Judaism without God interview with Sherwin Wine

Book CoverExistentialism ? la Moses: Pondering Hershel Shanks’ interview with Rabbi Sherwin Wine, “Judaism Without God” (Moment Magazine, February 1999, pages 50-55+).

Rabbi Wine is nothing if not honest and consistent. He recognizes that it’s pointless to pray to the King of Universe if you don’t believe there is a king. So he doesn’t, and neither do the adherents of what Wine calls Humanistic Judaism.

This telling interview reveals the 70-year-old rabbi to be passionate about his beliefs and non-beliefs. He find “no evidence” for God but plenty of reasons in the Holocaust and human history to not believe. But who is the God in whom Wine does not believe? Each of the few times Wine describes God, it is as “a conscious being that runs and manages the universe.” Wine never unpacks what that means, perhaps because it is hard to unpack a non-belief. Or maybe God is someone other than what Wine imagines him to be.

If the frequency with which an idea is repeated gives an indication of what’s on someone’s mind, then it’s instructive that over and over again Wine refers to having “courage,” living the “courageous life,” “the life of courage.” “There’s no courage if there’s faith,” he intones, evidently meaning faith in God—since Wine has plenty of faith in humanity. In the end he says, we need to “train ourselves to be courageous.” And to stay in touch with our Jewish history and heritage. It’s almost like existentialism with a trip to Israel thrown in.

Maybe Rabbi Wine needs more courage: the courage to learn why God isn’t canceled out by tragedy, not even by the Holocaust; the courage to see that finite human beings can’t plumb the nature of God and can’t discover how an uncreated being can exist; the courage to see the value in “this ridiculous chapter from Leviticus on leprosy”; the courage to consider Jesus.

Speaking of which, Wine answers a question about “messianic Jews” by mentioning two groups who fall into that category: Lubavitchers and “Jesus people.” Messianic thinking, says Wine, is “dangerous” because it’s utopian. And why is that bad? Because to live the “life of courage” a person needs realistic, not utopian, goals. Wine uses the example of ultra-Orthodox Jews who (according to Wine) believe everything is okay because God will intervene in the end to bring about a fairy-tale ending. I can’t speak for the ultra-Orthodox, but when it comes to faith in Jesus the Messiah, Wine radically fails to grasp how in Jesus we confront reality head-on. Or how radical Jesus the Jewish Messiah’s call to discipleship really is. Courage, anyone?


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Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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