The Kosher Bookworm A tribute to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan upon his 30th yahrtzeit


If one were to measure the life’s work and achievement of any human being, I am certain that the spiritual legacy and literary accomplishments left by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan would certainly rank high among those who sought to interpret and share their spiritual commitment to our Jewish faith with a world in need of its message.

Much has been written in appreciation of Rabbi Kaplan’s work but, in his own words to be presented below, not much has been shared until now. He was a man with a sacred mission, a person fully cognizant of what was lacking and what had to be repaired.

With his gift for eloquence and spiritual genius, he was able to translate and give commentary to the Chumash in only nine months with no revisions, where others of other denominations took seven years and countless revisions to achieve the near but not quite same result.

He was a trained and skilled scientist, an artist, a linguist, a great fan of the English language, a tongue that he viewed as having been gifted with divine blessing. And most important of all, he possessed a gift to envision that which is troubling our people spiritually and was able to articulate the solution with a theology in a simple and direct manner for all to understand.

“The Living Torah” and “The Handbook of Jewish Thought” were to be the signature works of Rabbi Kaplan’s literary legacy that demonstrated his intellectual genius in his ability to translate scripture, and to interpret our faith’s holy message in clear and literate tone and style.

His goals were never publicized. This essay is intended to share some of them with you. Entitled, “A Proposal For A Series On Basic Jewish Concepts,” Rabbi Kaplan, in late 1973, articulated the needs, troubles and solutions that inhibited our spiritual well being.

“The ignorance of the average Jew today is almost legendary, especially with regard to the most basic Jewish concepts. Even those with more than a rudimentary religious education often have trouble looking at the various concepts of which they are aware as part of an integrated whole. Although the basic philosophies of Judaism were developed over 3500 years by some of the keenest minds in the world, the richness of this tradition is inaccessible to most contemporary Jews both because they are contained in works written in Hebrew and Aramaic, languages foreign to most American Jews. Even in the original, many of these works assume a basic background in the fundamentals in Judaism that has almost been lost today.”

Further on, Rabbi Kaplan continues to describe what we are facing, a situation no different today than in 1973.“The fact that so little material is available explaining Judaism in depth has resulted in a general opinion among many that this depth is totally lacking. Our youth who are looking for a deep and meaningful philosophy of life thus often seek it in many areas outside the Jewish fold. We need only to witness the many who are attracted to Christianity and the Eastern religions. We earnestly feel that a meaningful presentation of Judaism in all its depth will contribute much to counter this tide.”

Rabbi Kaplan proposed a 20 part series of essays, in booklet form, each detailing a different aspect of our faith’s legacy. This series never went beyond five of the projected parts of this series. These five were published by the Intercollegiate Council of the Young Israel movement and distributed nationwide. Today, they can be found in “The Aryeh Kaplan Reader,” published by Artscroll. The five are Belief in G-d, Free Will and the Purpose of Creation, The Jew, Love and Commandments, and The Structure of Jewish Law.

Among the other 15 never published by Young Israel, were Rabbi Kaplan’s take on religious legislation, morality and sin, repentance, inspiration and prophecy, reward and punishment, prayer, immortality and the soul, the messiah, the resurrection, and the world to come. Given what we know of Rabbi Kaplan’s verbal take on these topics, their absence in print was a big loss to our people.

A sample can be seen in “Love and Commandments.” With the reading of the Ten Commandments this coming Shabbat, it would be most opportune to read some of Rabbi Kaplan’s teachings on them. Consider the following: “The main significance of the commandments is the fact that they were given by G-d Himself. They are, therefore, the only means through which we can approach G-d and fulfill His purpose in creation.”

“Furthermore, it is the commandments that make Judaism more than a mere religious philosophy. Because of them, Judaism is a way of life involving action and observance, and not a mere confession of faith.”

Further on, Rabbi Kaplan notes the following:“Ultimately, we, therefore, keep the commandments precisely because they are commandments – laws decreed by G-d. It is forbidden to think of them as anything else. Thus, one may not keep any commandment as a superstitious luck charm. Our sages furthermore teach us, ‘The commandments were not given for our material pleasure.’”

The following should serve us as the everlasting legacy of Rabbi Kaplan:“It is only such a constant transmission of tradition that can guarantee the continuity of our faith, and, therefore, this is a most important reason for the commandments. They act as a survival mechanism for Judaism, enabling it to retain its strength, even through the harshest persecutions. Indeed, this may be the strongest of all proofs of the divine nature of the commandments, if any such proof is needed.”

“As long as the Jews kept the commandments, they remained strong for over a hundred generations. A single generation’s lapse, on the other hand, has led to both the spiritual and physical decay of the Jewish people.”

This is a timely teaching for Parshat Yitro and an everlasting testimony to the legacy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of blessed memory, the greatest person that I ever knew.

To help perpetuate Rabbi Kaplan’s legacy I urge you, to obtain copies of “The Living Torah,” “The Handbook of Jewish Thought,” “The Aryeh Kaplan Reader,” and as an apt engagement gift of great value, “Made in Heaven.” These volumes should be on everybody’s bookshelf as well as in every shul and school library.