Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Death of Rabbi Wine

Following is my e-mail to Rev. Harry T. Cook in response to his oped column in today's Detroit Free Press (Tues., July 24, 2007) about the death of his colleague Rabbi Sherwin Wine, popular local speaker and internationally recognized creator and leader of Jewish humanism. Tom


Dear Rev. Cook:

I was frankly disappointed when I heard Rabbi Wine a year or two ago. Yes, the room was filled with an adoring audience. Yes, his personable, energetic presentation demonstrated why they adored him so. He was telling us about Shakespeare, and though he is an expert and knowledgeable in many areas, he was out of his element here. He was relying on a recent biography, which like so many recent Shakespeare biographies was written to capitalize on the unlimited interest in that playwright and poet even now, 403 years after his death. For reasons I won’t get into here, these biographies have not advanced our knowledge about Shakespeare one iota beyond what it was when Mark Twain wrote his brutally honest assessment of Shakespeare’s life in his 1909 essay, “Is Shakespeare Dead?”

The problem was that it was neither the time nor the place to get into it with Rabbi Wine, whose efforts and whose accomplishments I otherwise very much appreciated and still do appreciate. I did speak with him briefly afterward to thank him for his his dedication to learning and for his stirring interest in such topics among his followers, as the satisfied faces of the people in that packed room had attested.

I also told him that I was working on a paper which he might find interesting, that textual evidence in The Merchant of Venice shows that it is not anti-Semitic but entirely otherwise, directed against the human imperfections which set men against each other, especially Christians and Jews. He told me that he would be very interested to see that paper and asked me to e-mail it to him.

Now, before I was able to finish that paper, Rabbi Wine has died. I made a PowerPoint presentation of the paper to a conference in Ann Arbor last year, but the paper itself was delayed. I regret that I will never be able to have his reaction to it, and here is why. The paper was delayed for two reasons. The first was that I needed to confirm that the play referred to Jewish moral teaching rather than Christian values as has been presumed for 400+ years, suggesting that Shakespeare was familiar with Judaism. The second was that if you read the play closely, it becomes quite apparent that Shakespeare is harshly critical of the Christian church, that he is neither a Protestant nor a Catholic as the popular and misguided biographies are currently debating, but that he was a humanist.

Rabbi Wine could have told me about humanism.

So you see, Rev. Cook, the world will continue to love its Shakespeare, will continue to attend his plays in droves, attend his festivals, read his sonnets, and buy his biograhies, but the world will continue to wax uneasy about the apparent antiSemitism of Merchant, which will continue to be banned in some communities and reviled in others, continuing to miss the remarkable, humanistic message of that true Renaissance author. I needed to speak with Rabbi Wine about that message, especially since he was so very good at delivering messages. I regret that I never got the chance. I never knew Rabbi Wine, but as so many thousand others, I miss him dearly.


R. Thomas Hunter, Ph.D.

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