Civil Rights

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

A Thought for MLK Day - King & The Jews

Thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy today. How willing would much of the Jewish community be to embrace his message? This day always reminds me of this passage from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (z"l)'s memoir. King asked Hertzberg, at the height of the struggle, why he cared so much. Hertzberg didn't respond with pious passages from the prophets, or the Declaration of Independence, or anything like that.

Instead, he spoke about his father. Herzberg's father was a Hasidic rabbi, a descendent of Elimelech of Lizhensk, and the leader of a shul in Nashville, Tennessee.

Here's what he wrote:

One Friday we came to synagogue for the evening service to find that an imposing black man wearing a very high yarmulke was there. He introduced himself as Rabbi Matthews and added that he was also a cantor. To prove his self-description, the visitor produced documents from a very respected rabbi in Toronto who attested to the fact that he had officiated at the conversion of Rabbi Matthews, in order to remove any doubt of his Jewishness… and that further training as cantor had been imparted to Matthews in Toronto. What all this meant was that the visitor had the right, in well-established Jewish practice, to claim the reading desk so that he might lead in the chanting of the service—and, ultimately, claim a donation for his sustenance.

My father looked at the certificate and said very quietly (when he was quiet, I knew he was at his angriest) that he was the rabbi of this synagogue and it was his duty and prerogative to decide questions of religious practice. The congregants refused. They pretended that they did not believe that the visitor was indeed a Jew, and they barred the way of this Black cantor to the reading desk.

My father put his arm around this man, whom he had met just ten minutes before, and headed for the door. He stopped and said, very quietly, that he would never come through that door again, because they had insulted a human being made in the image of God. We said prayers at home that Shabbat. My father had thrown his job away over a principle, and he did not find another for many months. I expected my mother to berate him, but she did not say one word, that day or later.

(Arthur Hertzberg, A Jew in America, 2002)

I should probably just let it sit on the page, but it triggers some other questions in me. What would happen in an Orthodox shul if the same scenario unfolded today? And as for liberal synagogues - what lines in the sand are left that would make a rabbi say, "I can never step foot in here again"? And why, fifty years on from MLK's death, do we still have to march for such obvious matters of civil rights?