Remembering Al Vorspan, My Teacher and Hero

My teacher, friend, and hero Al Vorspan has died. I suppose I knew this day would come—it was 10 years ago when I first heard him say, “I’m so old that I don’t even buy green bananas anymore”—but it’s hard to believe we live in a world that Al no longer inhabits.

By the way, if that seems irreverent, I feel okay using that line about the bananas, because Al was one of the funniest people on the planet. He was also one of the most righteous, and humor + righteousness is a powerful combination. (Consider the alternatives: Humor without righteousness can be terribly cruel. Righteousness without humor can be stultifyingly pretentious.)

Others will eulogize him more fully than I, but the arc of his career includes essentially being the preeminent voice of Judaism and social justice throughout the second half of the 20th century. He was a committed Zionist and a passionate fighter against antisemitism. He was director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, a builder of the Religious Action Center in DC, a leader in the civil rights and nuclear freeze movements, and zealous fighter for human rights. He sat in a jail cell in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 with sixteen rabbis, brought south to protest segregation at the behest of Martin Luther King. He taught rabbinical students at HUC the history of the Jewish involvement in the Great Causes of the century, in a class that basically consisted of Al and Rabbi Jerry Davidson telling their stories from the trenches. (I fear I still owe them a paper.) He authored textbooks, sourcebooks on Jewish social justice, and at least four collections of humor. He also was a hysterically failed candidate for Congress, the wellspring of some of his best stories.  

His name should be thundered from the mountaintops as one of the Great Jews of Our Time.

In 2007, I was at the Consultation on Conscience, the Reform movement’s bi-annual political action conference in Washington, and grabbing 30 minutes alone with Al was always one of the reasons I attended. We decided to sit together for the next session, to be addressed by a certain ex-Governor who was running as a Republican candidate for President. (I remember exactly who it was, but that weasel doesn’t deserve to have his name in the same essay where I’m remembering a tzaddik like Al.)

This guy—a not terribly sophisticated conservative, unprepared by his aides, addressing a progressive Jewish organization—gave a speech that was a comedy of errors. I remember when he told us his qualifications to be President:  I served many years as Governor, before going into business and making some money… which is something I understand you people know a little something about. (Paging Ilhan Omar!!!)  Al turned to me, and his jaw was on the floor.

Al’s face was getting redder and redder as this guy lumbered through his policy initiatives, including clearing his state’s welfare rolls, shackling labor unions, etc. But then he got to Jewish issues, and he wanted this group to know that he was a supporter in the fight against antisemitism. He was a longtime friend of the ADL. Except that he didn’t say “ADL.” He kept saying, over and over, “…JDL… JDL…JDL.”  The first time might be excused as a slip; the third showed this guy didn’t have a clue about Jewish organizations. (The JDL was the radical, violent organization run by the late and unlamented Meir Kahane. The ADL, of course, is quite different; it’s one of the premier civil rights and interfaith bridge-building organizations in our system.)

Well, Al Vorspan, the voice of Jewish social justice, just about had steam blowing out of his earholes. After the speech, one of the governor’s flacks came to the podium and informed us that the governor didn’t mean any of the things that he had just spent twenty minutes telling us. It was a comedy—and I was so glad to share this moment with Al. We laughed and groaned about it for years afterwards.

A few years back, I invited Al to speak in my community on the 40th yartzeit of Martin Luther King. He agreed readily, and said, “What do you want me to accomplish?” I told him: “Al, I think that too many people simply don’t know the stories from the era. Tell them the stories.” Which he did, brilliantly.

The other thing that I think people forget is why we’re supposed to do the work of social justice. Al would send us back to the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and he wrote at least two textbooks on their messages. At a time when the “prophetic voice” has been emptied of all but its hoariest clichés, it would be a good idea to launch a study of the Prophets in Al’s honor. (I was distressed to hear that some Reform synagogues are getting rid of the Shabbat Haftarah reading, because their bar mitzvah kids just couldn’t “connect” to the words. What a relinquishing of one of the most crucial Jewish literary gifts to the world!)

Around three thousand years ago, a religious phenomenon—prophecy—arose in the Ancient Near East. Prophets had a direct line to G-d, and delivered the divine message to an audience that often didn’t want to receive it. The prophets gave equilibrium to a religious world of priestly worship and legal adherence. Together, the interaction of law, ritual, and prophecy shaped ancient Israel.

My teachers warned us that there wasn’t one singular prophetic message—they had a lot of truths to speak to lots of powerful figureheads. But one common feature was: the prophets insisted that a religious life of legal conformity emptied of human and divine concerns was worse than hollow; it was hypocrisy.  So a crucial part of the message of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, etc., is to behave according to the spirit as well as the letter of G-d’s law. If you believe that G-d has one Divine Image in the world—namely, other human beings—you had better act accordingly, by protecting the rights and integrity and inherent dignity of other people.

In our tradition, prophecy came to an end around 2300 years ago. And understandably so: it was a messy institution. But since then, we have wrestled to bring the message of these figures—who would hold our feet to the fire and make sure we lived according to the values we purported to hold—to fruition.  Al Vorspan was the great exemplar of this voice for our time. His name should be remembered, and told to the next generation. In that way, it will remain a blessing.

Al-Vorspan-1-resize-640x400.jpg