Monday, Jun 25, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Rabbi left lasting imprint on Jewish intellectual life

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - Three weeks ago, I had dinner with Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a remarkable man who had evolved from religious pariah to Detroit's leading public intellectual.

He was delightful and full of energy and boundless curiosity, as always. He wanted to pick my brain on topics he thought I knew something about. What did I think Jack Kevorkian, the suicide doctor, would do, now that he was out of jail? Would he hook up again with his flamboyant lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger? Why was Gov. Jennifer Granholm so seemingly inept at running the state?

The waitress, who had been a student of mine, later told me she thought we were about the same age. I wasn't insulted, though I am 55 and the rabbi was 79. What Rabbi Wine mainly wanted was for me to agree to give a couple of lectures for his Center For New Thinking.

For years, he had spoken on every topic under the sun to rapt audiences hungry for knowledge. Lecture series were a vastly popular 19th-century tradition, and Sherwin Wine had revived them. I have too little time, but naturally, I agreed. You didn't say no to Sherwin. He was one of those people who in many ways was better known nationally and internationally than in his native Detroit.

Indeed, he was the founder of an entirely new branch of Judaism, what he called Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Forty years ago, the rabbi had made newspaper headlines nationally and scandalized the leaders of his faith with a startling announcement. He proclaimed that he was an atheist, and saw no reason to believe in God, but that he intended to remain a rabbi.

Judaism and a Jewish identity were vastly important, he argued, matters of shared history, culture, and a system of ethics that every Jew rightly should revere. But, as he told Time magazine, "I find no adequate reason to accept the existence of a supreme person."

Nor, he told the reform congregation he was leading at the time, could he pretend any longer. He met with a group of eight families who were supportive and proclaimed his desire to start a new kind of temple.

He was shunned and attacked by most of the establishment. How dare this upstart young rabbi deny the existence of God?

Calmly, he replied that the Holocaust had shown that "there isn't any magic power," that it was up to us to be good to each other.

The local paper, the Jewish News, for years refused to write about him or his activities. But a funny thing happened. What he was preaching struck a chord. It turned out there were lots of Jews who believed as he did. They valued their traditions, but had no faith.

The eight families turned into hundreds of families, who now make up the membership of Birmingham Temple, which is actually in nearby Farmington Hills.

Rabbi Wine kept traditional services and celebrated the holidays, but with a difference. Instead of saying "you shall love the Lord your God," they said "We revere the best in man."

He called what he believed humanism, and said that "like all other religions, it enables man to relate himself to his universe."

His movement grew. To his surprise, other congregations elsewhere in the country took the same path.

Today, the Society for Humanistic Judaism has more than 10,000 members and more than 30 congregations, at least one on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. In addition, many more traditional Reform congregations have moved closer to the philosophy Sherwin Wine was preaching.

For years, Rabbi Wine was the only rabbi who would perform mixed marriages between Jews and gentiles, many of whom promptly joined Birmingham Temple.

He thought the faith needed to be more inclusive. He said that as far as he was concerned, anyone who called themselves a Jew or who identified with the struggles of the Jewish people was a Jew.

"Look, we've clearly been doing something wrong," he joked. "After all these millennia there are a billion Chinese and 13 million of us."

Daniel Cohn-Sherbok, a distinguished professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, called Sherwin Wine one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the last 2,000 years.

The rabbi was in a relaxed mood when I last saw him. He and his longtime companion, Richard McMains, were going on a rare vacation to Morocco. On July 21, they had dinner in a restaurant near Casablanca, left the restaurant, and got into a cab. Minutes later, they were crushed by another driver who was supposedly drunk.

Sherwin Wine and the cab driver died instantly.

The Rev. Harry Cook, an Episcopal priest who was a close friend and collaborator, was to speak at the funeral today.

He thinks Rabbi Wine will be remembered long after the politicians and televised preachers of the day are forgotten. "His was a life of courage. He was his own person, and his footprint will not be erased anytime soon."

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