Creator of Humanistic Judaism Set To Leave Pulpit

By Lisa Keys

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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When Rabbi Sherwin Wine steps down from his pulpit next week, he’ll thank his colleagues, his family and his friends. But he won’t be thanking God.

Wine caused eyes to roll 40 years ago when he created Humanistic Judaism, a movement that celebrates Judaism as a culture rather than a religion, and places its faith in people rather than a supreme being.

On June 27, Wine, 75, will retire from the Birmingham Temple — the Humanistic congregation he launched outside Detroit that pioneered what has become a viable “fifth denomination” of Judaism.

Wine took secular notions and gave them the trappings of religion — congregations, rabbis, services, structure. When he founded the Birmingham Temple in 1963, such a combination was “a novel idea,” he said.

“How do you take a personal, humanistic philosophy of life and combine it with a strong attachment to Jewish culture and identity? That’s what Humanistic Judaism is all about,” Wine told the Forward in a telephone interview.

Wine’s critics said that Humanistic Judaism would never last. The movement, however, has endured — and grown. What began as an eight-family congregation is now a movement of 40 communities across the United States, claiming 40,000 members.

Humanistic Friday night services — actually, the word “celebration” is preferred — are built around a theme, such as “love” or “courage.” The celebrations don’t focus on the weekly Torah portion. “It’s too limiting,” Wine said. “We view the Torah as the beginning of Jewish literature, not the constitution.” Instead, selections from the breadth of Jewish literature are read, such as the poems of Yehuda Amichai and portions of the Song of Songs.

Some elements of the service, such as the singing of “Oseh Shalom,” may seem familiar to a more traditional Jew, but at the Birmingham Temple, the lyrics “ya’aseh shalom,”meaning “let God bring peace,” are changed to “na’aseh shalom,” meaning, “let us bring peace.”

Wine’s inclination toward humanism began as a teenager, when the echoes of the Holocaust reverberated powerfully in his Michigan home. “The message of the Holocaust is that there isn’t any magic power,” he said. “In the end, you have to live your life the way Jews had to do in response to the Holocaust, which is to take charge of your life and live courageously.”

“The message of the Jewish experience is humanism,” he continued. “That’s how we’ve survived. We’ve had to rely on our own energies, power, courage.”

Wine majored in philosophy at the University of Michigan, where he was drawn to the existentialist philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, in particular. “I felt my humanism was intimately connected to my Jewish memories,” he recalled.

Longing to be both philosophical and connected to the Jewish community, “the closest profession I could find was the rabbinate,” he said. Wine enrolled in the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which was, at the time, the most liberal option.

Following his ordination in 1956, Wine worked as an assistant rabbi at a suburban Reform synagogue in Detroit, Temple Beth El, pausing for a stint as a U.S. Army chaplain in Korea from 1957 to 1958.

In 1960, Wine founded a Reform congregation just across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Three years later, however, “I was having issues of conscience,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable talking to a God I didn’t know existed. I had redefined the word. I had said, ‘God is love,’ ‘God is goodness.’ But in the end, God, in English, means a person somewhere; you can talk to Him and He can help you.”

“That,” he said, “was very uncomfortable for me.”

In 1963, with the encouragement of some friends, Wine founded the Birmingham Temple. Immediately, he found himself embroiled in intellectual and spiritual controversies: Can one be Jewish and not believe in God? Can Jewish congregations exist that aren’t conventionally religious? And — most asked of all — is this good for the Jews?

“We performed a great service for the community,” Wine said of the temple. “We enabled people to focus on ideas, not just survival. What is it that Jews believe?”

Six years later, he created the Society for Humanistic Judaism to spread his temple’s ideas around the country. He found that countless secular people were seeking connection to the Jewish community — and, for many, Humanistic Judaism provided that connection. “The thing about ultra-orthodoxy, however parochial, is that it’s a very intense faith combined with a personal philosophy of life,” he said. “In liberal circles, what happened generally is there’s a divorce. You go to temple, and then you spend the rest of your weekend doing Est.”

Humanistic Judaism, said Wine, allows Jews to develop a meaningful, personal philosophy of life based upon Jewish history and experience.

Over the years, the movement has gained acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community; five years ago, the United Jewish Communities recognized Humanistic Judaism as a denomination. “We reach out to this huge population of secular Jews who don’t have a method of connection to the Jewish community,” Wine said. “I’m not saying we have the answer for everybody, but we do for some of them.”

Since the beginning of April, there have been 10 planned celebrations in Wine’s honor, including reunions with bar and bat mitzvah classes as well as couples he’s married. The closing ceremony on June 27 will honor Wine with a tribute book, “A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism,” containing contributions from secular luminaries such as former Knesset member Shulamit Aloni and Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer.

In his “retirement,” Wine plans to spend his time spreading the, um, gospel of Humanistic Judaism. He’ll also remain the dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the leadership training body of the movement, which opened in 1985. “One of my tasks before I expire, as it were, is to train more rabbis,” Wine told the Forward.

Two young acolytes, both of whom were bar mitzvahed by Wine, will assume the helm at the temple: Tamara Kolton, 33, the first rabbi ordained by the Institute, and Rabbi Adam Cholon, 28.

“There was a time when I felt very vulnerable,” he said. “Now I feel very successful, meaning that there are people to continue the message who are strong enough to carry it.”

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