Sketches on Atheism

Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

A Provocative People_BookThe following is the remarkable opening passage to Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine’s conspicuously truthful, wonderfully written book: A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews.

This eleven-paragraph extract has been reproduced with permission. The full prologue can be read here at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The book can be purchased here and here, and you can watch Rabbi Adam Chalom discussing Rabbi Wine (who sadly died in 2007) and this work here.

A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews

 Prologue by Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

“Once upon a time there was a man called Abraham. He lived in Chaldea near the city of Ur. One day a god called Yahweh came to him and told him to leave. Abraham listened to Yahweh and left. He moved to Haran in Mesopotamia and from there to the land of the Canaanites. Being a rich shepherd, he traveled with many servants. In Canaan, Yahweh promised the land to him and to his descendants. Abraham promised to obey Yahweh in all things. When his wife, Sarah, bore him a son, Isaac, at the age of ninety, Abraham was very happy. Isaac in turn fathered Esau and Jacob. With the double name of Jacob and Israel, Jacob in turn fathered twelve sons. From these twelve sons came the entire people of Israel, also known as the Hebrews.

Jacob and his twelve sons went down into Egypt. In time they were enslaved by a wicked king. After four hundred years Yahweh decided to rescue them. He chose a Hebrew named Moses to lead them back to Canaan. Two million strong, the Hebrews departed Egypt to march to the Promised Land. Along the way they stopped at Yahweh’s mountain, Mount Sinai. There Yahweh gave them rules and regulations to live by. After forty years they reached Canaan. Moses died. His successor, Joshua, led the Hebrews across the Jordan River and conquered the land in one fell swoop. The Hebrews settled down on the land and began to worship the gods of Canaan. An angry Yahweh punished them with disunity and enemies. The worst enemy was the Philistines. In time, the Hebrews united under the shepherd king David, defeated the Philistines and became an independent nation.

This is the biblical story of the origins of the Jewish people. Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds.

Imagem3While the story may be familiar, charming and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence—beyond the text of the Bible—that most of these events took place, or that most of these people really existed.

If I tell you a story about a man named Uncle Sam who had fifty children named Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, California… you would laugh at the absurdity of the tale. But when a similar story appears in the Bible about Abraham, who is described as the ancestor of many nations, millions of people abandon their reason and embrace its credibility. Biblical tales are not so much descriptions of real events as they are propaganda for political and religious arguments which took place many centuries after the presumed events took place. If they have historical value, it is because they are clues to what was going on in Jewish life at the time the author of the story lived. The story of Abraham has less to do with 1800 BCE, when Abraham presumably lived, than with 700 BCE when his story was created.

Biblical mythology revolves around the central figure of Yahweh, a god whose devotees claim that he is the only God worthy of the name. In the biblical narrative, Yahweh precedes the Jewish people and is responsible for their formation through his covenant treaty with Abraham. He continues to manage the Jewish experience through thick and thin. Even when the Jews misbehave, he does not abandon them. According to the biblical writers, Yahweh and the Jewish people have been together from the beginning of Jewish history.

But, in reality, Yahweh, as a popular God, did not show up until much later. Even when Moses and David appeared, it seems that they spent much of their religious time with many gods other than Yahweh. The same is true of their Israelite contemporaries. The early history of Israel is a time of comfortable polytheism in which the life of the Hebrew shepherd and farmer was tied up with the gods of the Canaanites and other Semitic neighbors. Yahweh was around, but he was competing with other members of the pantheon for Jewish attention. The Hebrews were as yet unaware of an exclusive intimacy.

For almost five hundred years, the Jews grew up as a nation without Yahweh at the center. More important to their early story was the place where they lived, the neighbors they had and their own struggle for survival. The Jews, like all other people, have a human context for their birth.

Mythology is the story of the gods. If you believe that the gods intervene actively in human affairs, then mixing mythology with history is a valid enterprise. But if you do not, the mixing becomes an obstacle to the discovery of truth.

What would Jewish history be like if the mythology were fully dismissed? Over the last two hundred years many scholars have attempted to deal with the Jews as a natural phenomenon. Some of them were Bible critics, some of them were secular historians, some of them were archeologists — all of them were united by their commitment to science as the best method for the discovery of the truth. Science simply means responsibility to the evidence of controlled investigation. Supernatural powers, supernatural beings and supernatural purposes have no place in the scientific perspective.

Over the last two centuries a great deal of evidence has been accumulated to create an alternative Jewish story. The origins of the Jewish people, the origins of the Bible, the evolution of priestly Judaism, the development of Talmudic Judaism, the realities of Hellenistic Jews, the emergence of antisemitism, the adaptation of the Jews to the Christian and Muslim worlds—all of these important chapters in Jewish history which have been distorted by the lenses of mythology and theological apologetics—now have alternative stories. In some ways the new alternatives are less romantic because the gods have been reduced to ideas in human minds and their passionate and whimsical agendas are absent from the tale. In other ways the new stories are more interesting and exciting because they are not merely the repetition of familiar religious doctrine. Flesh and blood people of the narrative are no longer the passive victims of divine manipulation, but rather the authors and creators of the events themselves…

As you will see, the narrative that follows is a very different history of the Jews.”

65 thoughts on “Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine

    • Indeed! It’s interesting, Jewish identity is in no way diminished by this readjustment, rather strengthened. It was a point Wine was at pains to stress, and rightly so i think. Christians and Muslims won’t, of course, appreciate this new, less supernatural history, but that’s another story.


  1. A story sounding absurd doesn’t make it untrue! A single figure could have fathered 12 tribes – just not very quickly – the way that Genghis Khan’s descendants today number about 16 million.

    But, of course, Genghis Khan never claimed it was because his god told him to.

    There was a course in Biblical Studies at the university I attended. Apparently every year mini riots would break out as the religious students were confronted with the fact it wasn’t a theology class, but a look at history, archaeology and the Bible as a literary work. I wish I’d been there to see it.


    • Ah yes, that delightful sound of wet meat slapping up against itself as reality crashes into the fairytale.

      Seems the Jews are way out ahead of Christians and Muslims on this. Biblical criticism is taught in all but Orthodox seminaries and the majority of rabbis concede the bible is myth. It’s what my next post is on, and i wanted to speak to you about it. More on that later.


      • In Helsinki university (where I studied archaeology) the students of theology were required to at least go through the basic classes for religion studies. Apparently the “mini riots” that broke out when I attended the classes were a yearly phenomenon, as the religious students of theology were struck by the reality, of the terminology. Like for example, that prayer is actually magic, in the sense that it is just a nother method of contacting the supernatural and an attempt to influence how the supernatural supposedly affects the material. However, it was very educational for those of us who were actually interrested to study religion as a cultural phenomenon, to see in practice how a religious mind goes into total denial when facing facts, that do not support the wild assumptions of a particular religion.

        There hardly is a nother archaeological research area more studied than the ancient Levant, but since so many of the early studies were greatly influenced by ideological and religious preassumptions, there also is a terrible amount of hogwash published about the subject. Not to mention the so called archaeologists, who are often well funded by churches and zionist groups to produce sciency sounding and astounding “evidence” to fullfill such preassumptions.

        It is important that you John and óthers are bringing forth this information, that is not such a surprice to the scientific community interrested in the archaeology of the Fertile Cresent, where civilization took its first steps. Scientists are often good at research, but lousy at presenting the results to the public.

        At the end of the day it really does not even matter if the historical parts of the Bible were factual. That does not make any of the mythological supernatural stories in the book any more true, than those of any other religion, more or less well established in historicity. The fact that Spiderman said to live in New York does not make him any more true than Batman who supposedly lives in Gotham City. There would need to be evidence of Spiderman or Batman other than fictional “scriptures” of them for the rational adult to take these characters at face value (in other words to have faith in them) all the while Batman does not even acheive any remotely supernatural feats.


      • Raut, the real fun will be with my next post. In that i detail the archaeology and what rabbis actually believe. It’s quite interesting and will shock a lot of Christians.


  2. You can be assured that this will be a case of devout fundamentalists shooting the messenger to avoid the message. Another cliche also comes to mind. “Don’t bother me with the facts. I have already made up my mind up.”


    • I think it’s safe to say the Orthodox don’t take too kindly to this type of reality check.

      Still, in Wines own words: “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.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Having a rabbi flatly saying its not true isn’t enough? In his defense, Wine’s main thrust was the identity of the Jewish people, not necessarily ruining the foundations of the Abrahamic religions. Still, i have plenty of pearlers coming in the larger post.


      • Good.
        I wasn’t trying to be overly critical.
        But we have known it is fiction for ages – well common or garden folk like us who have an interest in this stuff.
        There needs to be that ‘killer’ blow. The one that really knocks the wind out of “their” sails and leaves them gasping.


      • If biblical archaeology hasn’t done that already then i regret to say there is no “killer blow.” Mithraism and paganism didn’t die overnight and neither will Judaism, Christianity or Islam. There’ll be a slow decline, a continuation of what we see today. What we can do is stop children from being indoctrinated into the nonsense and instead develop secular humanistic virtues. That said, there will be a tipping point, but that actual moment won’t be seen until historians look back and say, “I think it happened around about there.”


    • And apparently Sarah must have been one smokin’ hot nonagenarian, because Genesis 20 claims that “Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.”


      • Yes, and he pulled the same stunt with the Pharaoh when Sarai was already in her mid-60s (Gen. 12:10-20). She must have been one helluva a sexpot to entice the Pharaoh away from his regular harem. Anyways, Yahweh—being the just and merciful god that he truly is— decides to punish these kings for ‘righteous’ Abe’s deception, the end result being that Abraham walks away with a pile of booty just for promising to have God’s curses lifted. Talk about a cosmic shakedown! And later on (ch. 26), Isaac and his wife Rebekah attempt to run this “she’s my sister” con on the exact same king (Abraham must have passed on that Abimelek was an easy mark) but their plan is thwarted when they’re caught French kissing outside the king’s window. Bummer.


      • Ron – my research indicates that Isaac had his adventure with a different king, possibly a descendant of the original King Abimelech – that’s for the record. My personal belief, is that Isaac, the character, is needed for two events, the sacrifice scene, proving Abe’s allegiance to his god, and the inheritance scene that makes Jacob the “Chosen One,” otherwise there’s not much else for him to do, so he goes through his portion of Genesis, repeating everything his father did, re-digging Abe’s wells, visiting Abimelech, etc. I’m thinking that this was just another Abraham story, in which they scratched out Abe and penciled in Isaac.

        Oh, BTW, Abimelech was a Philistine, and they didn’t arrive on the shores of the Levant, from Crete, until the 12th century BCE, hundreds of years after Abraham and Isaac were alleged to have existed.


  3. “What would Jewish history be like if the mythology were fully dismissed? ”

    Perhaps a better question would be, “What would HUMAN history be like if the mythology were fully dismissed? ” My answer to that would be the same one that Macbeth gave, “It [would be] a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

    History without mythology is action without meaning. Our socialization, beginning at birth and continuing for a lifetime, enables us to relate to each other and to the society itself. If socialization were merely the robotic, soulless, recitation of what “really” happened we would not be fully human — we may not be able to survive.

    Be happy,
    Be well,



    • Hi Paul

      I don’t think the good rabbi was rousing on mythology as a general subject, rather asking the reader to look at Jewish history free of the supernatural baggage that is so intimately tied to it. Only a madman would dismiss the power and innate beauty of myth. The trick is in knowing its myth. Over the last 3 weeks i’ve been talking to a lot of rabbis right across the world for my next post and throughout these conversations a Neil Gaiman quote kept resurfacing over and over again to describe how they perceive the myth of the Torah:

      “Fairytales are true, not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.”

      Bell well and be happy too, my Catholic Super Hero


      • “Fairytales are true, not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.”

        OK. Now we’re talking. That sounds like a rabbi.

        What Wine seems to be missing, here, is that it isn’t particularly important whether the events depicted are ‘true’ or ‘real’, or whether they were made up, or whether they were plagiarized from another culture we don’t even like. None of that matters. What matters is that the story is told and retold, generation after generation, for a gazillion years.

        It’s in the telling that the identity of a people, the faith of a people, the soul of a people, the enduring life a a people is transmitted. Is the story of Moses parting the Red Sea too incredible a miracle for you to accept? Here’s a MORE incredible miracle — we’re still talking about it!



      • Hi Paul, Wine didn’t use the dragon quote, i have been, and, to tell you the truth, a lot of rabbis have loved it. It seems to have captured their feelings regarding the bible, which i think you’re also agreeing with. On the larger scale I do, too. The problem comes (and this will always be my focus) is when adults actually believe the myths and tell children they’re true. That’s a lie, and its not acceptable behaviour.

        One of the first things i did after coming to Brazil was learn all the utterly fantastic folklore stories, the myths, the tales. Personally I can’t get enough of these cultural gems, and as an Australia I’ve been well and truly spoiled having the Aboriginal culture at my fingertips. It shapes identity, fashions a culture, adds depth to a people, but one must be able to distinguish where the myth begins. To this point, you know as well as I do that many, many, many Christians in the US actually believe this stuff happened.



    • What Wine seems to be missing, here, is that it isn’t particularly important whether the events depicted are ‘true’ or ‘real’, or whether they were made up, or whether they were plagiarized from another culture we don’t even like. None of that matters. What matters is that the story is told and retold, generation after generation, for a gazillion years.

      Paul, you as I must know this isn’t true. Many lives have been lost and are still lost trying to defend the truth of these stories. The question of their validity is an important and can’t be dismissed offhand. Either they are true and they are inspired by a god or they aren’t, which I know is the case, and as such cannot be purported to be the ideal to live by.


    • Is the story of Moses parting the Red Sea too incredible a miracle for you to accept? Here’s a MORE incredible miracle — we’re still talking about it!

      You really don’t deserve any measure of civility with a disgusting response like this, especially as there is the tacit implication that you are happy to sanction such beliefs in the name of your ridiculous Catholic Faith.
      That you refuse to acknowledge how rubbishing the Exodus etc makes a complete mockery of your man god Yeshua is indicative of blind ignorance or desperately trying not to have a bladder mishap.

      Fortunately, the Jews – certainly enough to make it count – will eventually have the cojones to acknowledge it is ALL make believe leaving the likes of you and you religion looking like really silly chumps.

      What a wonderful thought.


    • CC – sorry to see that your insight is so limited. What I hear you saying is, “what is childhood without Santa Claus,” and millions of children, all over the world, have never heard of Santa, yet somehow manage to grow up happy and well-adjusted.

      Why would the telling of what “REALLY” happened, have to be robotic recitation? Is history really that dull for you? Possibly it’s only your own that is so – mine has been incredibly exciting, involved no mythological creatures, yet still avoided being robotic in the telling of it.

      Be happy,
      Be well,
      Live an exciting life!



    • Great story. Of course, one must be able to view this chapter as myth; as cultural, not actual.

      So, you used to be “worshipping with Buddhists” Paul? I do believe your stock just went up, Captain! 🙂


  4. Interesting read. The task of enlightening the masses is mighty, your efforts are to be commended John. Personally i just deleted an email forwarded to me that complained of the ACLU forcing the military to stop using the name “Jesus” by their chaplains. Facts to many of these “believers” are like sunshine to a vampire.


    • That’s a bit harsh. People should be able to worship as they see fit… Just not force it upon others. Jesus, Flying Spaghetti Monster, it really doesn’t matter.

      Wine was indeed an interesting rabbi. A secular humanist (founder of Jewish secular humanism in fact) with a fiery need for truth. No way to find fault in that.


      • John, my mistake. did not check this out with it is false aclu is not going after prayer in the military. this is not like me must be having a bad day. 😉


      • No problem, Larry. It did sound a bit odd, but who can say what sort of nonsense will go on in the States these days. I heard earlier your Supreme Court is about to hear a case that will (if successful) imbue corporations with religious rights. Madness. If it passes i hope some crazy Muslim tries to dictate Sharia on its employees… in accord to the Courts ruling. Could be funny 🙂


  5. Well I might just have to pick it up then! Though what’s interesting to me is how Jewish mythology ties to their history in a way unparalleled by other cultures, ancient or otherwise. I’m sure the associations can be made by the reader, but I’m curious if the book contains any of this, or if it casts off the mythology altogether, which is what the prologue seems to imply.


    • It’s an honest, secular history of the Jews. To your point, there are two possible answers. First, the Jewish people have survived, and therefore the stories have survived as well. Second, what’s unparalleled was Christianity and Islam growing out from the foundation narrative, which has produced a familiarity with the story greater than that with the myths of Sumer or Babylon, Greece or Scandinavia.

      Further into the prologue Wine writes, “Jewish history is tied up with the theology of three very powerful religious systems. Judaism and Christianity, and Islam to a lesser degree, cannot separate their sacred events from Jewish events. The Jews, as the Chosen People, are beyond the normal patterns of human development. Jewish experience, as a theological lesson, is a witness to supernatural power and divine intervention. In the religious context, Jews become more than Jews. They become agents of God, sustained by mysterious forces that can neither be described nor scrutinized. For millions of believers, Jewish history is more than history. It is divine revelation.” This, in part, is why the title of the book is “A Provocative People.”


  6. Powerful stuff. The trick is to repeat the lie long enough for it to become truth… oh wait, it’s still a lie but I’m willing to be fooled and act stupid because all my friends and family do it.


  7. If you have a thoroughly indoctrinated (hypnotised, emotionally-lost) person no amount of logic will get through. It’s pretty well a lost cause. Sure, I have a perverse fun myself in potting the devout when they trespass against me but I’ve effectively given up on them. They and their God(s) will one day meet head on, they’ll either be delighted or momentarily disappointed—if disappointed they’ll never let us know.

    Better to concentrate on the upcoming victims, and there’s the real problem. The other day Spouse and I watched an episode of ‘The frankincense trail’ wherein the lady traveller was in an Israeli hotel on Friday night. The hotel’s incumbent rabbi explained to her how she could not do effectively anything at all without violating laws; but there was an escape clause built in for the lift/elevator—pressing a button for a floor was a sin but stepping in and letting the damned thing follow its programme (stopping at all floors in turn, up and down) both got her to her floor yet kept her sinless.

    The rabbi was a very interesting psychological study, what one might aptly label as a well-educated brain-dead … … freak. He showed her the hotel’s own synagogue, where the ladies in the congregation were segregated away behind glass bricks, but if lucky “They can still see me!”

    I think—and no hyperbole here—that were you to read aloud your post to him you’d be promptly taken outside and stoned. Well worth seeing that episode just for the rabbi.

    I enjoyed the whole series, especially the bit where the guys take running jumps and clear (I think it was) five (r) five full-grown standing camels. No poncey rolls here, just head on running jumps … beat that, rabbi—we’ll even let you cheat by calling on God’s help~!


    • Hadn’t heard of it, but I’m sure Youtubby has some episodes. This wasn’t my post, though, rather an extract from Rabbi Wine’s book. Frightfully truthful chap, which is a nice change.


  8. There is the real history, and then there is the history as recorded by the victors. The problem with recorded history is that it often obscures and precludes the study and understanding of real history.

    There is certainly a substantial mythological history behind Judaism, as there is with all religions and, indeed, all groups of people, secular or not. Indeed, there is a substantial mythology to “America” which is most certainly quite divergent from reality. It requires a uniquely open mind to separate the two.

    Thanks for providing this link. I have added Wine’s book to my Kindle collection, which is somewhat serendipitous, considering that I have recently been reading the works of Hannah Arendt!


    • I particularly like the Tea Parties version of American history… the one where Admiral Washington parted the Mississippi and freed the slaves from Nevada. Oh, and Jesus wrote the Constitution 🙂


  9. I read somewhere that much of the Jewish nation is actually atheist nowadays, sometimes enjoying an inner chuckle at the notion of fanatical Christianity. It all seems like an inside joke somewhere along the line here…religion.


      • How did you get in touch with all of these Rabbis, by the way?

        And, slightly off topic, but have you witnessed any healing sessions along the lines of John of God? Just saw a documentary the other day and immediately thought that you might have some information on this.


      • Contacted them by email mostly, got chatting, then referrals (you have to talk to Rabbi XYZ) took it deeper. I had a set of questions to open, then through follow-ups got into more detail. It was fun, and I wasn’t expecting such a conclusive rejection of the bible. That said, someone like Wolpe (who is adamant about it all being a myth) still retains a belief in god. His reasoning is that simply because the Jews still exist is proof.

        I just had to look John of God up. I know who you’re talking about now. Nutter down in the south. I probably know what you do: saw a doco on him once. Brazilians are a deeply superstitious lot and the evangelical churches are doing a roaring trade around here, and they’re also getting involved in politics. Not pretty.


      • Fascinating. I’ve been reaching out to various people as well, but I rarely receive anything in return. I recently contacted a gnostic church and some Muslim leaders from around my area. Neither of them returned phone calls or emails. Then, I went to the Islamic center and found that “no one was available to speak with.” Anyway, I’ll keep trying, but it’s encouraging to see that some people are having success.

        As for John of God, I saw a documentary and then did a little reading about these “mediums” in Brazil who perform real surgeries without antiseptic or anesthesia. They claim that the patients don’t feel pain, bleed very little, rarely develop complications such as infections, and are not put into a trance, such as hypnosis. One hypothesis for all of this was that because Brazil fosters such a superstitious environment, the individuals require little stimuli in order to be put into trance-like state. The placebo effect was also called upon, insofar as the absence of infections, etc. I was just wondering if you had any direct experience with these nut jobs, or, due to your close proximity with them, if you had any personal theories.


      • None around here, but the theory about superstition is spot on. It’s really quite remarkable, in a horrible sort of way. What I do see quite often is the Candomblé offerings under trees, including the occasional dead chicken. Up in Rio there’s a sort of religious war going on now inside the big favelas. Traditionally Candomblé/Catholic a lot of the drug dealers have become born again Christian evangelicals. They’re still dealers (and murderers) but they have the American-Evangelical zeal and are forcing the traditional Candomblé people out… even killing them when necessary. Strange world.

        Try contacting some Muslim community centers. I’m sure they’d be responsive. What are you digging up?


  10. Pingback: The Exodus, courtesy of Arch. | A Tale Unfolds

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