Sherwin Wine, First Atheist Rabbi


I gave this blog its name for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that I’m a rabbi and an atheist. But the other is more sentimental.

I named it to honor the founder of Humanistic Judaism, Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine.

I did not know Rabbi Wine. Our contact was limited to a two-minute phone conversation when he reached out to me as someone interested in Humanistic Judaism. I was thrilled to hear from him, but tragically his life was cut short before we could speak again.

Rabbi Wine founded Humanistic Judaism (sometimes called Secular Humanistic Judaism) in 1963 with the organization of suburban Detroit’s Birmingham Temple (so named because the organizers first met in Birmingham, Michigan). He went on to inspire and create several more Humanistic Jewish organizations including the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Screen Shot 2013-01-08 at 12.04.02 PMIn January 1965, Time Magazine called him “The Atheist Rabbi.” While Wine was indeed an atheist, he was more apt to call himself an “ignostic.” By any name, his non-theism is a centerpiece of the approach that he crafted. Humanistic Judaism continues this tradition with its special attention to the exclusive use of non-theistic language in all of its celebrations and ceremonies.

Though it is this innovation that uniquely delineates the movement, the ideas behind Secular Humanistic Judaism have become quite widespread. Many liberal Jews today are basically functional secular humanists. Even a large number of rabbis, despite their emotional attachments to theistic language, view the world through secular and humanistic eyes. That they are hesitant to change the words of the ancient prayers says less about what they believe and more about what they feel.


Video Playlist of Rabbi Wine’s Lectures from N.Y.’s City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

Reflections by Sherwin T. Wine

Rabbi Wine’s Amazon Author’s Page

Oraynu (Toronto) Congregational Page About Rabbi Wine

New York Times Obituary

L.A. Times Obituary

Associated Press Obituary


In 2003 Rabbi Wine was honored as Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. Here are some tributes from his follow honorees on hearing about his death:

Stephen Pinker

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in this millennium is reconciling the ideals of reason and science, the spiritual and moral needs of humanity the cultural and emotional needs of religious tradition. Secular Humanistic Judaism is a beautiful synthesis of these ideals, and we owe a tremendous amount to Rabbi Wine for conceiving and forging it. It is with deep sadness that I learned of his untimely passing, but I feel sure that his accomplishments will be increasingly appreciated in the years to come.

Daniel Dennett

We mourn the death of Rabbi Wine, one of the standard bearers of Godless Goodness. He was an inspiration to us all.

Richard D. Lamm

Wise beyond his years, generous beyond reason, caring beyond even the highest ethical standards.

Rebecca Goldstein

Rabbi Wine demonstrated his deep integrity by regarding our search for truth as too important an endeavor to be dictated by group identity. He demonstrated his compassion by recognizing the basic human needs for community and a sense of belonging and history and dedicating himself to serving those needs. He demonstrated his wisdom by embracing the contradictions of human nature and trying to shape a sustaining form of Judaism out of them.

Gerald A. Larue

I recall a small meeting with Sherwin where a couple of participants tended to verbally meander. I watched Sherwin’s patient impatience – then with a gracious acknowledgement he cut to the quick of the issue. What came through to me was his brilliant mind, his courtesy towards others and his skill in quick analysis.

I was on the platform as a guest in the Birmingham Temple. Sherwin’s gift of warmth and courtesy made it possible for me to relax, enjoy every moment, bask in his humor and acknowledgement of my contributions to free thought and to the evening’s discussion. He was a gifted, warm, caring, brilliant human being and I truly mourn his loss.