Judaism & Life

A Torah of Kindness

For Rabbi Larry Raphael, and His Torah of Kindness

I’m writing too many eulogies for teachers of mine these days. But when I heard that Larry Raphael had died on Sunday, I wanted to put some thoughts into writing, for he was truly special.

Larry was a dean at HUC-JIR when I arrived at the New York campus in the early ‘90s. He published a few anthologies of Jewish mystery writing (his great passion), and it was fun to talk books with him. He taught professional development classes to rabbinical students, but those are not the lessons that I most cherish from him. There are two that I want to share here.

The first is that Larry was the constant champion of the school’s soup kitchen, which I ran for a few years, each week feeding about 200 people who came in off the city streets and into our school. Yet the soup kitchen was not universally embraced by the administration or the students at the time; it was big disruption to the operations of the building on Monday afternoons. But Larry worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that it was funded and that it thrived. He regularly came to join in the cooking and serving. And he was personally supportive of me, helping me navigate the grant money, for instance.

The soup kitchen really was his baby for many years. It endures today, thanks in part to the strong foundation he laid when he was an administrator at the College.

The second thing for which I’m grateful to Larry is more intensely personal.

Did you ever have the feeling of not being sure if you belonged? The sensation that wherever you were, everyone except you seemed to know exactly where they were supposed to be going and what they were supposed to be doing? I can remember feeling that way at distinct moments when I was a kid in elementary school, sort of perpetually when I was in high school, and many other times since then. I used to think I was the only one who ever felt that way, but I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone.

Well, I sure felt like that the day I interviewed at HUC in New York – “what in the world am I doing here?” I was a senior at Colgate getting a degree in philosophy and religion, not the most pragmatic of majors. I made the decision to go to rabbinical school. There was no Plan B. So I applied and showed up one winter morning at One West 4th Street for my interview.

I walked into the building and sat in the common area with another prospective student. She didn’t seem nervous at all; she seemed right at home. We made small talk. Then another prospective student came into the room. And the two of them—well, their eyes just lit up. “J, is that you?” “D, is that you? I haven’t seen you since…!” And they fell into each other’s arms, two reunited old friends from Jewish summer camp who were now all set to become colleagues together.

As for me, I just sat there with a growing sense of imposter syndrome. I didn’t go to Reform summer camps, I didn’t like NFTY, and I sure wasn’t feeling like this impending interview was a big family reunion. Why would they accept me and not these two, who were obviously “naturals”? In my mind, I started figuring my options in fast food or in the gas-pumping industry.

And then Larry, the Dean of Students, came out and sat beside me. He made the perfect kind of small talk: he asked me about the musicians I liked (I exhaled, “Coltrane!”) and the books I was reading (I had Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant with me). He put me at ease. More important, he made me feel like I was qualified and deserved to be there, at just the moment that my self-confidence was dissipating. Larry had a gentleness, inherent kindness, and good humor that were so precious to me that day and many times afterwards. I’ll never forget it.

In recent years, those old bad feelings have occasionally returned with renewed fervor. And I’ve wished I had a Larry Raphael nearby for some self-esteem booster shots. Once in a while, an email would arrive from him out of the blue, usually after I’d published an essay or Dvar Torah someplace and he’d want to let me know that he’d read it and liked it. Those notes meant a lot.

Look, I fear that in our world these days, celebrating a person’s kindness may seem banal. I want to be clear: there is nothing banal about being a kind person. It is irreplaceable. I’ve met brilliant academics, dazzling rabbis, and forceful advocates for social justice who were not personally kind people; who lack warmth, or compassion, or a sense that they care about you as an individual. And frankly—it mitigates their success in other realms. Their lack of personal kindness is a character flaw, and while we’re all imperfect creations, somehow their work is less admirable, less whole, because of this missing piece.

Not so with Larry. He consummately lived the Mishnah’s urgent prodding:  וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת / “receive every person with a cheerful countenance”.  There’s a Torah of kindness that emanates from certain kind souls, and he was one of them. May his memory be a blessing.

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.

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Look, It's about White Supremacy

No, the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh is not “incomprehensible.”

I write from the suburbs of Chicago, where I’m visiting for the weekend – not far from Skokie where, forty years ago, a band of Illinois Nazis sought to march in full regalia. Why Skokie? Because in the 1970s it was not only densely Jewish, but also because it had the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors of any other municipality in America. Sticking their hate in the faces of Shoah victims was a tactic for noxious, evil people to most provocatively display their message—one that keeps surfacing since the 2016 political campaign, and Charlottesville, and now Pittsburgh: “You (Jew) will not replace us.”

The massacre of Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning was first and foremost a crime against Jews: the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. Victims do not appreciate having crimes against them universalized. This attack was specifically against Jews, in a Jewish place, marking a moment in Jewish time (Shabbat; and the bris celebrating a baby boy’s arrival into the covenant of the Jewish people).

It is crucial to understand that antisemitism is not “generic bigotry.” It is specifically anti-Jewish hatred, incubated throughout the centuries and always ready to take root in the fertile soil of the far left and the far right.

In the taxonomy of hate, antisemitism has specific characteristics. Similarly, Islamophobia has its own unique expressions, and Muslims’ experience of bigotry is uniquely their own. So, too, for anti-black racism. And homophobia. And all the other special hatreds that the human soul has devised for itself.

However, there is a line that connects modern American hate together, and that line is white supremacy, which has plagued this country from its founding to today.

It’s a thread that runs from the days when Americans owned people of a certain color skin. It was enshrined in a Constitution that considered such a man 3/5 of a human being. It is self-evident on the slobbering faces of white celebrants at lynchings.

It was there when an antisemitic mob murdered Leo Frank in 1915. It runs through the internment camps in which Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. It was on the MS St. Louis which was turned away from Florida’s shores, bringing its doomed passengers back across the Atlantic to the clutches of the Nazis. It lingers in Quran-burnings by hypocritical preachers, and in vandalized mosques.

It was there in Skokie, and in the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Miami. And it’s there in the denigration of refugees as something less-than-human.

The perpetrator of the Tree of Life slaughter made his motivations perfectly clear (no, the crime is not “incomprehensible”). He despised Jews in general, and in particular for their perceived role in protecting refugees from seeking sanctuary in America. He called out HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and claimed a last straw to save America from invading armies of dark-colored immigrants, as manipulated by sinister Jewish forces.

He told us why. It’s not incomprehensible. Just evil.

White supremacy, white nationalism, whatever you want to call it: it’s the moral rot eating at American democracy since the beginning.

The only peace I can find is that another parallel line likewise runs through the American soul. From the unique experience of a specific group, we can come to partially and incompletely come to understand the suffering (and, I hope, the aspirations and joys) of another group. This is empathy, the greatest of human virtues. Occasionally we confront fellow humans who are completely lacking in this trait. But the gatherings and the vigils of the past few days tell me that it’s possible, at least, that a coalition of decency can arise.

Jonathan Greenblatt said it quite eloquently: You have to have zero tolerance for this.

If your candidate is attacking George Soros or the “globalists,” or a member of Congress from your party is embracing Holocaust deniers, you must stand up and tell them to stop.

If your allies in a range of social justice causes either explain away the anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam by citing the good work they may do or justify demonizing the Jewish state of Israel and its existence, then they need to know that they can no longer be your ally.

If your favorite social media platform continues to refuse to remove anti-Semitic garbage from its site, then vote with your clicks and deactivate your account.

When we consider this horror in the days and weeks to come, we should keep that in mind. It is about the poisonous sprout of white supremacy – and those who would enable it with their silent nods and coded dog whistles.

Why Do Parents Cry When Their Children Leave for College?

The Talmud (Shabbat 151b-152a) recognizes that people cry different types of tears. There are tears of sorrow and pain, of relief and catharsis. According to the Talmud, some kinds of weeping are beneficial and some are not.

Today, as Heidi and I bring our oldest child to his first year of college, the Rabbis’ observation seems especially insightful. Of course we are tearful. But we are well aware that there are many reasons why parents may cry when their children leave for college.

Some parents may cry because of the realization that their family structure will now be different. Sure, their son or daughter will return home in the future, even many times, but with less and less frequency as the years pass. And inevitably the day will come when their parents’ house is no longer what their children mean when they say the word “home.”

Some parents may be drawn back to the hopes and dreams and promises they made when their child arrived eighteen-or-so years ago, when life was nothing but potential waiting to be realized. And we may think about how wildly divergent life’s path actually turned out to be.

Some may weep because of the realization that time passes so quickly, and that the sweet toddler who reached for your hand is now, all too suddenly, an adult. 

Some may cry because of undifferentiated longing for their child. That is to say, their tears are not for their child’s new beginnings, but because of the loss of the parent’s own youth.

And some tears come from a new vulnerability, a realization that we can’t be there to shield and process and interpret every challenge, failure, and risk that our children are about to discover. When we discover how vulnerable we really are, the tone of our prayers changes, as Dylan identified so perfectly:

My only prayer
is if I can’t be there
Lord protect my child.

And then there is the sensation of wanting just a little bit more time. There’s a great joke from The Simpsons about the last day of school: As the last bell rings, the children leap for the door and the freedom of the summer. Then a teacher exclaims, “WAIT! You didn’t learn about how World War II ended!” The students freeze. The teacher peers into a book. “We won!” The students shout “Hooray!” and now, fully satiated with the teacher’s wisdom, can enjoy their vacation. 

I know the teacher’s feeling. As we drive away from the university, the car one seat emptier, I want to hit the brakes and say, “WAIT! There’s still something I haven’t taught you!”

But that moment is gone. What we hope for, of course, is that our children leave home with the spiritual and emotional confidence to navigate life’s inevitable disappointments and challenges. We hope that they have pride in their Jewish identity, and the knowledge that the prerequisite of functioning in a multicultural society is an assurance of yourself and where you come from.

But we also hope for something more than pride: We hope that we have given them literacy in Jewish wisdom and competence in Jewish practice to allow Judaism to inform and deepen their lives every single day. We hope that we have encouraged them to develop unquenchably thirsty minds built upon a solid bedrock of faith.

The Talmud understood that tears are complex, and the mixture of many conflicting emotions at the same time is what all of life’s most poignant moments are about. As a strange city recedes in the car’s rearview mirror and we return home, we appreciate the complexity of those feelings. We’re full of confidence, pride, and excitement for new beginnings. And we utter a short prayer, perhaps the most honest and basic prayer that there is: “God, protect our child.”