Death of a hero

Jul 25, 2007 at 12:00 am

Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, was killed in a car crash in Morocco last weekend, in a freak accident that hauntingly recalled the death three months ago of the great writer David Halberstam.

This community is vastly poorer as a result. Three weeks ago, over dinner, I told Wine I thought only two current Detroiters would be remembered two centuries from now, when all the politicians had been forgotten: Stan Ovshinsky, the great scientist and inventor, and Sherwin Wine.

Whatever you thought of his theology, Wine was the founder of an entirely new branch of his faith, Secular Humanistic Judaism, which now has dozens of congregations around the world. It took great courage to announce in 1964 that while he revered Jewish history, traditions and culture, he did not believe in God.

The religious establishment attempted to crush him like a bug, but miraculously (oops) people who were tired of pretending rallied around him right from the start. He was helped a good deal by the fact that he felt that intermarriage strengthened his community rather than weakened it. For a long time, he was the only rabbi in these parts who would perform mixed marriages.

Today, not only is the Birmingham Temple (actually in Farmington Hills) flourishing, there are dozens of other secular humanist congregations in this country and abroad. He established a lecture series called the Center for New Thinking that continues to vastly enrich the lives of many people.

The esteemed scholar Daniel Cohn-Sherbok called Sherwin Wine one of the 50 greatest Jewish thinkers in the last 2,000 years. But while that was certainly true, Wine played another very important role in this community. He was this area's leading "public intellectual," a breed that has helped enrich this nation since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is now nearly extinct.

Sherwin was interested in virtually everything in the world, and read more widely than anyone I know. He was younger and more energetic than any 59-year-old I know, which is significant, because he was 79. Most importantly, he spent his life going out and sharing his knowledge with as wide a circle as possible. He was constantly in motion, speaking knowledgably about topics from ethnic unrest in the Philippines to the next U.S. presidential election.

He captivated audiences on subjects from movies and theater to the latest scholarship into ancient religious texts. Granted, he could be fussy, a trifle vain and come across as arrogant. That doesn't matter. What does is that Sherwin Wine worked all his life to learn all he could, and to play the immensely important role of exposing as many people to as much knowledge as possible.

He was, I always felt, a man of the enlightenment in modern dress, with enormous curiosity. When we last met he pressed me for details about a dozen topics. What would Jack Kevorkian do next? Why can't Jennifer Granholm get it together? Who did I think the presidential nominees would be?

I learned a great deal from him, and was honored that he regarded me as a friend. The only other clergyman of his courage and stature was his fellow pioneer, the Rev. Harry Cook. On Thursday Cook and I will get together at 10 a.m. at the Birmingham Unitarian Church, 38651 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills, to share stories about Sherwin Wine and read from some of his works.

If you knew the man or read any of his books, you might want to come.

By the way, if Sherwin Wine is somewhere as a living consciousness after all, I am sure he appreciates the delicious irony of the fact. I don't know nuttin' about no worlds beyond this one my own self. But what I can tell you, based on our last conversation, is that the rabbi would have been irked at having to leave the theater before the end of the comic farce billed as the Bush administration.

To the best of my knowledge he was not an expert on train wrecks, but I know he did want to see how this one played out.


Arise, ye wretched of the earth: Not to exaggerate or anything, but the state of Michigan is about to face a crisis like it has never had before. How your elected leaders solve it over the next few months will probably determine whether the old mitten state will be a place worth living in a few years from now.

Remember the enormous budget crisis the state faced in the spring? Guess what. Now, it is far worse, and there is no place to hide. The Michigan Legislature, almost all of whose members deserve to be horsewhipped, merely moved almost the entire deficit problem into this year's budget so they wouldn't have to delay their Memorial Day vacation. On the way out, they gouged our one hope for the future, higher education, and stole from tobacco settlement money we don't have yet. They even forfeited $500 million the state would have gotten.

Governor Jennifer Granholm did nothing to stop this lunacy, or even protest very loudly against it, and chirped happily when the deed was done. Since then, the lawmakers have finally gotten a business tax passed.

But now they start the year facing a $1.8 billion deficit, and things may get even worse. The choices are clear. Enact a modest tax increase — which mostly just means restoring the tax rate to what it was a few short years ago.

That, or so damage essential services that we'll never attract much new business or industry. There's a fairly simple main reason why the state is in a mess. It spends more than it takes in. But that's not the free-spending liberals' fault this time. Years ago, to pander to the rich, the Legislature slashed Michigan's flat-rate personal income tax rate from 4.4 percent to 3.9 percent.

Sound like a good idea?

It was anything but. You got some pocket change, and the state got ruined. Sure enough, the lawmakers reduced the money the state had coming in every year ... but failed to stop spending. So every year, Lansing runs out of money, and has to play accounting games or take it out of school budgets again.

Now there are no more games left, and the bills are due.

Hard choices need to be made. What the Legislature could do, and if not watched probably will do, is cut money for universities yet again. That would not only lower the quality of education, but also dilute what remains. Soon, virtually no student from a poor background will be able to afford higher education in Michigan. Meanwhile, more and more of the rich kids will go out-of-state, some to places where religious nuts don't prevent essential scientific research.

Michigan, once a world technological leader, will settle slowly into the ooze. We will become Mississippi with ice storms, or maybe Haiti without sugar cane. But the very rich will get to keep their tax cuts. You could do something about all this by contacting your foresight-challenged state legislators and tell them forcefully that you expect a modern state with decent services.

You'll be glad you did, especially when it comes to plumbing.

Note: The Birmingham Temple has announced the arrangements to remember and celebrate the life of Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine. The Memorial Service will be held at the Birmingham Temple at 10 a.m. Friday, July 27. Shuttle busses for overflow parking will be available at Congregation Adat Shalom, located on Middlebelt just north of 13 Mile Road. Shiva, to express condolences to his immediate and temple families, will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, also at The Birmingham Temple, 28611 W. 12 Mile Rd. (between Middlebelt and Inkster roads), Farmington Hills; call 247-477-1410 for more information or see The Center for New Thinking will hold a eulogy, conducted by Rev. Harry T. Cook, at 10 a.m. Thursday, July 24, 2007 at the Birmingham Unitarian Universalist Church, 38651 Woodward Ave. (at Lone Pine Road) in Bloomfield Hills; for more information call 248-647-2380. Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. You can contact him at [email protected].