A PROVOCATIVE PEOPLE: A SECULAR HISTORY OF THE JEWS
INTRODUCTION BY ADAM CHALOM
There are many, many volumes called “a history of the Jews.” But few, if any, highlight the Jewish experience from a secular perspective. What if the most important Jewish developments were multicultural ethnic Diasporas and modern capitalist entrepreneurs, and not monotheism, a belief system on which Judaism holds neither the patent nor the monopoly—other cultures and philosophies came to the same conclusion, Christianity and Islam spread that belief much more widely and effectively than Judaism, and, as I heard Sherwin Wine say many times, who says that monotheism is such a great advance over polytheism anyway? Is a dictatorship better than an oligarchy, when our real standard is human freedom and self-actualization?
One of the most inspiring principles of the Humanistic Judaism that Sherwin Wine created is its commitment to truth and integrity—speaking and living what one truly believes, even if it is unpopular, and seeking the truth as best we can discover, even if the results are problematic.
Facts are facts. They are enormously discourteous. They do not revere old books, they do not stand in awe before old beliefs. They do not bow before famous ancestors. They are simply the stuff out of which reality is made and the final judge of truth.i
That is one of many ironies in this history—the first Humanistic rabbi defending polytheism as being as reasonable and as ethical as the competition, and even the original Jewish tradition! But the truth is the truth, and from an honest commitment to the truth emerges dignity: “If we have dignity, we do not run away from the truth. We do not turn the world into a reflection of our fantasies….We strive for knowledge. We weigh our beliefs on the scales of evidence.”ii
Of course, in real life everyone chooses what to emphasize from the available evidence, and their interpretation of that evidence. In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a self-admitted “ideological history,” Zinn does not condemn
…selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means it to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.iii
Zinn’s point is that every history is an ideological history, or used for ideological purposes, wittingly or not. One of the original titles of this book was The Real History of the Jews—asserting that it was true and objective where all others were wrong.
When Sherwin Wine died in an automobile accident in July 2007, one of the many projects (and there were always many projects) left tragically incomplete was this book—arguably Wine’s magnum opus, the culmination of half a century of reading, writing and teaching on Jewish history and its meanings. And Wine’s multiple roles as rabbi of the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Provost of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and star attraction of the suburban Detroit-based Center for New Thinking had afforded him the opportunity to study and lecture on an amazingly wide range of topics—this book represents one corner of a vast library of knowledge. Those who had many years of first-hand experience of Wine’s knowledge, humor, wisdom and brilliance knew that finally editing and presenting this book, ‘to bring out into light” in the Hebrew phrase for “to publish,” would be quite a challenge for many reasons.
Not the least of which was the fact that death does not end differences of opinion. Wine’s writing style, like his lectures, tended to make assertions without direct sources—his vast knowledge assured one that he knew what he was saying, but a history book generally needs more support. Those who studied with him, from public lectures to rabbinic training, experienced both a vast store of historical evidence at his disposal, and also his personal theories about what “made sense” or what “must have been the case” that would be stated definitively, where most historians would be more cautious. Wine once wrote, “‘I do not know’ is a brave and dignified answer, especially when it is true,” but how often did he actually say “I don’t know?”iv
There were a few options: simply correct typos, scan in maps Wine had hand-drawn on his ubiquitous letter-sized lined paper, and print the book; substantially edit the text to agree with prevailing academic standards and conclusions; or find some middle ground between those two. Thus one will find many “editor’s notes”—sometimes clarifying terms, but also providing academic support for Wine’s assertions, if not always his exact sources. As Martin Kotch, one of Wine’s first rabbinic students, said in a request for more sources, “As Humanistic Jews we can’t just say, ‘my rebbe told me’!” Some biblical passages Wine would often cite while teaching (e.g., the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice as evidence of a divine preference for meat) were relatively easy to produce, while others required original research. It did turn out that some ideas initially assumed to be “Sherwin being Sherwin” were actually strongly academically supported. And when they were not, that is also indicated.
The result may be described as Sherwin Wine’s history of the Jews, which for those who knew or experienced him is high praise. At times he gives the biblical narrative more credence than most scholars would today; for example, the specific narratives of Saul and David are not treated historically when scholars debate whether David even existed, or whether he was a small chieftain or a king. Nevertheless, what such sections demonstrate is how one can treat the narratives seriously, but from a critical, historical perspective—on the one hand aware of the historical criticism of the evolution of the biblical text, and on the other exploring the story behind the story. Some speculations are difficult to justify, and some theories (e.g., Semitic invasion waves of the Ancient Middle East) are no longer the current approach in scholarship, but like any detective, one makes one’s best extrapolations based on the evidence and on one’s training, experience and insight.
What marks this as particularly Sherwin Wine’s history of the Jews? Five features are worth highlighting.
An amazing breadth of knowledge and erudition: One gets the sense that one sees only the tip of the iceberg on many topics that touch on Jewish history. The Roman Empire, the history of Christianity, centuries and volumes of doctrinal disputes are summarized in less than a page. It truly puts Jewish history in context, which is how real life is experienced—not in a religious bubble of independent development, but in dialogue and interaction with the surrounding culture and government. How many histories of the Jews have an excursion on major Christian heresies? But those heresies become important to understand later political and social developments that have a clear impact on the Jews. In addition, it is also an interesting tangential diversion. I was always struck that the Birmingham Temple library, “the house that Sherwin built,” included many works on science, general history and philosophy (as well as the congregation’s Torah scroll). The message was clear: to be a well-rounded, knowledgeable Humanistic Jew was to have a great store of general human knowledge as well.
An ability to summarize complex ideas and developments in short, memorable ways: Wine’s rubric of the Protest Movement to summarize the anti-urban zealots of Yahweh, or his simple explanation that Jews in multilingual settings tend to adopt the language of the dominant power (English in Montreal, German in Prague, French in North Africa), are simple keys to complex phenomena. How better to challenge the conventional wisdom that Judaism has always been primarily concerned with good deeds and not supernatural belief than to treat the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer of nineteen blessings, as clear statements of beliefs about God? “If the recitation of these words was not required as an act of public conformity, then they would not be a creed. But they are.” Wine was always a masterful teacher in his lectures—his teaching continues here.
Religion as a human phenomenon: This history explores the development of Jewish religion from a secular perspective, paying attention to historical factors, vested interests, economic and social influences, psychological needs, and all the other tools of human knowledge that humanity uses to understand any other phenomenon. The supernatural as a direct cause or influence is unverifiable, un-analyzable, and therefore beyond the scope of such an analysis. What this opens up is a genuine exploration of the evolution of Jewish religious ideas from their early stages through modern times. It also enables illuminating comparisons of other, similar human phenomena that are “assigned” to other religious traditions. Wine calls the first century BCE Pharisees the Calvinists of their day and enumerates the similarities:
contemptuous of the old religious establishment, hostile to the old aristocracy, populist in their insistence on turning lay people into priests, bourgeois in their class resistance and ambitions for power, conformist in their love of surveillance, self-righteous in their dismissal of the opinions of their opponents, fervent in their articulation of Judgment Day reward and punishment, and ardent in their obedience to their own newly created clergy.
Indeed, a very illuminating comparison, but only possible if religion is considered as a human phenomenon and not as separate, widely-divergent, divinely-revealed traditions. There are times that his emphasis on historical or economic causation minimizes religious or intellectual factors—”The main agenda of the French Revolution was the overthrow of the old management and the replacement of the old rulers with a new management friendly to the new economy”—but such was Wine’s choice of emphasis, the historian’s prerogative.
A delicious sense of humor: sometimes playful, sometimes cruel, but always with a twinkle in the eye and a marvelous sense of irony and the comic. Referring to the god of Enlightenment deism as a “Deity Emeritus” is priceless. The reader will discover many more such gems.
The courage to challenge conventional wisdom and tradition: Too many scholars pay lip service to the possible historicity of events and people in whom their readers believe devoutly. In other histories of the Jews, one can easily find passages like these:
Yet even the least historically authentic biblical traditions clearly represent real events, social processes, and flesh-and-blood figures. . . .In the Bible the patriarchs are located in space but not in time. . . .The stories of the patriarchs’ migrations are therefore true in the sense of containing certain accepted historical facts: the ethnic basis and social structures of the tribes about to merge into a new nation.v
Scholars have long ago pointed out that this story lacks historicity and that it is probably based on a medieval Christian legend. . .Nevertheless, it has retained such a hold upon the imagination of Jews throughout the ages that it has acquired a kind of reality which transcends the prosaic limitations of fact.vi
As we have seen, the “limitations of fact” are precisely the boundaries Wine draws for his vision of Jewish history. Wine includes no such apologies or softening of the blow—if he believed something not to be historical, it is generally not in the main body of the text. You will find no rationalizations seeking to preserve some veneer of historicity for Abraham or the Exodus. In Wine’s own words, “Courage is the search for respect, not agreement.”vii
Most introductions conclude with a summary of the contents and conclusions of the book, or an appreciation of the author. Wine himself wrote summaries of each chapter, which appear in the table of contents. And an essay of biographical and intellectual appreciation of Wine appears as an afterword to this volume.
One of the many lessons personally learned from Wine: he almost always ended his phone calls with “thank you,” because you can never acknowledge those who support you enough. Many people deserve many thanks in the epic journey that has been A Provocative People. Wine’s life partner, Richard McMains, and his sister and brother-in-law, Ben and Lorraine Pivnick, were constant sources of love and encouragement through every project that Wine undertook, including this history. Wine’s long-time “partner in crime,” first at the Birmingham Temple and then at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), Marilyn Rowens, was the prime captain of the “Sherwin History” project for many years, including sending all those drafts to all those publishers, and also receiving all those rejection letters. Wine’s assistants at the IISHJ, Susan Williams and Kirk Wicker, converted literally reams upon reams of handwritten manuscript into typed pages, and then reams of corrected pages into new drafts. After Wine’s death, Linda Glass and Michael Egren did amazing work to assemble the computer files and boxes of papers that represented all of drafts and re-drafts of the book, which were eventually dropped on me. Invaluable advice and help in bringing the manuscript to book were offered by Bonnie Cousens, Miriam Jerris, Dawn Friedman, Irene Chase, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Brian Schmidt, Mark Friedman, AJ Chalom, and many others. Special thanks to my detailed proofreaders Susan Chalom, William Roberts, indexer Leonard Rosenbaum and our design consultant Jennifer Gordon. Ron Milan and Milan Press have been indefatigable supporters of the Institute and its publications, and cannot be recognized enough. Most important, the ordinary members of Humanistic Judaism, from the Birmingham Temple to the Society for Humanistic Judaism and beyond, who have found Wine’s message powerful enough to survive and thrive beyond the death of the messenger—they are Sherwin Wine’s natural immortality.
I Wine, Sherwin. Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 156.
II Wine, Celebration, p. 48.
III Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States:1942-Present (New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2003), p. 8/location223 ff.
IV Wine, Celebration, p. 157.
V Hoffman, Yair “The Migrations of the Patriarchs” in Barnavi, ed. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People (NY: Schocken Books, 1992), p.2.
VI Gaster, Theodor. Festivals of the Jewish Year: A Modern Interpretation and Guide (NY: William Morrow Co., 1952), p119.
VII Wine, Celebration, p. 41.