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 inCanada 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 Temple Beth El in Windsor, was leading a congregation 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 it had rejected God. 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 at the usual place in the sanctuary. Instead, the sanctuary was adorned with a large sculpture spelling out in Hebrew the word Adam, meaning “man” or “people.”
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 as well as to lecturing 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