Humanistic Judaism

The origins of a small Jewish movement that embraces a cultural identity while rejecting a belief in God.

Small but controversial, the Society for Humanistic Judaism maintains temples and ordains rabbis despite not believing in God.

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

Much like flavors of ice cream used to limited to those found in Neapolitan ice cream–chocolate, vanilla and strawberry–Jewish expression used to be limited to “Neapolitan Judaism”–Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, explains Rabbi Sherwin Wine.

“There wasn’t what I would call a pluralistic perspective,” he says. “Today, there is a sense that if the Jewish community is going to survive, it has to deal with all the diversity within the community.”

Humanistic Judaism is part of this diversity, he notes. Wine founded the first Humanistic Jewish congregation in 1963

“Being Jewish is primarily and fundamentally an ethnic, cultural identity, not a theological or philosophical one,” explains Wine. For this reason, a Jew is not required to believe in God, he notes.

A Jew is “somebody born of a Jewish mother,” he says. “If you’re born of a Jewish mother, you can become a raving atheist or a raving Buddhist, and it doesn’t make any difference, you’re still Jewish.”

Wine’s Story

Born and raised in Detroit, Wine grew up in a Conservative Jewish household. Though he had a positive experience in Jewish surroundings, he has always considered himself to be a humanist, he says.

He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1950 and a master’s degree in philosophy in 1951, both from the University of Michigan. Rather than pursuing a doctorate, he chose to become a rabbi. A faculty member at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion counseled him that he would be comfortable studying at the seminary, says Wine.

“It was true. Half the students I ran into were essentially humanists,” he recalls. “The closest thing to what I wanted to be, which was a philosopher doing something about both Jewish identity and humanism, was the Reform rabbinate,” he explains.

Wine received his rabbinic ordination in 1956 and served as a chaplain in the Korean War until 1958. He returned home and became the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Detroit. Then he helped organize a Reform synagogue in Windsor, Ontario.

At this point, Wine notes, he began to have “philosophic doubts about feeling comfortable within the framework of Reform Judaism.”

“I was uncomfortable with trying to make ‘God’ mean what it doesn’t mean,” he says. “You can make God mean anything. You can make it mean … human power … or human love,” he says. “I didn’t like that strategy … because I felt it was confusing, and in the end, you ended up at a prayer service.”

Founding a Humanistic Temple

In 1963, Wine, in association with eight families, founded the Birmingham Temple, the first Humanistic Jewish Congregation. Wine wanted to provide an alternative to the Jewish community, different from Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.

Birmingham Temple’s mission statement was to discover a satisfactory way of bringing together humanists’ personal philosophy of life with their Jewish identity, explains Wine. From scratch, the early congregants had to create “education, celebration and service materials,” since no humanistic traditions existed within Judaism.

Wine proceeded to help establish the organizational infrastructure of Humanistic Judaism, not only in the United States, but throughout the world.

In 1969, he organized the Society for Humanistic Judaism, now [in 2003] with 40 congregations, including Congregation Or Adam. In 1986, Wine helped establish the International Federation for Secular Humanistic Jews, with members in North America, South America, Israel, Europe and Australia.

Wine also created the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism to train leaders and rabbis. Its first ordination was in 1999, and the goal is to ordain two to three rabbis a year to help sustain Humanistic Judaism, he notes.

The dean of the institute, Wine designed the curriculum and hired the faculty. Wine recently retired from his role as rabbi at the Birmingham Temple, which now has 500 families. “Now I’m doing what I wanted to do for a long time,” he says, which is visiting Humanistic congregations throughout the country.

Wine remains dean of the International Institute and co-chairman of the Inter-national Federation. Looking back on the early days of Humanistic Judaism, Wine says he always knew it would be a success.

“I wouldn’t allow something like ‘did I or did I not believe in God’ to stop me from doing something that I do very well,” he notes, namely “being a humanist, a Jew and a rabbi.”

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