Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, who entered public life as “the Atheist Rabbi” more than 40 years ago when he founded Humanistic Judaism, a movement that celebrates Jewish history and culture without invoking God, has died. He was 79.
Wine was on vacation Saturday in Essaouira, Morocco, when the taxicab he was riding in collided with another vehicle. He and the cabdriver died in the crash, and Wine’s partner, Richard McMains, was hospitalized with injuries, said Bonnie Cousens, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which Wine founded in 1969.
Trained as a Reform rabbi, Wine took a long-standing humanist strain in Jewish thought and developed it into a movement that now claims 40,000 members around the world, including several congregations in California. Although its numbers are small in comparison to the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches, it is sometimes called the fifth denomination of American Judaism.
In 1965, two years after Wine formed the first Humanistic Jewish congregation in his hometown of Detroit, he was featured in Time magazine as a self-proclaimed “ignostic,” his term to denote a type of atheist who suspends belief in divinity until it can be empirically proven. Humanistic Jews instead place their faith in the power of people to solve problems and shape the world.
“For me, a good religion doesn’t make people feel weak and needy and force them outside to find power. A good religion,” Wine once told the Detroit News, “helps you find the power within yourself.”
“He changed the lives of many, many people,” said Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, past president of the Assn. of Humanistic Rabbis and leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City. “He made it possible for secular cultural Jews to celebrate our form of Judaism together in communities with excitement and joy and with integrity.”
The son of Russian immigrants, Wine grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and embraced the traditions he was taught. He attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in philosophy by 1951. Instead of pursing a doctorate, however, he decided to become a rabbi and enrolled at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he felt free to challenge orthodoxy.
“He had a contrarian nature where authority was concerned. He took God on right at the bat,” recalled Alfred Gottschalk, a former classmate who later served as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York for 24 years.
According to Gottschalk, Wine had no trouble challenging theologians at the college, especially when they professed to be in communication with God.
“Sherwin always wanted to know what language did God speak to you in? How did you know it was God and not the devil or some other divine voice? How could you be sure it was God?” Gottschalk said.
“He took the concept of God very seriously,” Gottschalk added, but Wine’s doubts eventually led him to a most unorthodox position.
Wine was ordained in 1956 and spent the next two years as an Army chaplain. In 1958 he became an assistant rabbi in Detroit before leaving to organize a Reform congregation in Windsor, Ontario.
In Canada his “philosophic doubts” about Reform Judaism grew stronger, so when a group of families in suburban Detroit approached him in 1963 about forming a new congregation, he happily accepted.
The Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Mich., became a Humanistic congregation “virtually immediately,” said Cousens. “It was the ‘60s, a time of rebellion and questioning. He had congregants eager to embrace the ideas he had embraced.”
Wine rewrote rituals to reflect a people-centric viewpoint. Thus, at Friday night services, “You shall love the Lord your God” became “We revere the best in man.” Poems were recited instead of prayers, and presentations on Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt replaced Torah readings at bar and bat mitzvahs.
His approach was condemned by other rabbis as sacrilege; the local Jewish newspaper refused to publicize events at the temple. But in two years, Birmingham Temple grew from eight to 140 families. It now has 500 families and is the largest of 50 Humanist congregations and communities reaching from L.A. to Australia.
Wine retired as the head of Birmingham Temple in 2003 but retained his top role in other organizations he founded, including dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, which oversees the training of rabbis. He was also co-chairman of the International Federation for Secular Humanistic Jews. Wine wrote several books, including “Judaism Beyond God” and “Staying Sane in a Crazy World.”
He is survived by his partner; a sister, Lorraine Piznick, of Detroit; and two nieces.