Sermon by Rabbi Evan Schultz, February 22, 2019/17 Adar I, 5779
Al Vorspan – Ki Tissa 5779
When you’re a rabbinical student, there are a few legendary classes that you hear about that you can’t wait to take. There was homiletics, the art of sermon delivery with Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, and Introduction to Second Temple Judaism with Dr. Aaron Panken, of blessed memory, and then there was the history of social Justice, taught by Rabbi Jerry Davidsom and Albert Vorspan. If you think about social justice as one of the legs of the stool that holds up Reform Judaism, Albert Vorspan is considered the craftsman who built that leg of the stool. Vorspan would sit each week in class, comfortably leaning back in a chair in the front of the room, finger and thumb to his chin, recalling memories of him demanding equality at the State House in Minnesota, or the feeling of marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama in 1955. For me, who did not grow up in the Reform Movement, it was a real and true education from the man who literally wrote the book and helped to build our center of social justice, the Religious Action Center, in Washington, DC. It is rare to sit in the presence of someone so influential in our movement, who clearly loved so dearly sitting with his students every Thursday, answering questions and seeking to instill within us the same fire that moved him to the courageous work of justice for so many years.
It was with sadness that I learned that Mr. Vorspan had died earlier this week at the age of 95. Jewish and secular media outlets offered tributes to this extraordinary man, who prompted so many of us to understand that a part of being a “religious” or serious Reform Jew meant engaging in the work of social justice, whether that be through community organizing, advocacy work, or direct service.
It was Vorspan who wrote in his book, Tough Choices, Jewish Perspectives on Social Justice, that the social justice issues are complex, but they “do not exempt us Jews from facing their moral challenges. We may have to walk a moral tightrope, but we cannot escape our Jewish mission. We still bear our historic Jewish burden: to face this world and its pain head on, to be God’s partner in repairing this broken and incomplete world.”
Many of the great leaders in our movement shared tributes to Mr. Vorspan this week. Rabbi David Saperstein, the former director of the Religious Action Center, or the RAC, wrote, “A true icon, Vorspan shaped much of social justice work of the Reform Jewish Movement, ensuring it lives at the very heart of Reform Judaism. Beginning in 1953, he helped inspire the creation of congregational social action committees across North America, encouraging Reform Jewish synagogues to partner with their local communities in pursuit of tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world.’ He played a pivotal role in founding the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which remains the hub of the Reform Movement’s social justice work in North America. A mentor, friend, and inspiration to all who knew him, Al Vorspan was, to many, the personification of Reform Judaism’s social justice efforts. David Stern, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Dallas, shared this of Vorspan in a eulogy shared at his funeral, “He was a liberator – not of the poor finally from their poverty, nor of the hungry from their hunger, nor of African Americans finally from the shackles of American racism, though God knows he tried.
He was a liberator because he freed the Torah from the ark, the prophets from the quiet pages of bound Bibles, the light of justice from the dainty ner tamid. He simply refused to leave the beating heart of Judaism trapped inside stained-glass windows or musty halls. He brought Jeremiah to the Capitol and Isaiah to the jail cell in St. Augustine and Micah to the conference table at the RAC and he did it with a pipe in his teeth and a smile on his face and those expressive hands and with his bald head shining like a beacon for social justice. He was brave and smart and eloquent and magnetic beyond measure – my mom used to say Al Vorspan made social justice sexy.”
Mr. Vorspan’s passing this week has prompted me to think deeply about the modern Reform Movement he helped to create, and the legacy that we both inherit and have so deeply embraced. Rabbi Stern’s quip that Al Vorspan made social justice sexy is quite true – think how much social justice has been put front and center in our movement, sometimes I wonder almost too much, perhaps at the sacrifice of other aspects of Jewish life and ritual.
I recall observing at the Reform Movement Biennial in Boston this past December, where justice was at the center of just about everything – from the plenary sessions to breakout groups to song sessions – a few participants commented to me how Friday night services felt flat compared to, for example, the energy around Reverend William Barber and his Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty in America.
It is a real question for us as a movement, and I realize I am preaching to the choir a bit here to those who are at Shabbat services, so thank you, but have leaders like Al Vorspan made social justice so central that it has overtaken who we are as Reform Jews?
American sociologist Jack Wertheimer in fact writes about this phenomenon in his new book, The New American Judaism, in which he describes what he terms “Golden Rule Jews” who assert, “My religion is pretty much to be a good person, to treat people with compassion and respect, and to act in ways that are honorable.” Wertheimer observes that many non-Orthodox Jews that observe a very universal, Golden Rule Judaism that is grounded primarily in acts of social justice and kindness towards others.
It is an important conversation to be had about what it means to be a Reform Jew, what we feel obligated to do, and where do ritual, prayer, and practice fit in alongside our commitment to social justice. I personal love and strive for the metaphor of Judaism as the three legged stool, with one being our justice efforts, alongside the legs of learning and Jewish practice, to honor both the universal and the particular aspects of our Jewish faith. It is something I think we balance quite well here at B’nai Israel, a balanced stool, held up by three strong legs of learning, Jewish practice, and social justice.
I am forever indebted to people like Al Vorspan, who made social justice one of those legs upon which we stand as Reform Jews. He was courageous, a builder, and a craftsman, a man whose legacy I am proud to inherit and perpetuate forward. Zicaron livracha, may his memory be for a blessing.