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The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, August 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 1

Challenge is what makes life exciting.  Every human being, every human community, grow (sic) stronger confronting difficult challenges optimistically and discovering their own power and talent. 

In the next five years, the Temple will be passing through an important transition.   A new rabbi will become your leader.  Over the last 33 years I have worked, together with you, to create the Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism.  What we achieved is not trivial.  We turned a set of shared personal connections into a living community and vital movement.  A new and important Jewish voice is heard in Detroit and in other places throughout the world. 

Over the last three decades we have faced many formidable challenges.  Creating a movement from scratch is not easy, especially when there is strong hostility from the outside world  But we were determined.  We recruited members.  We invented celebrations.  We educated children and adults, we turned our ethics into social action.  We built our Temple home.  We created brother and sister communities all over North America. 

Along the way we made profound friendships and supported each other through both pain and pleasure.  The voice of Humanistic Judaism in Detroit comes out of a body of vital and intense human connections. 

The Jewish world of 1996 is different from that of 1963.  The Jewish community is aging.  The priorities of Jewish young people in a mobile age are different from the needs of traditional families.  Intermarriage is creating a Jewish milieu with fuzzier boundaries and with less attachment to ethnic memories.  The rising power of the new Militant Orthodoxy is providing a dangerous well-organized and aggressive assault on the secular and humanistic values of a free society. 

In the new context we have to recruit new members.  We have to pay for the basic needs of our community.  We have to invest in the future of our Temple family.  We have to mobilize the talents and resources of our members to deal with the changing world.  We have to clarify our vision.  We have to choose a new rabbi  And we need to do all of this with a strong sense of community solidarity. 

The best way to guarantee our future is to take action.  Whatever action we take should be part of a long-run vision and an intense personal commitment.  We have to see ourselves leading our congregation into the twenty-first century.  We  need a “Five Year Plan” that will give us a dramatic push forward. 

Such a “Five Year Plan” will require us to take the following bold actions. 

We need to mobilize as many members as possible to make a special five-year money contribution to pay for all the initiatives we need to undertake.  Already generous people  have pledged to cover whatever deficits will occur during this transition period and to finance the search for a new rabbi and the creation of new programs. 

We  need to find new and better ways to publicize and “market” the wonderful programs we presently have.  Many people who are potential members and supporters of the Birmingham Temple do not know who we are and what we do. We need to increase our visibility by targeting special audiences.  Already an enthusiastic new marketing committee has been established.  With proper funding it should be able to make a significant difference. 

We  need to “pursue” potential new members more aggressively and more creatively.  We need to identify the different needs of different people which we are able to serve and to let them know the benefits that they will receive by joining our community.  We need to persuade the “children” of our congregation who are now adults and who identify with the philosophy of Humanistic Judaism to become dues-paying members.  We need to solicit the financial support of the hundreds of people who attend our programs and use our services but who have not expressed their appreciation in a financial way. 

We need to brainstorm new ways to freshen and improve our celebration of life so that Shabbat and the holidays will offer opportunities not only of intellectual stimulation, but also emotional intensity and aesthetic satisfaction.  The celebration needs of the next generation may be different from those of their parents and grandparents,  The service has to provide the Jewish environment that no longer exists in the outside world. 

We need to establish an effective way to identify my successor.  A search committee has already been created.  We need to remember that the International Institute is presently involved in training able men and women to become Humanistic rabbis. 

We need to involve as many people as possible in the process of creative thinking.  Every member should have the opportunity to make his or her own personal five-year commitment. 

I am optimistic about the future of the Birmingham Temple. 

We have a (sic) unique and important Jewish message.  We have a membership with enormous talents and strong commitment.  We have a vital community bound together by friendship and mutual support.  We have a movement to give our Temple philosophy a place in the Jewish universe.  We have a Jewish world that needs an imaginative secular option. We have a Temple tradition of courageous and creative responses to challenge.   

I have made my commitment to the “Five Year Plan”.  We need yours too. 

The Rabbi Writes: Is Sherwin Wine Retiring?

The Jewish Humanist, September 1992, Vol. XXIX, Number 2

Is Sherwin Wine retiring? And, if he is, when is he retiring?  

These questions are being asked by a lot of people (sic) especially members of the Temple family. Up until now the answers have been rumors, many of them inaccurate. 

The questions are justified. I am 64 years old, energetic and in good health but, like all people vulnerable to surprise disasters. What if something terrible should happen to me? What would be the future of the Birmingham Temple. (sic

In response to this anxiety a special committee was established to deal with the problem. After all, it was clear that we should be prepared for whatever the future would bring, that an orderly well-planned search for my successor should begin. Even money was raised to finance a search and to provide for the costs of transition. 

As time passed certain realities intruded that would serve as the guidelines for the transition. The first was that the Temple cannot afford to support two rabbis for more than one year. If a suitable assistant or successor should emerge, the transition period could not exceed one year. The second was that important projects, which are necessary to strengthen the Temple and guarantee its future are incomplete and require my participation. The most important of these projects is the building of an educational wing called the Center for Humanistic Judaism. The third was that my retirement plan, which was started late, will not be complete until 1998 when I will be 70. I am not financially able to retire before I am 70.  

Therefore, the answers to the first two questions are quite clear.  I will retire in June, 1998.  Hopefully, in July 1997 my successor will join me for a year of transition and preparation. 

During the next five years many things can be done to ensure that a suitable successor is found. The Birmingham Temple and Humanistic Judaism have been my life for the past 30 years. And nothing is more important to me than that the right person is chosen to be my successor. 

What is the right person? 

The right person must be able to be or do the following things: 

✔ Must be an ordained Rabbi. 

✔ Must be committed to the philosophy and future of Humanistic Judaism. 

✔ Must be young enough to invest his or her life in the Temple but mature enough to have authority. 

✔ Must win the approval and support of an overwhelming majority of the Temple family.  

What can we do during the next five years to find such a person? 

We can establish a positive, ongoing relationship with the students in the Rabbinic Program of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.  The Institute was established six years ago by the International Federation to train professional leaders for our movement. The Rabbinic Program has opened in North America this year. The Program is a five-year undergraduate program, which includes the acquisition of a doctorate in Judaic Studies or philosophy from a secular university.  Three students have enrolled in the program, two women and one man.  They are eager to do part of their field work training at the Birmingham Temple. We will have the opportunity to experience their skills and personality and to establish a long- run, meaningful connection. They will have the opportunity to understand how to serve the needs of Humanistic Jews in a congregational setting. One of them, or some future student, may indeed be the leader we are looking for.  I hope that you will meet the three students this month when they will participate with me as readers in the High Holiday services. It would be wonderful if my successor would emerge out of our own movement and would be trained to be a rabbi within the framework of our own philosophy. 

We can establish a positive ongoing relationship with rabbis and Jewish academic figures out in the Jewish world who either identify with or favor Humanistic Judaism.  The would collectively constitute a pool of prospective successors who might be available for consideration when the transition period arrives.  They will be invited to be speakers for Shabbat services and special study sessions so that they can become familiar with the Birmingham Temple and we can become familiar with them. If the chemistry is right, some of them may be invited back on a regular basis to reinforce the connection. If an emergency occurs, they, like the rabbinic students, would be available to respond.  

It is very important to remember that for a Reform or Reconstructionist rabbit, becoming a Humanistic rabbi is a dramatic step. Having once closed the bridge, he or she cannot return. 

I am optimistic that over the next five years, we shall become familiar with a pool of suitable candidates, from among whom we can choose my successor. During this time we shall be able to strengthen the congregation and make Humanistic Judaism a more attractive option to both prospective members and leaders. 

Choosing the next rabbi at the Birmingham Temple is one of the most important decisions we need to make. It must be done carefully and with a full and realistic awareness of all the resources that are available. Right now there are many things we can do to get ready for 1998. I do not doubt that, if we remain true to our historic purpose, we will find the future leader we need and want.  

The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, May_June 1990, Vol. XXVI, Number 10

The Birmingham Temple is alive and well.  The events of the past year attest to the energy and vitality of our congregational family.  The Art show, the Vivace Concerts, the Retreat, the Million $ Auction, the Humanist Forum, the Family Club, the Temple Singers gala-all are witnesses to the enthusiasm and community spirit of our members. 

For the past 27 years we have been continuously renewed by the creative marriage between oldtimers and newcomers.  We value our ‘traditions’.  But we have never been afraid to try something new if we felt that it would enhance the lives of our members and strengthen the survival of our community.  There are too many challenges for us to rest on our laurels. And there are too many opportunities for improvement for us to settle for self-congratulations. 

When we think about the year to come and about what we want to do with it as a Temple family, we need to be very much aware of our present and future needs.  The past is a reliable guide.  But we have to be open to new and useful possibilities. 

We need to continue our work to provide interesting programs and shared experiences for young parents and their children.  The future of our congregation like that of any Temple, depends on the enthusiasm of young families.  When we started-and everybody was young-the euphoria of beginnings made us successful..  Now we need more planning and a greater sensitivity to how families have changed-working mothers, fewer children, higher expectations. 

We need to strive even harder to serve the special requirements of singles, young adults and senior citizens.  There are many diverse lifestyles and no one format can serve the desires of everyone.  Of course, we cannot undertake so many new projects that we replace quality with quantity.  We have to choose a few new ways to be useful to all this diversity and make them work. 

We need to rethink the purpose and format of our holiday and Sabbath celebrations.  What is it that our members want out of a Friday evening experience in the Temple?  What do they want to hear?  What do they want to feel?  What do they want to learn? 

We need to be creative about our outreach to the larger Jewish community.  There are many concerns and anxieties in the Jewish and general world that have not been adequately addressed.  The growing power of conservative religion is a threat to our freedom and our legitimacy.  Do we sit passively and accept Orthodox encroachment?  Or do we take a more activist and challenging posture?  Do we resist Orthodox attempts to monopolize the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘observant’? 

We need to be innovative with regard to ethical service-both to our own members and to others.  We responded to the plight of the homeless in our community.  But what more can we do to relieve suffering-and be effective? 

We need to reach out to the hundreds of Soviet immigrants who are coming to our community-most of whom are basically secular-and find a way to integrate them into our community.  I am confident that if many of them understood what we believed and did, they would be very comfortable to join us.  Both their lives and ours would be enriched. 

We need to take a realistic look at our physical hoe and determine its adequacy.  We have built our Temple in stages-first the Meeting Room and Library and then the Family Room.  It may now be time for us to complete our house by planning an Educational Center that would provide space for both children and adults and an appropriate facility for the educational programming we are planning.  After 27 years of the uncertainties of the public schools it may now be time to bring our children home to the Temple. 

We need to find the young man or woman who will train as my successor and provide continuing rabbinic leadership in the spirit of Humanistic Judaism after I retire.  Hopefully this decision will be made very soon and will enhance the confidence we have in our future. 

We need to reinforce our sense of participation in a Jewish movement that goes beyond our Temple and embraces Jews throughout the world.  Our strength lies in the power of our own community.  But it also lies in the fact that we are not alone, that our approach to Judaism and our convictions about life are shared by thousands of people in other cities and in other lands.  We have to establish stronger links with them so that we can work more closely together to achieve shared goals.  The third conference of the International Federation in Chicago this October will be a wonderful opportunity to experience this solidarity.   

We cannot do all that we need to do in the coming year.  But, given our track record, we will do more than we imagine. 

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.  

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

Here We Are: A Process of Self-Awareness

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1989, Issues Facing The Movement, page 3

Twenty-six years ago in 1963, eight families and I organized the Birmingham Temple. During the next year or two, what evolved out of our very intense, passionate discussions was an ideology that gave purpose to the organization we had established, and we gave a name to it. We called it Humanistic Judaism. 

Although we certainly didn’t use the word movement, in some respects at that time there was a kind of movement. That is, we were moving. We were out there trying to share the message. People were contacting us. We had a sense that we had something important to say and that we had a responsibility to share it with others who would find it meaningful. So, although we were only a tiny organization trying to grow, we had a sense that we were moving; and it was a kind of beginning, if you will, of a movement. 

We have been on the move in a variety of places for a long, long time. I have a lot of memories of the evolution of the movement. The rabbis’ meeting with Dan Friedman in 1967 in Detroit, and the beginning of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, when six rabbis from the Reform movement signed a humanistic statement. In 1969, when Congregation Beth Or very courageously determined that it was a humanistic congregation. The meeting in 1970 in Detroit, the first meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. It was in that year also that the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) was formed. The meeting in 1981 at Kibbutz Shefayim in Israel. We had taken a group over to see whether, with the help of (M.K. Shulamit  Aloni, we could contact leading Israelis in the humanistic and secular tradition. The meeting in 1982 – Gerry Revzin, Executive Director of the CSJO, was there – when secularists who had not spoken to each other for eighty-six years finally met face-to-face. They had been divided by issues and conflicts they couldn’t even remember; they didn’t remember why they were mad at each other. We came together, and out of that came the Leadership Conference of Secular Humanistic Jews. The meeting in 1983 when Miriam Jerris, Executive Director of the Society, and I went to Israel, where Zev Katz, together with Yehuda Bauer, was instrumental in organizing the Israel Association for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The meeting in 1985 in Jerusalem, when The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism was established, and a year later in 1986 in Detroit, when the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was established, and a year later when the North American section of the Federation held its first meeting in New Jersey. That marvelous meeting in 1988 in Brussels – a warm celebration of our movement – when, as a movement, we expressed our ideas on Who is a Jew

So we’ve been moving for a long time. We’re in the process now of what I call self-awareness. Sometimes you behave and you act and you do, and all of a sudden you stop and say, semicolon “So, where am I – what am I doing?” 

 Along the way we discovered that what we were doing was important. We had an important message. We were helping people. We were providing an opportunity for effective identity for a lot of people. It became clear that young people with children wanted to join a group in which if somebody asked their children what they were, they could respond with a label that somebody knew about. That was possible only if there was some kind of visibility. 

Along the way, of course, in this movement, we ran across a lot of problems. There was the problem of parochialism – the people who said, “I’ve got my friends here in this town. We got together and had a marvellous discussion. We liked the food. We enjoyed their company. Why do you hok me a tchynik?” 

To take a group of secular humans and turn them into an organization is a great feat. Because each one of us is autonomous. Each one of us is in charge of his or her life. Each one of us has his or her mind. Each one of us has his or her ideas. Not only that – many of us have memories of having belonged to oppressive organizations that sought to hit us over the head, and so we don’t like organizations. 

Then we have had the problem of negativism. It was hard to feel ourselves to be a movement because we were always telling people what we did not believe. We second; the movement is more than a series of organizations. The organizational chart is very important, but if you think that’s the movement, it’s like thinking that the skeleton is the person. The movement is the collection of people who experience a sense of solidarity through this shared message and shared need, who are drawn together by passions and by commitments to do something. In the process, they may create organizations, but the organization isn’t the movement. The movement needs the organization, but the movement is bigger and broader than that. It is the sum total of all of the people and their passions.  

It is important to remember that we are bigger than we seem. I mentioned that we were a movement to somebody in Detroit who is not a secular humanist. He said, “A movement! You, a movement? Chutzpah! This is colossal chutzpah – calling yourself a movement. One thousand – now, that’s a movement. The conservatives – five hundred thousand, that’s a movement. What are you talking about, a movement?”  

We are indeed a movement because our appeal is to an enormous number of people. 40% of the Jews in this country are unaffiliated. In many cases, they are alienated from existing Jewish institutions. And if you could sit them down and have a conversation with them, they would discover that although they have no label for what they are, they are most likely secular humanistic Jews.  

So we have large numbers out there, potential numbers, and our chutzpah is associated with the fact that we have some kind of responsibility to reach them. I believe that if you have something that you think is beneficial to other people, then you want to share it with them – not in some aggressive missionary fashion, but you certainly let people know you’ re around. You have a moral responsibility if somebody needs you.  

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The movement is more than a series of organizations… It is the sum of all the people and their passions.  

We’re a group that didn’t believe in God, and that’s how we got in the newspapers. Other groups were movements because they had something positive to say. We were the anti-movement. 

And there were all these internal arguments – the ones that divided fundus and Zionist, and the arguments that divided secularists and humanists, and the arguments that many people couldn’t remember but the residual emotional hostility survived. 

Then there was the problem of being on the periphery. There is a thing called self-esteem. Big reform temples have self-esteem. They know they deserve to exist. But our group had a kind of Jewish angst. Should we be? Do we have a right to be? Don’t we have a right to be? Should we open our mouths? 

So what we are in the process of doing is not simply saying, “ Shall we be or not be a movement?” What we are really doing is an act of self-awareness. We’re here. We’ve come this far. We’ve got a long history. Whether it’s the SHJ or the CSO or the is really experienced or the European Yiddish experience as – whatever it is, they’ve all been moving for a long time. Now, as an act of self-awareness, I’d like to share what I consider to be some very important affirmations – things to remember – as we go through the process. 

First: we have a message. If we didn’t have a message, it wouldn’t pay to organize. In various discussion groups, people were talking about the differences of opinions in their groups and the great fear that somebody would impose an opinion on somebody else. My general experience in humanist and secular groups is that it’s very difficult to impose your opinion on anybody else. People are always focusing on differences. Yet, the reality is that we are united by a pretty strong consensus: our message about Jewishness and Jewish culture and human beings that we give to the world and that defines our movement. 

Second: The movement is more than a series of organizations. The organizational chart is very important, but if you think that’s the movement, it’s like thinking that the skeleton is the person. The movement is a collection of people who experience a sense of solidarity through the shared message and shared need, we are drawn together by passions and by commitments to do something in the process they may create organizations, but the organization isn’t the movement. The movement needs the organization, but the movement is bigger and broader than that. It is the sum total of all of the people and their passions. It is important to remember that we are bigger than we seem. I mentioned that we were a movement to somebody in Detroit who is not a secular humanistic humanist. He said, “ Movement! You, a movement?! Chutzpah! This is colossal chutzpah – calling yourselves and movement. One hundred thousand – now, that’s a movement. The conservatives – Five hundred thousand – now, that’s a movement. What are you talking about, a movement?”  

We are indeed a movement because our appeal is to an enormous number of people. Forty percent of the Jews in this country are unaffiliated. In many cases they are alienated from existing Jewish institutions. And if you could sit them down and have a conversation with them they would discover that although they have no label for what they are, they are most likely secular humanistic Jews. 

So we have large numbers out there, potential numbers and our chutzpah is associated with the fact that we have some kind of responsibility to reach them. I believe that if you have something that you think is beneficial to other people, then you want to share it with them – not in some aggressive missionary fashion, but you certainly let people know you’re around. You have a moral responsibility if somebody needs you.  

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The movement is more than a series of organizations… It is the sum total of all the people and their passions.  

It is important to remember that we have a positive message. We have to be able to say very positively what it is that we believe. We are not an anti-God movement. We are a movement in favor of Jewish culture. We are a movement in favor of human autonomy. We are a movement in favor of the human spirit. We are a movement in favor of human creativity. That is what the word humanism is used. In addition to that, we need to have a personal message. The New Age mysticism is a real competitor, and I think it’s going to be a more significant one. I think by the 21st century there will be three significant modes: the humanistic mode, the New Age mode, and the fundamentalist mode. The establishment churches are going to continue to decline in the power of that New Age mysticism is the power of the personal message. We can talk about Jewish identity, but that’s never enough. You must have Jewish identity plus some kind of message to the individual about how he or she might lead his or her life to make it more creative, more fulfilling, happier, and so forth.  

It is important to remember that labels do not describe reality. Some people live by labels, but I’ve learned, since I do a lot of intermarriages, that labels are very deceptive – that often two people of different labels believe the same thing, and two people of the same label believe totally different things. In several of the discussion groups, they were discussing, “What’s secular? What’s humanist? Why are they together? I am a humanist, but I’m not a secularist. Well, I’m a humanist and a secularist. I’m a humanist because I affirm the human being as the center and focus my attention on humanity. I’m a secularist because I am first this – worldly and not otherworldly.  

Then there’s this argument about “Are we a religion?” There are people inside Humanistic Judaism who view the philosophy as a religion. I have used the phrase secular religion. All I mean by that designation is that we are this worldly and that a religion is simply an organized philosophy of life. 

If we sit around arguing about these words and some kind of exclusive tone, then we are betraying the movement, because the movement is the shared consensus that we all have, and the labels become barriers to mutuality and solidarity when they should enable us to work more closely together.  

It’s important to remember that awareness comes from training. I think it would be nice to have a requirement in every group that a certain amount of time be taken by new members to sit down and talk about the movement – this thing that is yet evolving – so that people don’t just walk in and say, “Well, I like the people,” or “It’s a nice friendship circle,”  or rather that there’s an ideology. Somehow, as we become more self-aware, we have to share that self-awareness with other people.  

It’s important to remember that the movement means communities. The way we reach people most effectively is not simply through sending them literature. The way we reach people most effectively is by seeing the evolution of communities. We can see what happened here in Phoenix with our Valley of the Sun chapter, this community that, in a very short time, has developed bonds of connection and commitment and enthusiasm for their ideology.  

But communities don’t grow all by themselves. They need help and they need support. They need help for their schools and school curricula. They need help with their literature for adult education. They need help to get good trained leaders and teachers. And we have a responsibility, since we have a sense of solidarity, to help each other. Every group has some kind of an experience – some kind of expertise that can help others and can be shared. And that means we, as a movement, have to organize the literature and the teachers and leaders meetings. 

Our movement will have no credibility unless we have leaders who have adequate training and presence. In order for them to be trained, we need to school, and that school is the Institute that was founded in Israel in 1985, which has now established its programs in North America to train the teachers and leaders that we need.  

It’s important to remember that contacts bring friendship and solidarity. One of the nice things about this weekend for me is that I see people I look forward to seeing. There are people I’ve seen almost from the very beginning of history of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and although some of them some of them live a long distance from me, they are my contact with the movement. what we need to do as a movement is to arrange for more and more events where we can come together, whether on a regional level or on a national level or on an international level. what happens is that the movement turns into something not organizational. I would imagine that people will leave this weekend who have made friends out of strangers – people they never met before who come from other places – whom they have come to know in a very special way in a short period of time, and that contact will be important. Those contacts define the flush and blood and muscle of the movement. 

We need to remember that we are all part of the same movement. People talk about their organizations, and they refer to the movement as another organization out there, to which maybe they would have a relationship or maybe not. That’s not the movement. It isn’t his Institute. It’s my Institute. It isn’t His Society or Her Society. It’s My society. It’s My Society My Institute My Federation and not only is it the people out there trying to reach me with their demands, it’s me reaching them with my demands, and not only people out there reaching me with their sense of responsibility, but my reaching out to them with my sense of responsibility. 

Last, we have to remember that we have a right to succeed. There are many people who are cursed with self-destruction. They arrange their lives to destroy themselves by eternal arguments and protestation. Protestations over small issues and defenses of ego. We have a right to succeed. We have worked. This movement has been moving for close to one hundred years. One hundred years. We have a right to succeed because we represent an important element in the population – the Jewish population – and they need us. The sign of our success will be when each of us in our community, because we sense that we are part of the movement, will never consent to community events being conducted with representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform persuasion without speaking out and saying, “Wait a minute. There’s a fourth variety in this community, and we deserve recognition.” We are real. We are authentic. We believe in success. That’s what a movement is. 

The self-awareness will continue. We now have to figure how we can make our movement effective and how we can succeed in the way we deserve to succeed. Since I’m a congenital optimist, I think we will.