By Sharon Gittleman
BIRMINGHAM – Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, founder of the Birmingham Temple and the worldwide Society for Humanistic Judaism, died in an automobile accident on July 21. He was 79.
Wine, a Birmingham resident, was on vacation in Essaouira, Morocco, when the taxicab he was riding in collided with another vehicle. He and the cabdriver died in the crash, and Wine’s long time partner, Richard McMains, was hospitalized with injuries.
Trained as a Reform rabbi, Wine took a long-standing humanist strain in Jewish thought and developed it into a movement that now claims 30,000 members around the world. Although its numbers are small in comparison to the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches, it is sometimes called the fifth denomination of American Judaism.
In 1965, two years after Wine formed the first Humanistic Jewish congregation, he was featured in Time magazine as a self-proclaimed “ignostic,” his term to denote a type of atheist who suspends belief in divinity until it can be empirically proven. Humanistic Jews instead place their faith in the power of people to solve problems and shape the world.
“For me, a good religion doesn’t make people feel weak and needy and force them outside to find power. A good religion,” Wine once told the Detroit News, “helps you find the power within yourself.”
Born in 1928, Wine was the son of Russian immigrants and grew up in a Conservative Jewish household. He embraced the traditions he was taught. He attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in philosophy by 1951. Instead of pursing a doctorate, he decided to become a rabbi and enrolled at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Wine was ordained in 1956 and spent the next two years as an Army chaplain. In 1958 he became an assistant rabbi in Detroit before leaving to organize a Reform congregation in Windsor, Ontario.
In Canada his “philosophic doubts” about Reform Judaism grew stronger, so when a group of families in suburban Detroit approached him in 1963 about forming a new congregation, he jumped at the opportunity. Thus was the beginning of Humanistic Judaism.
Wine rewrote rituals to reflect a people-centric viewpoint. For example, at Friday night services, “You shall love the Lord your God” became “We revere the best in man.” Poems were recited instead of prayers, and presentations on Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt replaced Torah readings at bar and bat mitzvahs.
His approach was condemned by other rabbis as sacrilege. The Detroit Jewish News refused to publicize events at the temple. But in two years, Birmingham Temple grew from eight to 140 families. It now has 500 families and is the largest of 50 Humanist congregations and communities worldwide.
Over 700 people attended his memorial service in Farmington Hills July 27.
Wine was an active member of the LGBT community. He served on the advisory board of the Triangle Foundation, and was also an early member of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, a gay rights group formed in the 1970s.
“Wine was a brilliant thinker, articulate and an elegant gentleman,” said Jeffrey Montgomery, executive director of the Triangle Foundation. “Beyond that, he was one of the most personable, warm, loving individuals.
“Wine made you feel you were the most important person he’d speak to in the most crowded room,” said Montgomery, adding that his death is a blow to the LGBT community. “He’s a loss for morals at large. He was so influential; a revolutionary with a positive influence on the world.”