as well as the minds of the Jewish people, even those who have left traditional modes behind. In a word, then, if one were to critique Humanistic Judaism as a religion, one could attack it for being so very elitist and so very discomforting. 

But then one has to choose. Which will it be: to etch out our own self-actualization and meaning in the uncarved block of the Real, or to lay back on the soft cushions of tradition and medieval godspeak, mouthing one thing while practicing another, and taking care to avoid noticing the contradictions? I, for one, prefer reality to illusion, and hence welcome Rabbi Wine and his challenging call for honesty.  

————————————————————————— 

Rami Shapiro is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Vladimir Lenin: Tsar of the Bolsheviks

Recorded May 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

Ulyanov was his real name. Lenin was his revolutionary name. His body still lies embalmed for public view in Red Square. Born to a bourgeois family, Lenin turned radical when his revolutionary brother was killed. Embracing Marxism, he became the boldest Marxist leader in Europe. The trauma of the First World War gave him an unexpected opportunity to seize power with his Bolshevik faction. Once in power, he became a dictator who transformed Russia. Would the story of Bolshevik Russia have been different had he not died early from a stroke?

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

The Real Story of the Bible: Richard Friedman’s Hidden Book

Recorded February 1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Richard Elliott Friedman, the author of Who Wrote the Bible?,  wrote another challenging book, The Hidden Book in the BibleFriedman claims to have uncovered the text of the document which is the oldest part of the Bible.  Standing alone it is very different from the  Bible as a whole.  It forces us to rethink Biblical history.  It is certainly  an exciting new way to view the messages of the Bible.

 

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Karl Marx: The Promise of Utopia

Recorded in February 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

When Karl Marx died, his disciples were few in numbers. But within ten years his followers were numerous. And within 20 years they constituted millions. Of all the varieties of socialism, Marx’s scientific socialism was the most successful. The drama of revolution, the clash of the classes and the ultimate emergence of Utopia invited popular enthusiasm. Marx believed that progress was inevitable, guided by the inexorable laws of history. Fashioned in academic isolation, the vision of Marx became the philosophy of a brutal empire.

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The God Delusion: Richard Dawkins and Militant Atheism

Recorded 2006 by the Center for New Thinking.

A preeminent scientist – and the world’s most prominent atheist – asserts that a belief in God is irrational and that religion is harmful. Richard Dawkins eviscerates the major arguments for religion and demonstrates the supreme improbability of a supreme being. He maintains that religion fuels war, ferments bigotry and abuses children. He also asserts that atheism is superior to religion, providing a clearer truer appreciation of the universe’s wonders than any faith could ever muster.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Bill and Hillary: Love, Hate and Opportunism (1999)

Recorded on 11-2-1999 by the Center for New Thinking.

Do Bill and Hillary really love each other? Or are they rank opportunists whose ambitions for power are disguised by sweet talk? Sex scandals and impeachment have made their public devotion less than credible. What is the real story behind the faces? Is there passion and disgust, love and hate? What have people who really know said about their relationship?

 

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The Fatwa Against Rushdie

The Jewish Humanist, March 1989

A brilliant and creative writer, by the name of Salman Rushdie, has been condemned to death for writing a book that his accusers have not even read.

Ayatollah Khomeini has re-entered the political spotlight by ordering the execution of a secular intellectual of Muslim origin. Rushdie, an award-winning novelist of international fame, has been declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death in fundamentalist circles. His book, Satanic Verses, innocently plays with Muslim myths, including the stories of Mohammed and his wives, in order to demonstrate the ambiguity of good and evil. To the secular reader the presentation is subtle, creative and brilliant. To the pious Muslim reader it is nothing short of an assault on God.

In the post-Enlightenment secularized world of the West such a book has a right to exist, even though it causes pain and discomfort to pious believers. Free speech is a fundamental liberty which even traditional religious people have come to accept. After all, it simply evens the score. For countless centuries religious leaders have had complete freedom to speak and write scurrilously about atheism and secularism, defaming its teachers and philosophers in the most outrageous way. “Blasphemy” can go both ways.

But in the Muslim world, which never experienced a true Enlightenment and where religion has never had the opportunity to adapt to a secular democratic world, free speech is difficult to comprehend. Insulting God, by denying the infallibility of his prophets and scripture, endangers not only the individuals who are guilty of blasphemy but also the society that tolerates it without adequate punishment. If the guilty are not removed all will suffer the wrath of Allah.

The crafty Khomeini is using the opportunity of this scandal to re-assert his pre-eminence in the Muslim world, especially after the debacle with Iraq. However it is a diversionary tactic, which runs counter to the recent attempts of some of his lieutenants to cozy up to the Western powers in the hope that Western financial help will now be available to rebuild the economy of Iran. Khomeini cannot have it both ways. He cannot threaten the West and seduce them into assisting him at the same time. Right now, being the angry voice of a militant Islam is more appealing.

Interestingly, his new terrorism is working. Booksellers, like Waldenbooks and Dalton, are refusing to sell Rushdie’s book. Governments, like Canada, are forbidding its import. Religious leaders with a few exceptions are choosing silence. The author has offered an abject apology (which has humiliatingly been rejected). Even the American president, who is hardly a favorite in Teheran where he enjoys the status of a condemned Satan, has chosen to speak softly. Only the European community has responded with some courage, although it still continues to import Persian oil.

At stake in this encounter is the future of free speech as well as the future of art and science. If intellectual and literary figures, whose creativity deviates from the norm of religious prosperity, can be placed on death lists by fundamentalist governments and the Western public – then free speech will be an ultimate victim of international terrorism.

The attitude that assumes that Khomeini is a passing crazy and does not deserve our courageous defiance is dangerous. When Khomeini dies, others equally crazy and fanatic, will follow. But once the posture of surrender is begun, once the defiance is mild rather than bold, the battle will be lost. It will just be easier to comply then resist. Dignity will seem less important than physical security.

It is, therefore, very important that we, as secularists and humanists, who will suffer most from fundamentalist intimidation, should not yield to these threats. It is important that we encourage publishers and booksellers not to yield and that we denounce and embarrass those who do. It is also important that we encourage the American government to speak out boldly against this intimidation and to institute sanctions. America’s caution will neither protect American hostages nor encourage pro-Western elements in the Iranian government.

Whether you approve or disapprove of Salman Rushdie is not the issue. Free speech is. And now is the time to defend it.

Jewish Book Month 1987

The Jewish Humanist,  November 1987

November is Jewish Book Month, a time to honor the literary creativity of contemporary Jewish writers – or to honor the writing of talented non-Jews who choose to write about Jews.

The best way to celebrate this special month is to read Jewish books – not just any old Jewish books, but good ones. In a country like America, where the Jewish literary establishment is very powerful, where Jewish culture and Jewish identity arouse widespread positive interest, and where successful writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, vie for the attention of the large Jewish reading public, there is no shortage of appropriate books.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I chose readings from five new books to illustrate my presentations on ethics. Each of them is a book worth reading and discussing.

Here they are.

Power and Powerless by David Biale. Biale is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Berkeley. He proposes a provocative thesis that many modern Jews are not comfortable with, because it does not conform to the image of the Jew which they wish to present to the Gentile public. Jews usually see their historic experience as one of weakness and powerlessness, a continuous story of suffering and humiliation. This perception feeds into the need to appear as victims of powerful enemies and to solicit sympathy and pity. But Biale disowns this perception. He maintains that for most of Jewish history Jews were indeed powerful in the environments where they chose to live or found themselves. The power was usually not military. However, it might be economic. The history of the Jews, according to Biale, is not one long tale of woe. It is a story of the effective use of -talent and connections to make useful changes and to provide strong defenses. Although we Jews are often more comfortable with losing than with winning, we cannot understand our roots if we insist on projecting our present anxiety onto our past experience.

Out of Step by Sidney Hook. This book is the autobiography Sidney Hook, one of America most prominent humanist philosophers – and one of America’s mc controversial intellectuals. A child of Jewish New York, Hook became a Marxist radical during his student days at CCNY (the training ground of so much of the Jewish intellectual elite). In the decades that followed, as established his -credentials as philosopher and an academician, he repudiated his Marxist ideology and embraced a more moderate social democratic liberal posture. Throughout his career, given his strong Jewish attachments, he fought for the legitimacy of his Jewish atheistic position. Controversy entered his life during the Vietnam era and the radicals and championed the old liberal notion that a school of higher learning should be open to hearing all opinions, right and left – and should not become a political instrument of political radicals. Hook’s autobiography reveals that he still retains his feisty and acerbic style in his 80’s

Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. This memoir is the story of the woman who befriended the Frank family in Amsterdam and supported them in their hiding place. An employee of Otto Frank, Miep was confronted with a terrifying moral choice. Should she risk her life and the life of her family to rescue Jewish friends? Her response was without hesitation. Even when her friends were arrested, she recklessly ran to Gestapo headquarters to appeal for their release. Her story dramatizes the moral courage of many Gentiles, who, to no personal advantage for themselves, chose to save Jews. What makes her memoir so powerful is that it is told with no self-conscious heroism.

The History of the Jews by Philip Johnson. Johnson has become a well-known popular historian, whose conservative opinions on the malaise of modern society have been enshrined in a series of successful books. Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions his style and the force of his opinions are of compelling interest. Given his ethnic background, it was surprising that he chose to devote such extensive research to the history of the Jews. But he is obviously fascinated by us and by our achievements. While his presentation of the early history of the Jews is dominated by a naive reliance on the truth of the Biblical myths, his analysis of the evolution of the Jews in the Diaspora is nothing less than brilliant. He is not troubled by the economic role of the Jew in both the Middle Ages and in the contemporary capitalist world. He finds it fascinating and deals with it realistically. This history is written by an admirer of the Jews – but not one overly sentimental or fawning.

To the Land of the Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is an Israeli who spent his youth in Bukovina in Eastern Europe. He is intimately familiar with the Holocaust and has devoted his writing career to dramatizing the devastation of his people through short somewhat surrealistic novels. Badenheim 1939 made him famous. And this novel follows in the same tradition. A Jewish woman is accompanied on her ill-omened trip to death by her adolescent son. Neither she, nor the people with her, are willing to acknowledge what is happening to them. All is denial. And this denial, in the midst of the most ominous warnings, is Appelfeld’s commentary on the Jewish response to the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust.

If you are looking for good Jewish reading, any one of the five will do.

Shulamit Aloni

The Jewish Humanist, May/June 1993

SHUALMIT ALONI IS COMING! YOU WILL NOT WANT TO MISS HER!

Aloni is the leader of the Meretz coalition in the Israeli Knesset She is the controversial Minister of Education and Culture, whose defense of a secular state has aroused the passionate hostility of the ultra-Orthodox. Over the past few months a public battle has been waged between liberals and religious conservatives over her membership in the Israeli government. The Orthodox want her head. The moderates see her as the one guarantee that the present regime will defend civil liberties and begin to dismantle the state support of traditional religion. This controversy has been featured on the front pages of most newspapers and given Aloni international fame.

Shula is a native Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem. Her early years were the formative years of the Jewish state. Reared in the secular Zionism of the Zionist pioneers, she hoped that the state of Israel would fulfill the humanistic dreams of the founders. To her dismay the Labor government of David Ben-Gurion compromised these ideals for political expediency and turned over the regulation of family life to the Orthodox. Her response to this betrayal was not the cynical resignation of most Labor politicians, but open defiance. She committed her life to politics, to feminism, to personal freedom and to the defense of the liberal democratic tradition of the modern Enlightenment.

This defiance was not easy. Given her talents and charisma, she could have, with little effort, achieved political power If had been willing to compromise the Integrity of her ideals. Her punishment was that she was banished by the leaders of the Labor Party to the periphery of Israeli political Golda Meir, in particular, was incensed her disobedience and by her embarrassing persistence. Golda, as Aloni points out, saw herself as the ultimate Jewish mother of the Jewish nation, whose children were not as wise as she was. When she encountered political resistance, especially within her own camp, her response could be ruthless. Golda believed that pursuing the cause of either feminism or civil liberties was a harmful division from the main task of Unifying the Israeli people in defense of the Jewish state against the Arab aggressors.

Shula expressed her defiance in many ways. She wrote books and newspaper articles and hosted a provocative radio show. She counseled the marriage and divorce victims of Orthodox law, finding creative ways for secular Jews to avoid Orthodox jurisdiction. She became a consumer advocate, mobilizing thousands of followers to press for domestic reform. She was elected to Knesset where she remained, for a long time, a sole advocate for women’s rights and Separation of religion and government. She organized a new political party, the Citizens Rights Movement (Ratz), which provided a clear public voice for the elementary personal freedom which we in America take for granted. For over a decade she was treated as a political pariah, a solo prophetic voice in a sea of cynics and chauvinists. But, in the last election, her party helped to create a coalition of the liberal left – Ratz and Mapam and Shinui – which named itself Merétz and went on to win ten seats in the Knesset. With Meretz, the Labor Party and Rabin were able to unseal the Likud and to achieve political supremacy. Aloni’s reward was the Ministry of Education and Culture, a crucial ministry which had been under Orthodox control in the previous government and which had wrought havoc with the secular curriculum of the state schools. The battle lines were now drawn, especially when she proclaimed that feministic values needed to re-enter the Israeli school system. She has now become the chief target of Orthodox hate. Even Rabin has wavered in support of her and has tried to censor her.’ Power has brought her no relief from continuous assault.

Now Shula is more to us than a brave Jewish defender of freedom and human dignity. She is the longtime friend of the Birmingham Temple and one of the founders of the Humanistic Jewish movement in Israel.

We first met her in 1979 when she consented to come from Israel to be our special guest at the annual meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Her appearance was transforming. The rapport between her and her American audience was electric. We loved her from the start. And she loved us.

In 1981, enthusiastic about the prospects For Humanistic Judaism in Israel, she helped to organize a dialogue between secular Jews from America and secular Jews from Israel at Shefayim, a seaside kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Many important Israeli intellectuals and writers attended. Within two years the Israeli Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism was born.

Shula’s coming is part of our celebration of our Temple’s thirtieth birthday anniversary. One of the best things that has happened to us in the past thirty years is that we made the Shula connection. Her participation in our celebration is testimony to the fact that Humanistic Judaism has an important part to play In the Jewish world.