Sunday, August 05, 2007

In Defense of Sherwin Wine

This isn't really about Sherwin Wine the man. I'd only heard of him a few times, and it was only in passing. It's more about Humanistic Judaism as a concept. One of the things I was surprised to see in the Jblogosphere after Rabbi Wine's death was some pretty harsh comments about what a terrible person he was for leading people away from Torah. With all due respect, I think those people don't really understand who Wine's audience was and who he was appealing to.

I've used the term before, but I really believe it's apt- I, and I think many, Jews today, are essentially post-modern Jews. We don't believe in absolutes, and especially not on the big issues. I for one am not an atheist, but a rather a convinced agnostic. For me, agnosticism isn't about humans being so great and superior, just the opposite, actually: from what I've seen of humans while I've been on this planet, I'm pretty sure that if God's out there, we sure as hell aren't the ones who can know one way or the other. My father, brother, and a lot of other people I know are in the same boat, if not more extreme towards atheism.

So how can I practice Judaism? I get this question a lot. Sometimes it's with disdain, and sometimes even with outright anger by people that can't understand how me, a smart guy, an intellectual, who lights Shabbat candles and prays to a God that isn't there?

For me, the God issue is secondary. I don't pray for God, I pray for me. I do what I want and what resonates with me. Part of that is the traditional(ish) liturgy and the concept of a God. My bottom line is that I do the practice for its own sake, not because I think it's linking me up to the grand poo-bah. He could be up there, he could be nowhere, there could be no him and be a giant Martian named Buzz. It doesn't matter. I'm in shul to be a Jew, not to talk to God. Maybe that doesn't compute for some people, but that's the best way I can explain it. I know it's a contradiction, but I don't mind.

For others, though, the God thing is too much a barrier for them to get past, and they get stuck, on the one hand maybe being curious about Judaism or wanting to be able to do more, but just not being able to move beyond the basic contradiction.

That's where people like Sherwin Wine come in.

Like I said, I don't know much about Rabbi Wine. I don't know the specifics of his theology. I don't know exactly how he got around the issue, one of THE biggest issues for modern Jews in our time. I don't have to believe Rabbi Wine was RIGHT to know that what he was doing was important. "Jews without Torah?" you might ask. Optimal, maybe not. But better than nothing. It's the old "ride to shul on Rosh Hashanah or don't go at all?" quandary. For me, whatever keeps alienated Jews connected to being Jewish is nothing but good.

Is there no God? I can't say. But, to me at least, that doesn't matter- it shouldn't matter. The beauty of Humanistic Judaism, of someone like Rabbi Wine, is the ability to give articulation and representation to that group of Jews who look up and can't see what everyone else sees- or says they do, or make themselves believe they do, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Rabbi Wine gave those people a voice, and gave them an option beyond merely keeping their mouths shut or walking out on Judaism forever. To me, that's a wonderful thing. I'm biased, I happen to like Judaism, at least the way I do it. It works for me. I think it's very sad that people like my father and brother are so dead-set against God and religion in general that they're closed off from seeing anything positive there, anything in philosophy, ritual, or community. I wish there were more people like Rabbi Wine. People that could show them it doesn't have to be all or nothing.

Rabbi Wine, if nothing else, was a brave man. He looked up, and wasn't afraid to say that he didn't see anything. That wasn't the brave part, though. The real bravery was in moving forward, going past that, and saying, "We are more than this. Judaism is more than this. We don't have to forgo our heritage just because we can't relate to one part of it. We can keep going. There is still a place for us."

Rabbi Wine created a Judaism that wasn't afraid to be focused inward, and which didn't force people to keep quiet about what they knew, what they believed, to be real.

The people that say Rabbi Wine led people away from Torah are dead wrong. If anything, it's the opposite. Him, and people like him, helped keep alienated Jews tethered to a community, to their heritage. Whatever his faults, whatever his flaws, he can only be praised for that.


Tzipporah said...

nice post, FY. well said.

Dvd Avins said...

I liked this post when I read it a few months ago.

I don't like that every so often, all your old posts show up as new in your Live Journal feed, eating my Friends Page.