Social Justice

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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Reflections on a Winter Nor'easter

As I write, my family is stuck in our home, as the most recent nor’easter has brought down trees and power lines on our street. We spent last night by candlelight, cooking dinner in our fireplace.  Shabbat is arriving imminently, so a cousin will come and pick us up around the corner and bring us to her house, and we’ll get a reprieve from the cold and dark.

Much more important is the elderly couple on our block, who are being evacuated by the fire department and will be taken to stay in a local hotel until the street is cleared and the power returns, which seems to still be a few days away.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a hassle, for sure.  But if nothing else, it should be a reminder—a reminder of just how darn easy and comfortable we have it here in these affluent suburbs. Not everyone, of course. We have neighbors in our town who struggle to make ends meet, people who have grave financial worries about their future. My wife and I know people well who have lived without a roof over their heads, who are not able to provide three meals a day for themselves and their families.

But most of us live fairly comfortable lives here—not just the wealthiest nation in the world, but the wealthiest nation that the world has ever known. 

And a little inconvenience from Mother Nature should be a reminder of just how good we have it, and how there are people near and far who know real desperation. If times like this don’t help us grow into people with deeper stores of empathy and compassion, then we are truly hopeless.

If you happen to live in an affluent place, and if you know that your electrical power, automobile, food supply, and security in your housing will regain their equilibrium pretty quickly, you should be profoundly grateful. Because that means you don’t have to count yourself among:

·      The ¼ of all human beings in the world who live without electricity, approximately           1.6 billion people[1]

·      805 million people in the world who do not have enough food to eat.[2]

·      769 million people who live (or not) on less than $1.90 per day.[3]

It means that your children, whom you would do anything to protect, need not be counted among the 1 billion children of other people who are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 die due to their poverty every day.[4]

And if we needed reminders, America is not immune to extreme poverty either. There are 40.6 million Americans living poverty; 12.7% of the population.[5] According to the point-in-time count of America’s homeless community in 2017, there are 553,742 people without housing on a given night.[6] (Noting that there are different kinds of homelessness—chronic, transitional, episodic; plus the many thousands in America who live on the brink of homelessness, just a paycheck or two away.)

If I sound crabby, it’s not because I haven’t showered in two days. It’s simply a profound frustration of our human nature—my own absolutely included—that forgets that what we consider to be inconveniences are so ludicrous in the grand scheme of need that really exists in the world.

It’s a frustration born of living in general proximity to some of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—and knowing that materialism, greed, and complacency co-exist (and often prevail) over empathy, generosity, and living gratefully.

A destructive winter storm like this one really stinks. Some neighbors will experience lots of property damage (and insurance claims), work hours will be lost, appointments will be missed, food in the freezer will probably go bad.

But in a few short weeks, equilibrium for most of us will return. Spring will arrive. At that time, Jewish people will sit down at their seder tables. We’ll raise a piece of matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction… Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

In order for those words not to reek of irony and hypocrisy, we have to recognize that in our inconvenience is the tiniest taste of what real suffering is like; a flavor that a staggering number of human beings around the world know intimately.

If we can emerge from our inconveniences with a deeper sense of empathy, generosity, and an awareness of how unbelievably, undeservedly blessed we really are—then maybe this Passover will bring a bit of real liberation after all.

 

[1] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.”

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014.”

[3] “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem,” Angus Deaton, New York Times, January 24, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

[4] “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed,” United Nations Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME), 2014.

[5] https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html

[6] National Coalition for the Homeless, http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

The Stranger Who Resides with Us

I wrote this in 2016 for ARZA's commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Given the Netanyahu government's efforts to expel African refugees--and the massive demonstrations to protect them--it seems timely. I think it still holds up:

A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.

South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?

Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”

“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”

And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.

While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.

It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ 
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens;
you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I, Adonai, am your God.
(Leviticus 19:33-34)

These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.

To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.

Who is the ger?

In the Tanakh, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.

Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.

What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?

In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years:
the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.

We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.

The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”

Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?

Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.

It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).[1]

Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.[2]

It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?

The words of a modern commentator are jarring:

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:

“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33):  You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.[3]

What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel today?

The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 times (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.

For more information about supporting African migrants in Israel: 
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.

[2] Milgrom, p.1706.

[3]R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.

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?