Humanistic rabbi coming here with tips on staying sane

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine cites three typical reactions to his stream of Judaism, the Humanistic movement.

First, there are those who support the movement he founded. "They are sympathetic with what we teach because their point of view is so close," said Wine.

Then there are those with mixed feelings. "They don't agree with us, but they think we're useful because we reach out to Jews who would otherwise be lost."

And finally there are those "who are just plain hostile."

But Wine does not flinch at the last category. Since introducing the movement 37 years ago — a stream of Judaism that doesn't acknowledge the existence or non-existence of God — he has learned how to handle hostility.

"It's all part of being part of a pioneering movement," said the confident Wine, speaking by phone from Detroit.

"Besides," he added, "even from the very beginning, I have found many people enthusiastic about my message."

Wine will speak about the movement and his new book, "Staying Sane in a Crazy World," during two forums in the East Bay this weekend.

Tomorrow night, he'll discuss his book during the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival in Walnut Creek. And on Sunday he'll lecture on "Why Humanistic Judaism is the Answer" at the Albany Community Center.

Wine's East Bay presence this weekend is no coincidence. The Northern California Community for Humanistic Judaism, founded more than a decade ago, makes its home in Oakland and has 150 members.

Wine's movement has certainly took hold, with 40,000 Jews affiliated worldwide. His own congregation, the Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, has grown from eight families in 1963 to a current total of 500.

In 1969, the national Society for Humanistic Judaism formed, with headquarters in Detroit. By 1973, the movement was participating fully within the Detroit Jewish community, Wine said.

In 1986 it went global with the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, with offices in Israel and suburban Detroit.

But for Wine, last year's invitation to speak at the United Jewish Communities' first General Assembly in Atlanta signified a national acceptance.

"There are a lot of Jews who don't feel comfortable with the religious aspects of Judaism," said Wine. "They find [Humanistic Judaism] to be a good place for them to identify."

"Staying Sane," Wine's fourth book, is a guide for leading a Humanistic life or what Wine calls "the life of courage." It includes 10 principles for living in a Humanistic manner.

Stating one of the principles, Wine said: "Accept reality as it is and don't avoid or deny it." To do this, he explained, "is to recognize that indeed I live in a world in which both good and bad things happen."

Wine was ordained a Reform rabbi and led a Reform congregation in Detroit for seven years. But he "always knew" his views were different and said he felt trapped in a movement "that didn't allow me to be free."

"It just wasn't a comfortable fit," said Wine. "I actually felt liberated when finally I left the Reform rabbinate."

Eight families joined Wine in his pursuit and began the Birmingham Temple. Within the first year, membership ballooned to 120 families.

Wine was not the least bit surprised.

"Most Jews I knew we're basically Humanistic in terms of their lifestyles. They just didn't know what to call it."

The practice of Humanistic Judaism essentially emphasizes the civilization, culture and history of Jews over a theological view.

Explaining the movement's perspective, Wine said, "If you look at Jewish history, you find it hard to believe there was ever a loving, guiding force. The Jews found strength within themselves."

On Shabbat, for instance, Humanistic Jews read from celebration books, which contain Jewish literature, inspirational poetry, songs and historic material, rather than prayer books. There is no Sh'ma and there are no prayers to God.

"God is not the heart of our practice," said Wine. "That power is to be found within yourself and other people with whom you love and work."

Emphasizing his point, he quoted from "Ayfo Oree" an important song in Humanistic Judaism: "Where is my light? My light is in me. Where is my hope? My hope is in me. Where is my strength? My strength is in me.

"And in you."