Project of IISHJ


In some ways, this entire website is dedicated to the philosophy of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, and the reader is encouraged to continue their exploration. The following selection is one articulation of Wine’s vision of Secular Humanistic Judaism.

As we enter the twenty-first century a new Judaism is required. It can no longer dwell only on the requirements of group survival. It can no longer dress itself up in biblical and rabbinic costumes. It can no longer rely primarily on the literature of the past. It can no longer pay only perfunctory attention to the stressful lives of stressed-out Jews. It can no longer hope to separate passion from deed. It needs to be proudly radical. For if it tries to compete in the “who is more traditional” sweepstakes, it will lose.

The new Judaism needs to reverse the order of priorities of the old nationalism. It must start with the individual. It must address the questions of personal existence first.

What are my needs? What is my power to satisfy them? What are my limitations? Where can I find support from other people? How do I achieve greater control over my own life? The focus is individual. The setting is universal. And the answers need to be more than quotations from the Jewish past. The name humanistic is an acknowledgment of this new priority. It is identified with the struggle for personal happiness and personal dignity. And, in a world of open boundaries and intermarriage, it enables us to embrace people who were not born Jews.

The new Judaism needs to avoid ethical clichés. It needs to acknowledge that every individual struggles to negotiate three sometimes incompatible agendas. The first is prudential, the search for the requirements of personal survival and happiness. The second is ethical, the search for what is good for the survival and strength of the group. The third is compassionate, an empathic identification with the pain and pleasure of other people. What may be good for me may not always be good for my community. And what is compassionate may not always be ethical. Needy people who drain the resources of a community to the detriment of the needs of many others may arouse a compassion that defies morality.

The new Judaism needs to balance Jewish survival with respect for the dignity and needs of individuals, whether Jews or non-Jews. In a secular world of personal freedom and individual choice, a choice of marriage partners cannot be confined to members of one’s own ethnic group. A less intense Jewish identity may be good for the prudential and ethical quality of the Jewish people.

The new Judaism needs to enrich our lives with the significant creations of Jewish nationalism during the past century. Language, music, dance, and literature from the Zionist and Yiddishist past can reinforce the humanistic quest. The Jewish people is an emotional support system that gives us roots and pride. When nationalism goes beyond the territory of the nation, it is best understood as a cultural force.

At the same time, the new Judaism is liberated from the past. It studies the past, uses the past, borrows from the past, but does not need the approval of the past. It has no need to appropriate what does not fit.

The new Judaism is creative. It recognizes that most of the literature it needs to read, the music it needs to hear, the formats it needs to follow, have to be created. Jewish identity arises, not only from identifying with the Jews of the past, but also from identifying with the Jews of the present.

The new Judaism is comfortable with being new. As Secular Humanistic Jews, our integrity can find no other posture that makes us stable and strong.

From “Beyond Tradition – The Humanist Alternative” (in Beyond Tradition: The Struggle for a New Jewish Identity, IISHJ/Milan Press: 2001).

Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.