July 24, 2007

In Memoriam: Rabbi Sherwin Wine

Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, died on Saturday at age 79. Though he lived a long life, it should have been longer. He was killed in a car accident.

Sherwin's conviction that the cultural and spiritual traditions of Judaism need not be incompatible with modern nontheistic philosophy is the reason that I am today a practicing Jew and active member of a congregation, rather than the unaffiliated, and disconnected, secular Jew I was for most of my life.

I am also indebted to Sherwin for coining the term ignosticism to mean "finding the question of God's existence meaningless because it has no verifiable consequences." The Wikipedia entry is a little messy at the moment, but it's pretty much the only online source for further explication of the concept.

I met Sherwin a couple of times, but didn't know him well. It just seemed appropriate to pay tribute.

The Harvard Humanist chaplaincy's memorial has audio of recent interviews with Sherwin.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


As you say, it should have been longer, as should have many lives of people killed in avoidable car crashes. To make that point, many safety advocates suggest avoiding the word "accident" (and instead using "crash"), as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done since 1997.

You mean because "crash" just sounds scarier, or is there some other distinction I'm not seeing?

I never met Sherwin Wine, but just this year I attended the first Humanistic Judaism Bat Mitzvah in a given state and learned about his legacy then. He will continue to have a resounding effect on many lives, including mine in its small way.

"Accidents happen." Which suggests that they can't be prevented, that we shouldn't work to prevent them, and that no one was responsible.

From "Motor Vehicle Crash versus Accident: A Change in Terminology Is Necessary," Journal of Traumatic Stress, August 2002: "We assert that motor vehicle crash should replace motor vehicle accident in the clinical and research lexicon of traumatologists. Crash encompasses a wider range of potential causes for vehicular crashes than does the term accident. A majority of fatal crashes are caused by intoxicated, speeding, distracted, or careless drivers and, therefore, are not accidents. Most importantly, characterizing crashes as accidents, when a driver was intoxicated or negligent, may impede the recovery of crash victims by preventing them from assigning blame and working through the emotions related to their trauma."

I'm skeptical about that last part, but I think the change in mindset might ultimately result in better crash prevention - and it's costless and unlikely to make things worse.

The familiar statistics: In 2005, 43,000 people were killed and 2.7 million injured in motor vehicle crashes.

I see the point -- and as you say, it can't hurt as a crash-prevention method -- but from a purely linguistic standpoint, I'm not buying it.

A majority of fatal crashes are caused by intoxicated, speeding, distracted, or careless drivers and, therefore, are not accidents.

Sure they are. They're accidents with preventable causes, but still accidents. The opposite of accidental is intentional, and even the worst drivers don't intend to crash their cars, predictable though that outcome may be. (Hi Lindsay!).

I don't think anyone really takes "accident" to mean "no one was responsible." If they did, we wouldn't have nearly so many lawsuits.

From Hot Fuzz:

"Official Vocab Guideline states we no longer refer to these incidents as accidents, but collisions. ... Accident implies there's nobody to blame."
I thought it was a clever parody of bureaucratese at the time.

I agree that it is not verifiable whether God exists or not, but is it meaningless to believe or disbelieve? Isn't there a difference between belief in an afterlife and belief that this life is all there is? Isn't there a difference between believing that war, famine, disease and natural disasters strike people without any reason except that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and believing that there is an all-good and all-powerful being who allows all that suffering for a reason which we can't understand?

so he was gay, aethiest, dies while driving on shabbat, and cremated?

anything else?

As the daughter of Alcoholics, I want to put in my 2 cents worth. Getting behind the wheel of a car drunk is not done accidentally, therefore any insuing crash is NOT accidental. They may not have meant to hurt anyone, but the mere fact that they were in a car driving, the next logical step would be that they would hurt or kill either themselves or someone else.
The laws should be MUCH MUCH tougher on drunk driving. No more second, third and fourth chances. It's almost like the laws are saying, "Well, you didn't kill anyone this time we'll let you keep trying until you get it right."
My parents, thankfully, did not kill anyone else or themselves and us, but they sure did mess up a couple cars and some trees!

TR - Per Wikipedia: "This use of the term 'verifiable' is consistent with logical positivism and indicates that the word 'God' is cognitively meaningless, but not necessarily emotionally or aesthetically meaningless." Wine making a case that the question "Is there a God" can not be answered by yes, know or maybe, but must be answered by "I don't know what you mean when you say 'God.'"

To put it another way, one can logically answer your question "What does it mean for a person to believe or not believe that there is an all-good, all-powerful being who allows suffering for a reason we can't understand?" But one can not logically answer the question, "Is there such a being?" because the very concept of such a being (which is itself only one of an infiite possible concepts of "god") is aggragation of meaningless and/or contradictory and/or tautological claims.

Kenneth - Yes, he's not going to hell for any of it.

Lue - No arguments here.

are you so sure he will even be lucky enough to be allowed into Hell?

Oh I get it, you're a chat bot.

Turing test FTW!

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