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Society for Humanistic Judaism

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine  (1928-2007) was the intellectual framer of Humanistic Judaism, founding rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and founder of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He founded the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and served as its rabbi for more than forty years. He was a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the rabbinic seminary of the Reform movement. 

In 1963, Rabbi Wine left the Reform temple he was serving in Windsor, Ontario, to found the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, the first congregation of Humanistic Judaism. In 1965, Time magazine quoted Wine as declaring, “I am an atheist.” With Rabbi Wine as its leader, the congregation eliminated the name of God from services, creating humanistic rituals focused on humanistic values and people’s responsibility for their actions and their world. The article attracted significant attention, which led to the birth of a new denomination within Judaism. The Humanistic Jewish movement celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013.

In 1969, Wine helped establish the Society for Humanistic Judaism to serve as the North American outreach vehicle for the Humanistic Jewish movement. In 1986, he helped to create the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, a worldwide association of national organizations in North America, Israel, Belgium, England, France, Italy, Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Rabbi Wine was Dean and Provost of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, the movement’s seminary.  

Rabbi Wine was killed in an automobile accident in Morocco on July 21, 2007.

Thirteen Tough Questions  From the Society for Humanistic Judaism www.shj.org                                                                                                                                                                                        

1. What is Humanistic Judaism? Humanistic Judaism is a movement within Judaism. It combines an attachment to Jewish identity and culture with a human-centered approach to life. It defines Judaism as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people. Humanistic Judaism affirms that people are independent of supernatural authority and responsible for themselves and their behavior.

 2. How can you be Jewish if you don’t believe in God? The Jews historically have not been a religious denomination. At one time the Jews were a nation, but the Jews have become a world people. Being Jewish is a consequence of ancestry or choice. Membership in the Jewish people is not a function of belief; it is a function of identification, connection, and loyalty.             

 3. Why call what you do Judaism? Judaism is the evolving culture of the Jewish people. Over time, in response to historic events, people’s needs, and the surrounding culture, the practices of Judaism have changed. There is no single way to be Jewish. Humanistic Judaism is a step along the continuum of evolutionary changes in Jewish practice. Pluralism in Jewish life enriches Judaism and enables a stronger, more inclusive Jewish community.

 4. Why are you a separate movement in Judaism? What distinguishes Humanistic Judaism from other movements that identify humanistic themes in Judaism is our resolve to create consistency between our philosophy and our liturgy (what we believe and what we say and do). Humanistic Jewish celebrations, ceremonies, and commemorations use human-centered, non-theistic language. The words we say and the songs we sing follow this guideline. We call this principle integrity and it is fundamental to our identity as Humanistic Jews.

 5. is Humanistic Judaism a religion? According to the dictionary, a religion is a set of beliefs to which people hold fast. Humanistic Judaism is a religion using that definition. According to Rabbi Sherman Wine's description of religion, Humanistic Judaism falls into the category of an ancestral religion, rather than a salvation religion

 6. If you are not religious in a traditional sense, why have rabbis? A rabbi is a leader and teacher of Jewish people, someone who is knowledgeable about Jewish history and ceremony. We choose to be part of the Jewish community and calling our leaders “rabbis” helps us to participate fully in Jewish communal life. 

 7. Isn’t the Jewish religion (orthodoxy/Torah) responsible for the survival of the Jewish people? The survival of the Jewish people is a consequence of the adaptability of the Jewish people. What has kept us alive is the willingness of the Jewish people to adapt to the dominant culture while still adhering to the ever-changing, yet enduring customs and ceremonies of the Jews. The common history, literature, and traditions are all responsible for Jewish continuity.

 8. Without God how can there be ethics? The foundation of ethics is human dignity, human survival, and human happiness. The foundation of ethics is not God. Ethical behavior consists of relationships between people. Some people behave well without believing in God, and some people who believe in God do not behave ethically.

 9. If you don’t pray, what do you do? We celebrate our Jewish identity. We use poetry and prose to express that connection. We sing Jewish songs in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. We use materials that encourage reflection and meditation. We celebrate the historic, human, and natural bases for Jewish holidays and mark the passages of life with ceremonies that reflect both Jewish culture and our humanistic values.

 10. Can someone convert to Humanistic Judaism? We define a Jew as someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people. If a person would like to participate in the Jewish experience, he or she can adopt Judaism and join a Humanistic Jewish community or the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Because being Jewish is defined as the historical and cultural experience of the Jewish people, an individual does not have to “give up” who they are to add Jewish identity to their self-definition.

 11. If you are Humanists, why bother with Judaism at all? Being Jewish is part of our identity. We are all curious to know who we are, to discover our roots and establish connections, to learn and celebrate. Culture adds interest to our lives, whether it is through community, music, literature, art, dance, or food.

 12. Is intermarriage contributing to the demise of Judaism? Intermarriage is the positive consequence of a free and open society. If the Jewish community is open, welcoming, embracing, and pluralistic, we will encourage more people to identify with the Jewish people rather than fewer. Intermarriage could contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people.

 13. Is not all Judaism humanistic? Some of Judaism is humanistic, although not all of it is. The confusion is usually around the differences between humanitarianism and humanism. Humanism is the reliance on people to solve human problems. Humanism includes humanitarianism, which is the act of promoting human welfare and social reform.

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