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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

RABBI WINE'S ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR MODERN JEWS

With the 2022 political season over and despite the horrifying upturn in antisemitism (of which I’ve written not a little) I decided it’s time for my commentary to offer a Chanukah present in the form of a return to fundamentals. The fundamentals of Humanistic Judaism, that is.


While preparing a recent session of my weekly “Unrolling Judaism” class I opened up one of the best websites our movement has to offer, sherwinwine.com. This repository of Rabbi Wine’s writing and speeches is a project of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and it is a gem. Whenever I am curious about whether my own take on some subject resonates with – or contradicts – the teachings of our founder, I head there right away.


The Institute recently went live with an expanded archive and a new landing page that features an assortment of topics. Even when I’m on a mission to dig into a specific subject, I frequently wind up wandering through many of the others that I find along the way. Upon encountering the updated site I did not have far to go. Right there, superimposed on a picture of Rabbi Wine, was a featured question asking, “What is the core message of Humanistic Judaism?” with a link inviting me to learn more.


I think I have a pretty good grasp of that message, but I never pass up an opportunity to read relevant material from our founder. Having never known him personally, it’s as close as I will ever get to sitting down with him and asking all my own questions.


The link took me to an article from the original Birmingham Temple monthly magazine and newsletter, The Jewish Humanist, from 1977 in which Rabbi Wine posed six questions that must be answered by every serious Jewish movement:


  1. How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from Lubavitcher piety to Marxist atheism?

  2. How do we deal with the historic primacy of the Torah at a time when the Torah life style corresponds in no way to the behavior of most Jewish people?

  3. How do we bridge the gulf between the Jewish personality of the past – pious, faithful, reverent and traditional – with the Jewish personality of the present – challenging, rational, skeptical and creative?

  4. How do we deal with the fact that the vocabulary and world-view of contemporary science In no way corresponds to the vocabulary and world-view of historic Judaism?

  5. In an age when a God who intervenes directly in the lives of people is no longer believable, is there any part of the religious enterprise which is still valid?

  6. In a cosmopolitan world where ethnic and religious groups live intermingled how open should Jews be to the non-Jewish world?


These were followed by his six answers which he described as a “quickie" summary of Humanistic Judaism. In these answers he provided a wonderful primer on the essentials of our movement.


In the weeks to come – outbreaks of antisemitism or other crises that demand attention notwithstanding – my columns will take a look at each of these six questions and Rabbi Wine’s answers. Where necessary I may make small adjustments to the questions so that they better reflect the Jewish world of the early twenty-first century, some forty-five years after he posed them. Using Rabbi Wine’s answers as a springboard, I’ll share my own takes on the Humanistic answers to these questions.


Before I get started, I want to invite you to share your answers with me, beginning with this slight re-formulation of Question 1:


How do we define the nature of Jewish identity in an age when the spectrum of Jewish belief ranges from intensely pious forms of religious observance to completely secular expressions of identity?


Send your thoughts to rabbi@chj-detroit.org and I’ll try to include them in my own contributions to Rabbi Wine’s questions.

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