Prophets traditionally don’t get much respect on their home turf, especially when they are starting a new religion. Jesus knew something about that, and so did Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons.
Like Malcolm X, they were martyred for their beliefs. Sherwin Wine escaped that fate, though he was certainly a pariah to most of Detroit’s Jewish community in the early years of his movement.
It took a lot of chutzpah for a young rabbi to proclaim he was an atheist in 1964, less than twenty years after the holocaust. It took even more brass to start first a new congregation, then a new branch of his faith – one that was based on not having faith.
Today the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews has congregations on every continent except Antarctica and Africa.
They train their own rabbis, and put on high-powered intellectual and theological colloquia every other year. The movement was written about in Time and the New York Times before the local paper, the Jewish News, reluctantly agreed to start covering Humanistic Judaism.
Incidentally, I am neither Jewish nor intellectually equipped to judge the merits of competing theologies. What I am, however, is a writer and a teacher, with a strong prejudice in favor of knowledge.
And it is as a teacher that I most admired Sherwin Wine. He spent a great deal of time giving lectures and organizing lecture series across southeastern Michigan. In fact, he started an organization to do just that, the Center for New Thinking. He reminded me of the days when learned men would travel the country, giving lecture series that were raptly attended by thousands of people hungry for knowledge.
Sherwin Wine was still doing that. I saw him as a throwback to the age of the enlightenment, where intellectuals held forth in salons on a variety of topics. I sometimes spoke at his invitation.
The people who came were mainly open-minded and curious. They were well-read. Many of them knew how to find information on their own. But they enjoyed coming together to learn with a teacher.
Wine wasn’t perfect. He did not suffer fools gladly. Actually, he barely tolerated them at all. But he was able to speak on topics from evolutionary biology to the modern theater. He did movie reviews and explained the great sweep of history. Not everybody loved him. Even those who admired him sometimes disagreed with him. One newspaper editor told me “You know he didn’t know everything, and he wasn’t always right.”
But, I said, he is trying to educate the public – and is your newspaper doing what newspapers did? Is it educating your community about itself and stimulating discussion of the major issues of the day? We both knew the answer was no.
The word rabbi means, literally, teacher, and Sherwin Wine was a one-man university, helping as many of us as he could to learn more about their world and themselves. I suspect it will be a long time before this community knows how much it lost in that car accident in Morocco.