| Magazine Feature |

A Living Torah   

Now more than ever, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's writings inspire a new generation

Photos: Family archives
Illustration: Digitally painted by Ilan Block

It was the fall of 1972, and Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, national director of the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the Orthodox Union’s youth outreach organization, was grappling with a dilemma: How to create Torah-oriented reading material in clear, contemporary language that would speak to the hearts and minds of unaffiliated Jewish teens.

Perusing the latest issue of Intercom, the journal of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, Rabbi Stolper noticed an article by one Leonard Kaplan entitled “On Immortality and the Soul.” It sounded esoteric, but as he read on, he was taken aback by the author’s rare talent for explaining a complex, arcane topic in the most readable English imaginable. He was equally impressed by the mastery of Torah sources evident in the article’s seven pages and thirty-five footnotes.

“I had no idea who he was. I had never heard of him,” Rabbi Stolper later recalled. “The article hit me like lightning. I remember pacing the floor, saying ‘I must call this man.’ It was well past 11 p.m., and my wife said, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m calling this Kaplan.’ ‘Now, in the middle of the night?!’ But I called and he answered. I told him I wanted to meet for lunch to discuss a series of small books on Jewish topics, starting with Tefillin. ‘Kids get them when they’re bar mitzvah and discard them,’ I said. ‘Maybe if they understood the significance, it would be different.’”

“Kaplan” — Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ztz”l — begged off, saying he didn’t really have the time to meet, but when Rabbi Stolper pressed the issue, he agreed to come to NCSY’s Manhattan offices in two weeks. And when he did, he was holding in his hands a 96-page manuscript entitled G-d, Man, and Tefillin, in an easy-to-understand text, yet with sources and footnotes from all over Shas, Midrash, and Zohar. “I couldn’t believe my eyes!” said Rabbi Stolper. “The most original, fascinating, meaningful, and convincing exposition on Tefillin ever published, using sources half of which I’d never heard of.”

Before long, Rabbi Kaplan became a beloved member of the NCSY family, serving as its director of publications and as the unofficial spiritual adviser to the group’s Brooklyn region. At NCSY conventions and around his own Shabbos table, teenagers were captivated by the sincerity of this gentle genius. He spoke with them as if they were his peers, using his command of both Torah and science to answer their most pressing questions and convey the depth and beauty of traditional Judaism.

Rabbi Baruch Taub, NCSY’s associate national director in those years, remembers watching Rabbi Kaplan interact with the teens. “It was something very special, because he related to every one of them, patiently answering each one’s questions. And all without a trace of ego, never letting on as to what he really was. He was both an incredible talmid chacham, someone who knew Shas and poskim and was at home in every part of Torah, and was a physicist, too, yet his whole persona bespoke humility.”

Every NCSY convention ended with a banquet at which kids from all over the United States would receive awards for excelling in various areas. Dan Butler, today a judge in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was the program coordinator for the national conventions during the 1970s, and he recalls how “Aryeh Kaplan was the last adult standing at these long, drawn-out banquets. He could sit there all night long and just watch these kids being called up — you know, some kid from Nebraska who was being recognized for attending 19 consecutive Torah study sessions, or something like that — because he was fascinated by the whole experience.”

Reb Aryeh’s keen interest in what he saw unfold before him may well have stemmed from the fact that he was watching the story of his own early life.

Leonard Kaplan was born in New York City in October 1934 to a family whose family lineage was partly Sephardic. When his father’s father arrived in America from Izmir, Turkey, he had changed his name to Kaplan from Carmona, which was also the name of the Spanish town from which the Kaplans’ Inquisition-era ancestors had fled to the Greek-Jewish community of Salonika. (Owing to his paternal lineage, Reb Aryeh eventually followed the Sephardic tradition in his pronunciation of Hebrew, nusach of davening, and the wearing of tefillin, while adopting Ashkenazi, and even chassidic, customs in other areas.)

He grew up attending public schools in the East Bronx, until tragedy struck at age 13 with the death of his mother. He didn’t have much connection to Jewish practice, but he decided to attend a local synagogue to recite Kaddish. When a compassionate fellow shul-goer realized he couldn’t read Hebrew, he offered to teach him Alef-beis and how to don tefillin. A friendship developed between the two, and within a few weeks, Len was learning Chumash.

Before long, Len — now Aryeh — had switched to Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, where with dogged determination the precocious youngster made great strides to catch up and compensate for his late start. At one point during his time there, Rav Gedalia Schorr decided to send a contingent of talented talmidim, including such later luminaries as Rabbi Mendel Weinbach and Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, to establish a Los Angeles branch of the yeshivah under Rav Simcha Wasserman’s tutelage. Despite being much younger than the others, Aryeh Kaplan was chosen to join this group.

Aryeh also studied in the Mirrer and Klausenberger yeshivos until, at age 19, he made his way overseas to Jerusalem’s Yeshivas Mir. He spent several years there, receiving Yadin Yadin semichah from Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel along the way. Upon returning to the States, he took on teaching positions in Richmond, Virginia and the Bronx before moving on to a Jewish day school in Louisville, Kentucky; and it was there, in 1961, that he met and married Tobie Goldstein, who hailed from the small town of Marigold, Mississippi.

Although his heart pulled him toward a life in service of his fellow Jews, Reb Aryeh was concerned about being able to support a family, and enrolled in college in Louisville, earning an undergraduate physics degree in two years. In 1963, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked at the National Bureau of Standards doing research in the field of magneto-hydro-dynamics. He also earned a Master’s in physics at the University of Maryland, while achieving the distinction, despite his relative youth, of inclusion in Who’s Who in Physics.

But Reb Aryeh’s idealistic bent soon won out, leading him to take a series of rabbinic pulpits in communities in Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey, and upstate New York. It was during these years that his literary pursuits began, as he undertook to compose a systematic, comprehensive formulation of Jewish thought. In four phone-directory size volumes of densely typewritten pages, Rabbi Kaplan distilled the diverse approaches of the classic works of machshavah, Kabbalah, and philosophy to the fundamentals of Judaism. He then put the work aside for many years until, in 1979, several sections of it were published as the Handbook of Jewish Thought.


Astounding Output

In 1972, the Kaplans, with three children in tow (they would eventually have nine), moved downstate to a house in the heart of Boro Park, on 48th Street and 16th Avenue. As the family grew, making ends meet became an ongoing struggle, despite Reb Aryeh’s brilliant talents as a thinker, teacher, and writer.

Until that point, his only published work had been a series of booklets written for the Young Israel Intercollegiate Hashkafa Series. In 1972, he was “discovered” by Rabbi Stolper, beginning an association with NCSY that would last until his passing 11 years later. He also served for a time as editor of the OU’s magazine Jewish Life and director of its collegiate programs.

Rabbi Kaplan wrote ten highly-popular and influential books for NCSY, and they remain as relevant today as they were back in the 1970s. Some addressed the foundational principles of Jewish faith (Love Means Reaching Out, The Fundamentals of Jewish Faith, Jerusalem: Eye of the Universe) while others explored such central mitzvos as Shabbos, mikveh (The Waters of Eden), tefillin and tzitzis (G-d, Man, and Tefillin). At the behest of NCSY, he also authored a series of booklets, later combined into one volume entitled The Real Messiah, which debunked the claims of Christian missionaries who had become a real and growing threat as part of a well-funded, aggressive nationwide campaign to ensnare Jewish souls in messianic “Judaism.”

All of Reb Aryeh’s work displayed his characteristic combination of accessible style and high-level substance, with deeply-researched scholarly content rendered in a straightforward, almost conversational literary style. His singular genius lay in using simple vocabulary and short, staccato sentences to convey deep and complex concepts.

But that was just the beginning. For the next decade, Aryeh Kaplan became the preeminent writer in the world of English-language Judaica, and for good reason. He brought to the field a number of unique gifts: For one thing, he could work on projects without letup from start to finish, single-mindedly devoting himself to months-long research and writing on simultaneous books, and cranking out ready-to-print publications, complete with copious footnotes, in machine-like fashion.

His typing skills alone were a wonder. When he brought his manuscript on tefillin to that first meeting at the NCSY offices, Rabbi Yale Butler, longtime educator and journalist who was then a leading NCSY official, asked him how he’d managed to produce the manuscript in under two weeks, and he replied with sincere insouciance, “Well, the sources weren’t a problem, I just had to type it up.”

“This was back in what I call the BC era — before computers,” says Rabbi Butler. “And then he added, ‘But I can type pretty fast.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, how fast?’ He said, ‘I can do about 110 words a minute on a manual typewriter.’ When I asked what he could do on the electric models we used in the office, he estimated he could reach 200 words. And with that, he sat down and gave a jaw-dropping demonstration, typing whatever I dictated to him at warp speed, without a single mistake.”

His prodigious output in the short period of 11 years almost defies belief. The Living Torah, for example, which appeared in 1981, is likely the most readable yet scholarly English-language translation of the Chumash ever published. Rabbi Kaplan explained that his goal was “a translation of Judaism’s most important Book, that is accurate, clear, modern, readable, and above all, in consonance with the living tradition of Judaism.”

The Living Torah displays, at once, both striking creativity and deep fealty to tradition: Although Reb Aryeh drew on a wide spectrum of commentaries — even studying both Greek and Latin so he could access classic works on the flora and fauna of Tanach — he also noted in his introduction that “we have consistently translated the passages so that they reflect the final decision in Jewish law…. Where law is concerned, literary considerations are secondary.”

He completed the one-volume work, together with thousands of accompanying footnotes, maps, illustrations, a bibliography and topical index in nine months. Rabbi Kaplan wrote that “as if by Divine providence, this translation took me exactly nine months to complete, and in a sense, it is my tenth child. If anything, one’s love for the Torah can transcend that of any mere human being.”

Reb Aryeh’s oldest son, Joey, who was 19 at his father’s passing, says that what his father didn’t mention is that during the actual writing of this work, Rabbi Kaplan consulted no sources. “He created all those footnotes from memory. This was the case with everything he wrote. He may have looked up his sources the day before and also checked them after writing them, but not as he was writing.”

As an example of his father’s astounding memory, Joey remembers his father taking the family to the American Museum of Natural History, where there was an exhibit featuring Egyptian hieroglyphics.

“He pointed to the wall and started telling us kids, ‘This one means such-and-such, and that one means something else,’ and so on. How did he know? Because at home, we had a dictionary of hieroglyphics and my father had basically memorized it.”

Adding to the wonder is that he was most often working on multiple projects simultaneously. During one four-year period in the late 1970s, he prepared no less than 19 major works for publication. Similarly, while working on The Living Torah, he also authored texts on tzitzis and on the Jewish wedding (the classic Made in Heaven) and produced volume after volume of yet another of his monumental projects, The Torah Anthology. That’s the name of his English translation of Me’am Loez, an encyclopedic commentary combining halachah and Aggadah on all of Chumash, authored by Rav Yaakov Culi, a 17th-century Sephardic Torah giant.

Rabbi Kaplan had set out to complete his translation of this work in 18 volumes, and by the time of his death he was only three volumes short of that goal. Although Rav Shmuel Yerushalmi’s Hebrew translation of the Me’am Loez already existed before Rabbi Kaplan got started, he decided it wasn’t faithful enough to the original text. And so he went to the public library and took out the books needed to teach himself Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language in which Rav Yaakov Culi had written the original work. (The Torah Anthology translation project was continued after Rabbi Kaplan’s passing by other Torah scholars and currently comprises 45 volumes, covering all of Tanach based on the Hebrew version translated and expanded by Rav Yerushalmi.)

Dan Butler recalls Rabbi Stolper’s description of how it looked when Rabbi Kaplan worked on Me’am Loez. “He’d sit in front of his typewriter, with the Me’am Loez in Ladino on one side of him and the Hebrew version on the other side, and he’d look from one to the other and back again, comparing and contrasting and typing away furiously the entire time.”

By the time of his sudden passing in 1983, Rabbi Kaplan had penned a total of 47 original works, many of which have been translated into languages such as Russian, Spanish, and Dutch. But more than its sheer volume, it is the diverse scope of his body of work that astounds. In a brief 11-year window, he produced, in addition to The Torah Anthology and The Living Torah and the ten books he wrote for NCSY, translations of Ramchal’s Derech Hashem and Da’as Tevunos and the classic Jewish mystical works Sefer Yetzirah and Bahir, two volumes of the Handbook of Jewish Thought, and multiple books each on Jewish meditation and Kabbalah. During these years he also collaborated with the well-known mashpia Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld on one book on Breslover chassidus and authored two others on his own.


Treasure Hunts

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein was an NCSY advisor who, after hearing Rabbi Kaplan speak once, became his talmid for the last decade of Rabbi Kaplan’s life. “Any time I was grappling with an issue in matters of machshavah, I knew I could speak to him for a thorough, honest, and satisfying discussion. I gave a class soon after he was niftar and when someone posed a difficult question, I remember thinking, ‘How I wish Rabbi Kaplan was still with us.’”

Reb Aryeh, he observes, was someone “who worked with a brush dipped into the different tints of Jewish thought. If you look at an individual part of the canvas, all you see is a dab of color. Stand back, and a splash of contrasting tints — kabbalistic, rationalist, chassidic, midrashic — creates a marvelous, impressionistic scene. It pained him that there were people who shied away from approaching our Torah because of perceived ‘conflicts’ with science or with the pursuit of profound spirituality.”

In addition to his books that address Kabbalah explicitly, many of his other works also feature extensive references to kabbalistic sources in their footnotes. One example is Made in Heaven, which Rabbi Kaplan wrote ostensibly as a step-by-step wedding guide for non-religious parents, but with footnotes that greatly enlighten the reader regarding the kabbalistic underpinnings of a Jewish marriage.

The artistic metaphor Rabbi Adlerstein uses is particularly apt, since Reb Aryeh’s manifold talents included working with collage and acrylic paints to create pieces that adorned the walls of the humble Kaplan abode. In fact, says Rabbi Adlerstein, “the paintings were the first things that struck me about Rabbi Kaplan’s home, and they said it all. He saw light where others were blind to it. And he was uniquely able to turn the illumination outward, with brilliance, clarity, and perfect definition.”

Another striking feature of the Kaplans’ home was the huge number of seforim, many of them antique, which lined its walls. Some of these were obscure manuscripts that Reb Aryeh had hunted down as part of the exhaustive research he engaged in for his writing projects, but others were simply old seforim of no particular value. That’s because, says his oldest daughter, Abby Rosenfeld, “My father believed it was very important to have old seforim in your house, and he would even take us on treasure hunts for them. Frankel’s seforim store was a block away from our house and I remember rummaging through the basement there, with Tatty telling us, ‘We have to keep connected to the older generations…’”

Even with his wealth of intellectual gifts, Reb Aryeh could not have achieved so much in so little time without possessing a laser-focused dedication to his work, and he did. Joey Kaplan recalls that his father’s personality “was certainly very intense. He was fatherly, taking us various places like the zoo and amusement parks, but when he was working, he was extremely focused and there was no disturbing him. Someone once asked him, ‘How does one write a book?’ He replied, ‘You write one page each day and a year later, you have a 300-page book…’”

During the regular Monday evening class Reb Aryeh gave in the Kaplans’ Boro Park home, the children knew they needed to be on their very best behavior.

Within Your Reach Despite his intense work ethic, however, Reb Aryeh had endless time and patience for all who sought him out. Rabbi Reuven Elkins, today a mechanech in Brooklyn, was a yeshivah bochur in the 1970s when he found in Rabbi Kaplan a caring, empowering mentor.

“He made me feel that every question or thought I had in whatever area was very important to him,” Rabbi Elkins remembers. “I wasn’t yet at a level to go through a sugya on my own, but when I’d ask him a question, he’d say ‘Let’s sit down and look at the sources together.’ He’d guide me through them one-by-one, the Gemara, the Tosafos, the Rambam, etc., making me feel all the while like I was the talmid chacham and the posek and he was just opening the seforim for me and showing me where to look. Everything was at his fingertips, of course, yet he made you feel like it was all within your reach.

“Every minute was precious to him, but as a writer he had a flexible schedule and when people came at any time of day or night, he’d respond as if he didn’t have anything else to do, sitting with them for a half-hour, an hour, or however long was needed. And it wasn’t just on intellectual topics; there was a constant stream of people coming through that home seeking guidance in their personal lives, because he made them feel they were important to him and that he had all the time for them.”

But the nine Kaplan kids were a very lively bunch, and it was only Tobie Kaplan’s devotion to providing a distraction-free environment for her husband’s work that made it all possible. The Kaplans’ daughter, Devorah Eisig, describes her mother as an “amazing person,” the only child of a deep-South family who built a bayis neeman despite the wanderings of their early married years, and the trials of raising her large family on the income of a brilliant but chronically underpaid writer, a husband she suddenly lost when she was not yet even 40 years old.

In 1981, the Kaplans moved into their own home in Brooklyn’s Kensington section just outside Boro Park. They hosted numerous guests at their Shabbos table for every meal, and on Friday nights, a small group of locals would arrive following the seudah to farbreng with Reb Aryeh and for the chance to hear him respond to questions on every imaginable subject.

Rabbi Elkins recalls the Shabbos table in the Kaplan home, which attracted “a fascinating variety of people — bnei Torah and new baalei teshuvah, students, a professor of mathematics or physics, a prominent psychologist. They all felt comfortable because Rabbi Kaplan spoke their language and was completely conversant in their fields of interest. I had one friend who before becoming religious had been deeply involved in the American civil rights movement. Rabbi Kaplan was able to help him see the topic of social movements through a Torah prism, while displaying a deep familiarity with both the relevant Torah sources and the personalities and issues of the civil rights era.”

Naftali Miller, Agudath Israel of America’s national director of development, was a neighbor of the Kaplans in Kensington. As a frequent visitor in their home when he was growing up, he recalls how Reb Aryeh created an atmosphere radiating with excitement for life. “I vividly remember coming into the house one Friday night with my mother, and Rabbi Kaplan took my hand to dance with me as he sang, ‘We want an elephant from the Bronx Zoo!’ It was just one of these nonsensical songs he would make up and sing to make things geshmak and upbeat in the house. And then there’s one thing I don’t remember — I can’t recall ever seeing him get upset at anything.”

As a child, he says, he’d watch Rabbi Kaplan sit in shul as if he were just a simple Jew, just another one of the mispallelim, when in truth he was the neighborhood’s most brilliant resident, its crowning glory. But Reb Aryeh’s time in Kensington was to be all too brief: On the 14th of Shevat (January 28) 1983, as Shabbos was arriving, Reb Aryeh Kaplan abruptly took his earthly leave at age 48.

Hours later, as the post-seudah Friday night regulars began filtering in, the stunned silence reigning in the Kaplan home confirmed that which their hearts refused to believe: Their beloved rebbi would not be there to teach them that night, nor ever again.


True Value

Yet the paradox of Rabbi Kaplan’s life’s work is the way it has continued on beyond his shockingly premature exit from life, influencing — even transforming — new generations of searching Jews. For one thing, 16 of Rabbi Kaplan’s books, including some that have become classics like If You Were G-d, Made in Heaven, and Rabbi Nachman’s Stories, never even saw the light of day until after his passing.

But even the books that were published in his lifetime have continued to bring Jews who weren’t even born then closer to Torah and its Giver. As Devorah Eisig puts it, “It happens all the time that I’ll meet someone who says, ‘I was in a library, opened one of your father’s books, and got so attached to them that I’m who I am today because of him.’ I had a nonobservant work colleague who now, 20 years later, is in Eretz Yisrael, learning all day long, and he attributes it to my father’s influence.”

Rabbi Jon Green, who directs an NCSY summer program, notes the unique timelessness of everything Rabbi Kaplan wrote: “What other book is there that I can still pull off the shelf today and give to a teen, and it will speak to him exactly as it did to kids 40 years ago?”

The problem, Mrs. Eisig explains, is that the very popularity of her father’s books and the failure to reprint them has made them disappear from Jewish bookstores everywhere. “I recently met someone who told me, ‘When I started out in kiruv, we used to buy your father’s books by the dozens. Now we can’t get our hands on them because they’re out of print.’”

But all that is about to change. The same organization that so many decades ago had given Rabbi Kaplan his start as a preeminent Torah writer of the contemporary era has undertaken to ensure the perpetuation of his legacy for a new generation of Jewish teens. At the recent NCSY annual convention in Stamford, Connecticut, a special session was held — with Mrs. Tobie Kaplan and many of her children and grandchildren on hand — at which a newly reprinted edition of all of the books Reb Aryeh wrote for NCSY was unveiled.

After introducing the Kaplans to rousing applause from the hundreds of teens in the room, NCSY’s director of education, Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, spoke movingly of how Reb Aryeh had transformed what it meant to be a Jewish teenager, how his own life’s journey is proof positive that humble beginnings and a late start in Judaism don’t prevent a teen from going on to future greatness. It’s 2022, 39 years since his passing, but the influence and impact of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan lives on.

And perhaps Reb Aryeh alone, who was ahead of his time in so many ways, foresaw the impact he would still be having today. His daughter Abby, who was in her teens when her father died, shares a memory: “We lived a very simple life, and I remember so clearly how a few weeks before Abba left us, he and I were sitting on the porch of our home and he said to me, ‘You might not have a fancy wedding, it’s not what counts in life… What I’m going to leave behind, what I’m going to give you kids, is so much more than money.’ And I thought to myself, like a typical teenager, ‘Yeah, yeah, right…’

“I didn’t realize how valuable what he gave over to us, what he gave the world, would really be.”


Just Live It

One of Rabbi Kaplan’s most beloved books is If You Were G-d, in which he makes complex ideas like free will, suffering, miracles, and the purpose of Creation accessible by asking the reader to imagine he’s been placed in charge of a human society and needs to communicate with its inhabitants without overwhelming them. Using this simple yet creative exercise, Rabbi Kaplan challenges his young readers to reflect on why the world is designed as it is and what would be lost were it to be otherwise. It begins this way:

You are given an island where several tribes live.

By nature and culture, these tribes are exploitative and belligerent. This results in much suffering on the island, caused by war, poverty, and prejudice. They have been living this way for centuries without any sign of improvement.

Your assignment: To try to improve this society. To teach its members to live together in harmony and reduce suffering to a minimum or eliminate it entirely. To create a healthy society.


In the opening paragraphs of Sabbath: Day of Eternity, Rabbi Kaplan, in his trademark, straightforward prose,  beckons the reader to explore the magical quality of the Shabbos day, stressing that it is not merely an abstract concept for the intellect to grasp but must be experienced to be truly understood:

There is a miracle in Shabbos.

Even if you have never felt it yourself, it is there. It is one of the most important ingredients of Jewish survival. It is no exaggeration to say that the Jew has survived two thousand years of persecution and humiliation largely because he had the Sabbath. It was one factor that not only made him survive, but kept him alive, both spiritually and morally…

In order to understand this, you would have to experience a true traditional Shabbos. You would see a change take place, almost like magic. Take the poorest Jew, the most wretched person, and the Sabbath transforms him, as if by a miracle, into a man of dignity and pride. He might be a beggar all week long, but on this one day, he is a true king…

I remember once spending Shabbos with a poor man working in Williamsburg. He was a simple but pious man who did not have very much in the way of worldly goods. Seeing his cramped, dreary apartment, you might have pitied him, but at his Shabbos table, he sat like a king. He made a remark that has remained with me all these years. “I pity people who don’t keep Shabbos. I really pity them. They don’t know what they are missing. They have no idea at all.”

There is a Sabbath prayer that reads, “Rejoice in your kingdom, you who keep the Sabbath.” The miracle of Shabbos is the kingdom of every Jew.

There is a miracle in the Sabbath.

Let us look into it more deeply.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 896)

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