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.