Humanistic Judaism and the Birmingham Temple-A History by David C. Kreger

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

The Birmingham Temple is celebrating its thirteenth, its baritzvah birthday. This means that the Humanistic Jewish movement also has attained the age of 13. In its short but luminous history, the Birmingham Temple family has evolved from a small committed pioneer group with a different Jewish philosophy, into a strongly-based, maturing congregation which has established a firm identity in the community. It is a good time for us as members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism to pause and to recognize the Temple’s historical contributions to the development of this major Jewish alternative. 

The Birmingham Temple began in mid-1963, when a group of eight young couples gathered and decided to form a new kind of Jewish congregation with the leadership of Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Their needs for an ethical framework for modern day living just were not being met by the religious practices of the Jewish temples in the Detroit area. The group and its rabbi were eager to develop a unified humanistic school of thought, which would place people solely in charge of their own destinies, without the need for control by supernatural forces supported by traditional forms of worship. In the early service the Union Prayer Book was used, as was the Torah (wheeled into the gymnasium of a suburban school dutifully by an “ark committee”). The rabbi wore the traditional black robes. Sherwin Wine presented electrifying sermons on human topics and crowds of people would attend. By November, 1963, thirty-five couples signed the articles of incorporation to become Charter Members of the Temple. 

A ritual committee began to examine whether the traditional rituals were consistent with the evolving humanistic philosophy. New services substituted meditations for prayers. More importantly in the mid-1960’s the contents of the services changed from an emphasis on biblical teachings and history to an illumination of humanistic principles. These principles related to such concepts as: self-respect, Jewish cultural and ethical identity, and humanism. 

Gradually some of the traditional symbols were re-interpreted. The Torah became an important historical and philosophical book, but it lost its “sacred” stature. Readings during services were drawn from many authors who presented interesting ideologies or perspectives. In October, 1964, the congregation ceased to intone the Shema, which until that time had served as the pivotal statement of Jewish creed. The Union Prayer Book was eliminated in favor of a book of services and meditations constructed by Sherwin Wine. On a hot summer night the Rabbi removed the robes-permanently. 

In 1965, when the Birmingham Temple had grown to 140 member families, what had been local controversy in the Detroit area about the Temple’s Rabbi and its humanistic viewpoint, became a source of national publicity and discussion. Time and Newsweek published articles about “The Atheist Rabbi”. Time reported that God had been removed from the Birmingham Temple’s services, and that Sherwin Wine had said “man’s destiny and fulfillment are more important than the idea of a deity”. The Time article also reported that the congregation generally found “Wine’s godless approach meaningful and inspiring.” 

The Detroit News and Free Press reported in 1965 that the President of the Michigan Association of Reform Rabbis had determined Sherwin Wine was an “atheist who teaches atheism”. He wailed that the Birmingham “group aimed at losing all Jewish identity and was instead becoming a sort of cult of self-improvement”. Stating that the group had no interest in Jeiwsh culture, art and literature (and in the survival of Jewish thought), he called for national sanctions by the Central Conference of American Rabbis to discipline Sherwin Wine and to remove his Rabbinical designation. He cried that the congregation should not be permitted to continue under the label of a Reform Temple.  Rabbi Leon Fram was not successful-the Central Conference had no provision in its by-laws to defrock a rabbi. 

Rabbi Morris B. Margolies of Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City wrote in the National Jewish Monthly of May, 1965 that anyone has the right to be an atheist, but not a Rabbi. He ended a calamitous editorial by saying, “It is tragic to realize that man’s intoxication with atomic energy is draining awa his reservoirs of spiritual energy; these are the days of Wine and roses-with falling and malodorous petals.” 

Notwithstanding their intentions, the Rabbis Fram, Margolies, et al unwittingly helped to coalesce a Humanistic Jewish identity. The congregation had maintained its respect for Reform Judaism; but it was now clear that Humanistic Judaism was a distinct Jewish alternative and not a modern Reform spin-off. 

The Temple family went through paroxysms of self-examination for a year or so. Creative activity gave way to unremitting debate. Dissatisfied members resented being labeled atheists by outsiders, and were indignant when they were coldly informed that they “weren’t Jews.” Parents and relatives begged members to resign from the Birmingham Temple to avoid community ostracism. These tempestuous times did not last long but they did serve to test the survival strength of Humanistic Judaism. 

By May 1967 the Ritual Committee resumed its important task of developing services and rituals. Rabbi Wine wrote a Passover Haggadah. A special book of ten holiday services was published. In the introduction, Rabbi Wine said that the content of the services attempted to ”…wed intellectual honesty and Jewish identity with man’s perennial response to the cycle of the seasons.”  

The Adult Education program flourished. Sherwin Wine initiated his Monday evening series of courses on intellectual, historic, and philosophical trends. Guest humanists appeared as lecturers. The Sunday School curriculum took on an even more sophisticated mold, with heavy doses of Humanistic Jewish content. Non-members would audit the weekly services in great numbers; some nodding their heads, others gnashing their teeth. 

Humanistic Judaism did not flourish solely in Detroit during the late 1960’s. Rabbi Wine was increasingly in demand to give lectures everywhere. Word of the growth of the movement circulated throughout the United States. Temple members were continually quizzed about the Birmingham Temple by their friends and relatives in other communities. Temple Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois and the Westport Congregation in Westport, Connecticut emerged as Humanistic Jewish congregations. 

In late 1968 the Birmingham Temple family began debating the possibility of constructing a Temple building. The congregation voted to proceed. In an impressive dedication service in June 1971, 160 member families moved into an aesthetically pleasing, but only modestly costly Temple home. Rather than a loftey synagogue of soaring heights, reaching for God, it was a compact, warmly intimate structure in which those seated in the meeting room were facing each other. The building proved to be a central focus for Temple activity increasing the sense of family experienced by the congregation. Within five years it would host 325 Temple families. 

Another milestone was achieved by the calling of the first annual meeting of the Society of Humanistic Judaism. It took place June 26, 1970 at the Northland Inn in Southfield, Michigan. Representatives of Temple Beth Or and of Westport Congregation joined the Birmingham clan and the Society for Humanistic Judaism was formed. 

This first meeting of the Society was a unique opportunity for Jewish Humanists to exchange ideas about: involvement of members, uniqueness of congregations, goals, ethical behavior, religious education, holiday observances, content of services and publications. Congregants from all three temples became better acquainted. 

Through annual meetings of (sic) the ensuing years, acquaintanceships have led to friendships. Our sense of mishpaha has become intracongregational. The Society for Humanistic Judaism has grown to include: 

Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan—Leader: Sherwin T. Wine. 

Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois—Leader: Rabbi Daniel Friedman. 

Westport Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Westport, 

 Connecticut—Leader:Rabbi Phillip e. Schechter. 

Toronto Jewish Humanist Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, Canada—Assisted by  

Mr. Richard Neff. 

Adat Haverim in Los Angeles, California—Leader: Rabbi Leslie Freund 

And there are Chapters of the Society for Humanistic Judaism in: 

Boston 

Los Angeles 

Miami 

Philadelphia 

Houston 

And we have individual Society members from all over the world. 

In the thirteenth year, the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism are welded into an ascending course. There is a sense of high optimism that the movement is here to stay. It is due for a period of maturing (sic) and proliferation, limited only by the imagination and the potential of the movement’s great human reserve. 

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David C. Kreger is a member of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan