Monday, July 23, 2007

Rabbi Sherwin Wine 1928-2007

I was saddened to learn today of the death of Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and a figure who I nominated for a Nobel Prize—well, kinda sorta. The renowned and retired Rabbi Wine was killed Saturday along with his cab driver in a taxi crash while vacationing in Morocco.

Though I never got to personally know Wine very well, he was my clergyman during the mid-90s. My life was profoundly affected by his work, and now I hugely regret never having gotten around to requesting a radioactive telephone interview over KIRO here in Seattle, where the Society's local chapter is known as The Secular Jewish Circle of Puget Sound
. The learned Detroiter was broad-shouldered and strapping in stature, and thus someone I figuratively and literally looked up to. And until last weekend, Wine was the only person still living who had started a major movement within American Judaism, the founders of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist strains long having passed on.

Wine's Associated Press obituary describes the 1965 Time interview which catapulted him to national fame, but neglects to explain what was explosive about it: therein the then-37-year-old longtime Reform rabbi admitted he had pretty much all along been an atheist. (It’s amazing that his public disbelief in G-d is never mentioned in the AP copy.)

That magazine interview instantly made Wine perhaps the most controversial theologian in the country for several months, a notoriety which spread word of Humanistic Judaism only two years after its rather obscure beginnings in suburban Detroit. Few members his congregation stuck with Wine after he disaffiliated the Birmingham Temple from the Reform movement in mid-November 1963. And within a week an avalanche of Dallas news would bury this remarkable story of professional and philosophic courage. But in time, Wine's
sect—catering to Jews unable to believe yet still unwilling to sever cultural ties to the faith—would grow to more than a hundred temples worldwide, including two in Israel.

During my newstalk career, listeners have often asked about Humanistic Judiasm; KIRO callers in particular have questioned the legitimacy of the mere idea of a non-believing religious group. I point out that Wine was hardly a unique clergyman in this regard; after all, Buddism is arguably an atheistic religion.

For my own part, a confluence of factors compelled me by 1999 to convert through the Society's Chicago chapter, and ever since I've cheerfully described myself as something of "a phony-baloney Jew”. Still, my involvement in the Society would increase, and in fact, Wine's movement would serve as the solution to the closest thing I've ever had to a crisis of faith.

By my 30s I had pretty much given up, reluctantly, on religious belief, having intellectually settled at an agnostic point of view after fruitlessly seeking since adolescence even a scintilla of tangible evidence that G-d exists. Therefore I couldn't comfortably join any church, but thanks to some theology courses back at Boston University, I had attended services in houses of worship from Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to Hinduism and Islam, including numerous Protestant denominations, mainstream and otherwise. (This theological probing wasn't merely course-requirement compliance or youthful curiosity; decades later, while attending the 2002 Winter Olympics, I spent two entire days touring numerous shrines and sites around the Salt Lake City area while quizzing various LDS officials about Mormonism.) And since I'd been almost exclusively dating Jewesses ever since my freshman year at BU, I had naturally also been inside more than a few synagogues in Boston during the 70s and then in Los Angeles during the 80s.

The wildly-disparate rites I had witnessed over the years typically struck me as contrived at best and silly at worst. Yet those conducted within Reform temples somehow seemed to make more sense to me than any of the others, or at least avoided encroaching upon my personal rationalist space. Because I felt a certain spiritual vacuum in my life, I would eventually try to convert through a Reform rabbi in L.A. I'd met at my health club. He was just fine with the fact that I was agnostic, but he eventually came to resent my admiration for Reagan to the point of politely suggesting I find myself another rabbi. That experience cooled my religious enthusiasm for a few years.

Then, on only my second day in Michigan, having arrived in March 1993 for what would prove to be a three-year overnight run at heritage newstalker WJR/Detroit, I found myself dining at a deserted Jewish deli in suburban Motown. It was late on a Friday afternoon, the lunch crowd was long gone and the only person there to talk to was the proprietrix, a fiftysomething looker who seemed to take a rather maternal interest in this new kid in town. The conversation eventually led to my confiding that I was interested in again attempting conversion, figuring my meeting a few congregants along the way might also hasten my acclimation to the city to which I'd soon be broadcasting.

She had only one recommendation of a temple, and it wasn't Reform. But when she mentioned the Society for Humanistic Judiasm, I replied that it sounded way too New Age for a spiritual skeptic like myself. She dismissed my cynicism and instructed me to head over to the Birmingham Temple for the services there commencing three hours hence. She insisted Birmingham would be ideal for me...and it was.

As I have occasionally been contending to my newstalk radio audiences ever since Detroit, the Nobel committee in Sweden ought to widen its scope. Among the several important disciplines they've ignored is theology. If the economics prize was a worthy addition in 1969—and it was—then awards in art, architecture, music, philosophy and theology are each also warranted. In particular the Nobel Prize for Theology would seem a no-brainer, inasmuch as the vast bulk of humanity identify themselves as religious to some degree. Nobel bylaws prohibit posthumous winners, so even if those Swedish arbiters of accomplishment were to someday follow up on my suggestion, they couldn't give it to Wine, who I'd been publicly suggesting for years would constitute a bold choice as its first recipient.

Any Wine acceptance speech in Stockholm would surely have been memorable, as he was (along with the late civil rights pioneer James Farmer) one of the two finest orators I've ever met. For providing a fulfilling pathway for those of us secularists—agnostics like me or downright atheists like Wine—prevented by reason from embracing faith yet longing to formalize our seriousness about life, Sherwin Wine's career deserved to have been honored as only a Nobel laureate's is.


sumner warren said...

Cheese, I just spent a half hour giving you a beautiful summation of reasons to believe in God and just as I was about to enter my post my modem quit. I believe this modem provided by comcast is sentient and doesn't want certain things discussed. It has cut me off several times in the duscussion of religous concepts, and precepts on different sites and if that isn't interference I don't know what is.

Maybe rogue elements of the Cia, Castro, and the mafia, Moslems, and the bible haters are trying to give me a message.

Whaddya think?

Anonymous said...

How's this? I haven't been able to access your retort line for over a week. How ever you have it set up is beyond most people's ability to get beyond.

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