Kol Hadash, Northern California Community for Humanistic Judaism

ABOUT US: Rabbi Sherwin Wine

Rabbi Sherwin Wine

Rabbi Sherwin Wine at Kol Hadash

Rabbi Sherwin Wine 1928-2007

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, the founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, died as a result of an automobile crash on July 21, 2007 while vacationing in Morocco with his partner Richard McMain. While returning from dinner, their taxi was struck and Rabbi Wine and the driver were killed instantly; Mr. McMain was hospitalized with injuries.

Rabbi Wine, 79, founded the first congregation of humanistic Jews, the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, in the late 60's. He then went on to found the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the educational arm of the movement, as well as other related institutions. He was honored countless times, most recently by the American Humanist Association as the 2003 Humanist of the Year.

Five months before he died, Rabbi Wine here visited our congregation, healthy and energetic. he presented his seminar introduction at our February Shabbat (photo above), and then captivated us all weekend with his perspectives on Jews and Arabs. Per usual, he spoke without notes for hours, never going back to correct a single word, and always supremely organized. As a teacher, Sherwin was not only a fount of information, but also of energy. He cared deeply about Jewish civilization and conveyed a compelling narrative each and every time he came to the Bay Area and graced us with his work, no matter the topic.

We will always remember him for his courage and his expectation that we all should, and can, live lives of courage to say and do what we mean. He was a teacher’s teacher, going beyond the subject matter to move you with his enthusiasm and moral convictions.

Without Sherwin, we would not now have this community, Kol Hadash, in which to share our Jewish culture, and grow in a manner consistent with both our intellects and our dignity, nor would we have a world-wide movement to nourish and support us. Out of respect to the gifts he gave us, we can and will continue his work, our work.

Note: His memorial service at the Birmingham Temple is available here as a video file. See Links and Resources page for other audios and videos of Rabbi Wine.

We Remember Him...

I will never forget the first time I saw Sherwin Wine. I was at my cousin Matthew’s wedding in Ann Arbor. The ceremony was meaningful and special. Afterwards, my mother told me that this rabbi didn’t believe in God. Strange, I thought. Curious, I looked for a book that Rabbi Wine had written, Judaism Beyond God. I read the book and my life was changed forever.

Just as in the famous movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” all of our lives are different than they would have been if Sherwin Wine had never lived. We have found a way to be Jewish that allows us to have integrity and say what we believe. We have a place to go on Rosh Hashanah...on Yom Kippur...on Shabbat. We have words to help us celebrate our most important moments, our weddings, our baby namings...and words to help us get through our saddest moments. Words such as these:

Individual people are a brief episode, but humanity bears the mark of immortality, renewed in every generation by the undying spark of life. We are, each of us, greater than ourselves. We endure in the humanity we serve. As individuals, separate and distinct, we are temporary, an ephemeral chapter in the saga of the universe. As a moment in the never-ending process, we are immortal, an expression of the persistent thrust of vital energy. The leaves of last year’s summer have died and have vanished into the treasury of mother earth, but we live on in the renewal of every spring. Every person dies, but humanity survives. Every living thing perishes, but life persists.

I am comforted by Sherwin’s words. Life persists—and it persists with the inspiration of Sherwin Wine to stand up for what he believed and to share his vision with all of us. I will always remember him with gratitude.

By courageously substituting humanism for theism, Sherwin Wine expanded the community of Judaism to include Yiddish socialists, seculars, scientists, gays, intermarrieds, agnostics and atheists. He set the Jewish agenda for the next century. I see him as one of our immortals.

SHerwin at Kol Hadash 2007BERT STEINBERG
This morning I joined hundreds at Birmingham Temple in Michigan to memorialize, in death, the life of an extraordinary individual. It was truly a most amazing recognition of our leader whose charismatic presence, whose encyclopedic mind has amazed us for years. When something unexpected, inexplicable and tragic occurs, it triggers all sorts of thoughts, remembrances and feelings we may never have been aware existed in us. This is where I am today.

Eighteen years ago, as a 69 year old born and bred New York Jew I emigrated to a strange and alien land, California. Although we had been exposed—in our homes and our families—to much in Jewish culture, history and language, never had we been part of any organized Jewish group. And frankly, we were not particularly searching for anything special which sometimes is the case. We were content in our Jewish life, such as it was. So what happens? We discover SHJ—our Society for Humanistic Judaism. Here we find a group we never knew existed. A community, if you will, very much like ourselves—nontheists, educated, mostly on the correct political side, who were also interested in Jewish culture and history—people who cared about people and each other. We were hooked.

But, from where did it all come? Where had it been? Only much later did we meet Sherwin at a San Francisco SHJ conference in 1992 at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, and heard him speak for the first time. And like many of you have learned, that was an electrifying experience. And when we got to know this most unusual scholar, who only some 25 years earlier had created this extraordinary path of Judaism, we were completely enraptured. There was no escaping the charismatic Rabbi Wine as so many of you have also come to learn.

One thing led to another and my new life took on more new meaning. Sherwin continued to prod and guide—he came to California to Bar Mitzvah me on my 75th birthday. He pushed and pushed until I enrolled in the Madrikhim program and completed it—ten seminars and all in five years. He got me involved in the National Society and I still cherish the many friends we made all over the country. Never would any of this have taken place without him, his encouragement and guidance.

Sherwin had a unique way with words. He could encapsulate complicated ideas in a few words. I wish—and you do too—that I could have learned that from him to replace my taking simple ideas and expressing them in many words.
His writings have the shortest sentences, consistently, I have ever seen. The most axiomatic statement of our philosophy emphasizes this. We say what we mean and we mean what we say.

Sherwin never approached a question from the negative point of view. Every utterance was in a positive sense. We emphasize our beliefs and express them in positive terms. We state what our beliefs are, not what we do not believe in. Humanistic Judaism accepts life and death realistically. Death is part of life and life is finite. We approach death by honoring the life of the deceased. Survivors accept their loss and are strengthened by the presence and love of family and friends.

Yes, my life was changed these last 18 years and for that I am indeed beholden to this giant. This wonderful new and fulfilling life could never have been possible except for the vision, the foresight, the intelligence and the warmth of this incomparable philosopher, author, teacher, tourist guide, leader, political analyst, traveler and most of all, endearing friend. Sherwin, you will be remembered and be part of me for all of my remaining years.

Sherwin Wine is our rabbi. He is also our rabbi’s rabbi. In the Jewish tradition a rabbi is a teacher, so, we were Rabbi Wine’s students. Was he a successful teacher? Were we good students?

Sherwin Wine showed us how to construct a positive humanist philosophy of life. Militant atheism is in the news these days; a needed antidote to the pious hypocritical stands of politicians, and a critical voice opposing the intrusion of sectarian religious views into public life. But Sherwin Wine did not espouse atheism. Richard Dawkins cleverly and aggressively argues against the view that there is an all-good, all-powerful and all knowing god. Rabbi Wine refused to hand out atheist Watchtower equivalents to the believers. Not just because it is a waste of time, but also because he did not choose to make the denial of someone else’s view part of what it was to be a Humanistic Jew.

He, along with the pioneers in the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan formulated the first documents of SHJ. These creations, in good humanistic tradition, were a community product inspired by Rabbi Wine and built on his writings and commentaries. Some of those original creators are with us tonight in our own community; they will share some memories of those heady days.

Most of us have been held spellbound as Sherwin performed at one of his many seminars. His knowledge of history, theology, sociology and philosophy was impressive. He was a great orator who not only spoke well, but spoke to us. A man of regal bearing and limitless energy, he became the creator and voice of Humanistic Jews worldwide.

All teachers ought to aim at imparting the skills that will enable the students to do it, whatever it is, without them. To honor Sherwin Wine as our teacher, to show how successful he was, we must now continue to do what he taught us to do, but now without him. He shall live on not just in our memories, but also in our actions.

At this hour of loss, we are overcome with grief. It is difficult to acknowledge that one who was so full of life, vibrant with energy, only a few days ago is no longer with us. His life has been taken as if by a thief in the night. And we are cloaked in sadness. We cry out in anger. We shake our fist at the injustice. We protest the unfairness. How much we are in need of strength to bear our burden of sorrow and pain. How greatly we need consolation to heal our wounds, to renew our hope, and to inspire us to live on with enthusiasm once again. And so we come together this Shabbat, to honor the memory of Sherwin Wine and to express our enduring love and respect.

The first time I met Sherwin, at a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlanta in 1972 or 73, I was 29 or 30 years old, and he was one of the articulate rabbis who constituted a group of radicals holding out against the rising tide of traditionoid thinking in Reform Judaism. I was amazed by his chutzpah, his creativity, and his brilliance. Those were the years when the Reform rabbinical conventions were in the throes of great conflict over officiating at interfaith weddings. For several years, a number of us met in hotel rooms late at night after the formal programs of the convention had ended to talk and plan strategy for our response to the pending resolutions designed to limit the
individual rabbi’s autonomy. For several years the threat of a split in the movement, leveraged a victory over the forces of the darkness. For a while we won the battle but eventually lost the war.

When I visited Sherwin at the SHJ headquarters in Detroit last year, Miriam Jerris surprised me by pulling out of the files a long forgotten statement of protest drawn up and signed by a number of us during one of those long, late night gatherings 35 years ago. Sherwin was certain then, and as usual his analysis proved correctly, that Reform was incapable of fulfilling its promise as the Judaism of tomorrow. If I recall correctly, he thought of Reform as a fossil; a remnant of the past that had grown so proud of its petty changes in Jewish thought and practice that it had become ossified, incapable of any further growth. I remember with great fondness the times when-- fed up altogether with the plenary proceedings—we escaped the remainder of the day’s sessions to take long walks or sneak off to an afternoon movie. After that, Sherwin continued to attend the annual CCAR conventions for a few more years before finally severing his connection to Reform Judaism.

He eventually resigned from the CCAR, went on to build the SHJ, and created quite a controversy around the country as the “atheist rabbi.” Nonetheless, through his books and articles, his lectures around the country, and his innovations at the Birmingham Temple he went on to enrich all those who read or heard him. Even in retirement, he regularly delivered talks on a variety of cultural, political, and religious issues that were widely attended. During my visit last year, there was a packed house at the Birmingham Temple one evening to hear him lecture on the current Middle East situation. And when we had lunch together in a suburban Detroit restaurant, an endless procession of people walked past our table, almost all of them stopping to say hello. For them, Sherwin was a well-regarded resident intellectual.

Right now it is difficult for us to think beyond the pain of the present. Today we are unable to make sense of our loss. Eventually, however, our grief will dissolve into the joy of consolation. On the morrow, the dawn of acceptance and fond remembrance will bring hope and renewed energy into our hearts.

Let us face our grief without self-pity, but with the integrity Sherwin would want of us. Let us keep in mind the blessings that have been conferred upon us by his life. In this world, where our most precious goods are perishable, let us honor his memory through renewed service and commitment to his vision of Humanistic Judaism, and--in doing so--let us build an enduring monument to his life and work.

My first memory of Sherwin goes back to 1963 when a small group of us, about a dozen, met in a schoolhouse on a cold Sunday night in January. We gathered in a kindergarten classroom—I remember that because I had a problem sitting in the small chairs.

We had been meeting for several weeks. Sherwin was giving the usual Friday night service and he was holding a small Torah scroll started to read "SHMA YISROEL"--and he suddenly stopped. He hesitated for what appeared to be minutes and said he couldn't go on. We realized something was going on but no one said anything. Sherwin then started to talk. He apologized and tried to explain what he was thinking. My recollection was maybe he had a sore throat or something. But no--he felt he could not continue saying words that he found objectionable and that he could not believe. That was the beginning of the Birmingham Temple.

Soon after that we moved to another site a bit closer to Detroit. Very soon a local paper did an article on the Rabbi who did not "believe in God". Our attendance began to grow by leaps and then the big hit happened--The New York Times picked up the story and we grew to an attendance of several hundred. I can recall we had 300 people attending Friday nite services. I believe we then moved to a very receptive group the Unitarian Church which was located about 16 mile road. We were there until Ada and I left the Detroit area.

By the time we left we had very bad (local) press in the Detroit area, yet he attendance kept growing with people who wanted to learn more about our Rabbi and our congregation. During the last years we were there our members met in homes during the week to discuss what the ramifications of all the publicity would be. Those were the days when we would stay up till early morning discussing the subject. By the time we left the area a typical Friday nite service would increase to more than 300 people.

I want to talk to you how Sherwin was as a man. First, he is one of the smartest man I ever met. I first met him around 18 or 19 years ago when he came to San Francisco for a conference. I was on the conference committee and was introduced to him. From that time on he never forgot my name. I was awed by his memory. I went to every SHJ conference for many years and he always hugged me. He liked San Francisco so much that he came in here many times. I went to all the events between San Diego and Portland and I noticed that he knew everyone else's name too. We started to get to know him better all the time. When I was on national board in Detroit for Shabbat he often called on me to light a candle and I was awed at the privilege.

He always wore a black suit, and a tie. Ada Spanier, who knew him when he started SHJ told me he always wore a black suit and tie.

But it was when Bert and I traveled with him that we really got to know him, Sherwin flew into Paris at a different time so we didn’t see him until breakfast. I hardly recognized him because he was in slacks and a turtle neck sweater. He looked cool. He had just come back from an hour’s walk starting at 7 in the morning. Every morning of every trip he let anyone who wanted to walk with him do so. This was his life. Not just when he was traveling. When Sherwin was in San Francisco for our lectures we picked him up at a close-by hotel at 9 and he would tell us about where he walked that morning. We were quite surprised because he went miles. Amazing. He also walked up to the Opera House to see the Ballet after the Sunday lecture and wouldn’t let us drive him there. He loved all the arts. He told me that he flew from Detroit to New York to see a ballet, opera, museum and theater.

At some time I asked him how come he looked younger than other men. He answered “I watch what I eat and I walk.” At dinner he only ate one half of what he was served. We’ve eaten with him many times and he never ate a whole meal. Including the salad.

Going back to the traveling, I got to know Richard, Sherwin’s life partner because he always came on the trips with us. Richard has a wonderful sense of humor . We used to have a wonderful time together laughing. I almost got hit by a car when I started laughing at something he said in the middle of a street in Germany.

I love the way Sherwin told stories of his mother. His mother and father were observant Jews but supported their son and went to all his shabbats and events. He told us that after Birmingham Temple was built she sat down in front. Three hundred people came to the shabbat. After it was over she said to him “Oh Sherwin, 300 people, just think how many more would have come if you believed in god.”

As time went on I started asking him questions and he asked me questions. He always answered them. “When did you know you were an atheist? Answer: “I always kind of knew.” How did you get into rabbinical school being an atheist? He said, “I told the interviewer that I was an atheist and he said 'its OK, a half of the students here are.'” I asked, "Why did you want to be a rabbi if you didn’t believe in god?" “I love to talk, I love to teach, I love to do research, I love to be around people and above all I love the Jewish culture. I was a philosophy major in college and wanted a career that required all these things and I found one--be a rabbi.”

He wasn’t always just answering things. I took him through all the Berkeley hills and showed him views of hills and bay. Then he wanted to see the University. He walked all around Sather Gate, excited that he was where all the protests etc., in the 60’s and the 70’s were. He loved Berkeley.

I’m sure that for the rest of my life I will be thinking of the things he taught me during training to be a Madrikah, not just all the Jewish things but life things too. Without him I would have no way to be Jewish. I am also sure that every time I think of him for the rest of my life I will shed some tears.



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