Written by Rabbi Ari Kahn, lecturer and author
In a sense, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was a meteor, a dazzling light that illuminated the darkened skies of post-Holocaust Torah learning, but burned out far too soon. With his scientific background, Rabbi Kaplan might have pointed out the inaccuracy of this comparison; more likely, his modesty and unassuming demeanor would have led him to deflect this much-deserved praise. And that, in a nutshell, is the life-story of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
Few, if any, have had greater impact on the Jewish spiritual awakening often called “the teshuva movement.” Although other religious leaders sent out emissaries and still others opened yeshivot, Rabbi Kaplan directly and personally impacted an almost unfathomable number of Jews, primarily through NCSY, but also through his prolific writing. Rabbi Kaplan saw the teshuva phenomenon not so much as a movement, but as a perfectly natural, even inevitable return of Jews to their heritage.
Rabbi Kaplan attended many NCSY events, often as the keynote speaker, yet he was always accessible, approachable and available to speak to participants and staff. In a conversation I had recently with a former NCSYer, she recalled a friendly man who would patiently answer questions and discuss whatever was on your mind—from the simplest to the most complex issues. This anonymous, unassuming fellow was always around to talk to those NCSYers whose questions were too much for the young advisors to handle. As one of these “difficult” NCSYers, she often found herself speaking to this “super-advisor,” as she called him, and she began to regard him as a valuable friend and resource. In fact, she once happily confided to him that she was eagerly anticipating an upcoming event that promised a very famous and important speaker: none other than the renowned Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Imagine her surprise when she discovered that the young rabbi who had dedicated so much time to schmoozing and this famous scholar were one and the same!
In a sense, Rabbi Kaplan may be seen as the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzato) of the 20th century. Like the great Italian scholar, Rabbi Kaplan’s writings are straightforward and clear, yet profound, with Kabbalistic doctrine always just beneath the surface. However, whereas the Ramchal was born into an aristocratic Jewish family and received the best education available, Aryeh Kaplan did not. His Jewish education did not begin until after his thirteenth birthday, when he was already recognized as a prodigy in the sciences.
As a young adult, he pondered, questioned and studied. Those who knew him in his teens recall a brilliant scholar—and a “hevreman” who had a twinkle in his eye. Despite his late start in Jewish learning, he quickly closed the gap with his better-educated peers and soon outpaced most of them. Eventually, he travelled to Israel, where he studied with and was ordained by the leading rabbis. He was, all agreed, destined for greatness as a rabbi and scholar.
But in a sense, he was always an outsider—and this became a defining element of his greatest achievements. Because he was raised in a non-observant home, he knew how to speak to young people who were searching; he, too, had searched. Although he eventually attended the most prestigious yeshivot, his early experiences equipped him to communicate and identify with teens and adults who came from backgrounds like his own.
And so, rather than seeking a rabbinic post in one of the large, well-established Jewish communities, Rabbi Kaplan sought out the smaller communities. One particular position, in Louisville Kentucky, allowed him to pursue several of his passions simultaneously. As a young rabbi, he worked tirelessly with the community’s youngsters while at the same time taking advantage of the opportunity to return to his scientific roots, quickly earning a Bachelors and a Masters in physics with the highest distinction. During his tenure in Louisville, he conducted an important exchange of correspondence with the venerable sage Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding the parameters of Jewish outreach; this correspondence is recorded in the latter’s Igros Moshe.
Rabbi Kaplan eventually coupled his profound understanding of Torah with his scientific background in order to answer the questions that haunted others. Where some saw difficult, contradictory trees and lost sight of the forest of Jewish philosophy, Aryeh Kaplan saw the underlying principles that brought clarity and revelation. In clear, contemporary language, his writings help restore our view of the forest by illustrating how the trees complement one another, how each tree is planted and sustained by the same God. He used scientific tools and his own analytical skills to organize and categorize overwhelmingly vast Jewish sources, creating an invaluable two-volume Torah encyclopedia, The Handbook of Jewish Thought. Even after his tragic, untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 48 in 1983, his written works have accompanied many a baal teshuva through the maze of Jewish learning, providing clear, succinct yet sophisticated explanations and answers. His works range from The Living Torah, a stunningly original non-literal translation of the Five Books of Moshe with explanatory notes and illustrations all penned by Rabbi Kaplan himself, to translations of obscure kabbalistic texts such as the Bahir and the Sefer Yetzira. In between these two poles are a staggering number of books that offer English-speakers access to an astonishing breadth and depth of Jewish sources, as well as treatises that ask and answer the most basic questions of Jewish thought.
This incredible legacy continues to directly or indirectly impact and educate all those seeking a deeper understanding of Judaism for themselves or their students. In this sense, we may say that Rabbi Kaplan continues to attend every NCSY event—and the events of countless other organizations across the spectrum of Jewish communal life. It is hard to imagine what the Jewish world would look like today without the legacy of enlightenment, light and warmth Rabbi Kaplan left behind—a meteoric trail of Jewish wisdom.
Watch: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan & Dr. Russell Barber discuss Jewish Mysticism on The First Estate broadcast on WNBC-TV channel 4 in 1979
Rabbi Ari Kahn is a Rabbi, lecturer, and author, who lives in Givat Ze’ev, Israel. His latest book is Echoes of Eden: Sefer Bamidbar – Spies, Subversives and Other Scoundrels, jointly published by Gefen Publishing House and the OU.
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