Aryeh Kaplan: a lost homily from his Iowa pulpit and outreach at SUNY-Albany

Over at H-Judaica, there is a hunt for Aryeh Kaplan’s physics MA or any evidence to document his work in the field. They did turn up that the Memphis raised southerner went under his birth name Leonard M Kaplan to University of Maryland and had two co-authored articles in 1965 and 1966. Between 1965 and his burst into NCSY tracts and Chassidism in translation in 1973, he did many activities that are usually not discussed such as elementary school teacher in Louisville Kentucky, Conservative rabbi, and abstract artist. By 1965, he had already relinquished physics graduate school and was a rabbi in Mason City Iowa, a congregation that only had a late Friday night service. Here is a lost homily of his that was syndicated as part of a clergy column where he sees modern science including the synthesis of life in a test tube as pointing to God’s greatness. True scientists marvel at the secret of life.

•”Lift lift your eyes on high, and see: Who hath created these? He that bringeth on their host by number, He calleth them all by name (Isaiah 40:26)

Rabbi Leonard M. Kaplan
Adas Israel Synagogue
7th N.W. & Adams

From the day that man first appeared on this planet, he has looked on high at the stars and the world around him, and he has stood in awe before the great mystery of creation. He would try to reach up to the stars, and he would climb the highest mountain peaks, but still they would appear far away, blinking steadily in their continued silence, mocking the puny man who would presume to fathom their origin, their nature, and their destiny. But man was not easily discouraged. He continued to climb and probe the mystery of the stars, the riddle of the atom, and even the secret of life itself. Today, mankind finds himself on the threshold of creating life. By duplicating conditions of a primeval earth, scientists have already succeeded in bringing forth the most primitive form of pre – life. This has lead many psuedo-scientists of narrow mental gauge to proclaim that man no longer needs to believe in God, and that science has done away with all mystery and miracle.

But the true thinking scientist knows that the exact opposite is true — that science has enormously increased man’s sense of mystery, and that all of nature is nothing but a huge miracle.

When astronomers explore galaxies billions of light years away, they find that they are made of the same matter as the stuff beneath our feet. Only one kind of matter is found to exi st throughout the entire universe. Yet, this unique material has one exceptional property — it can support life, and under proper conditions, it can even give rise to life. The fact that inert matter carries the potential of life cannot be considered a mere random accident. It can be nothing less than the work of a purposeful Creator. How then can we imagine something as simple as the electron carrying within itself the potential of the human brain, had not humanity been anticipated by the Designer of all creation? Even the Bible does not tell us that God created life, but rather that He said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures.” (Genesis 1:24). God created matter — the dust of the earth — with the potential of al! life. If scientists are successful in creating true life, our belief in God should be all the stronger, for who else but an omniscient- God could have created the elementary particles of matter with all the inherent potentialities of the human spirit? The handwriting of God is clear — not on the wall — but in the very heart of nature.
RABBI LEONARD M. KAPLAN

Here we have a JTA bulitein about Kaplan in his role as rabbi of Ohav Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Albany where he also serves as as Jewish student adviser at SUNY at Albany. He is working to provide kosher food and is involved in outreach. Notice in the language of the announcement the language of the 1960’s “free university” and “eschews formal leadership.” Aryeh Kaplan’s describes his classes as follows: “Many college students turn to drugs and the Eastern religions searching for a mystic and deeply spiritual experience,” the prospectus said. “Most of these are not at all aware of Judaism’s great mystic and spiritual tradition. Especially relevant to this quest is Hassidism, which stands unique as the world’s only popular mystic movement.” Three years later, he starts publishing his Hasidism as popular mysticism and having everything that Eastern mysticism contains.

Project to Rediscover Jewish Values Launched by Students at State University of N.Y.
ALBANY, N.Y., Jul. 6 (JTA) –
A group of students at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA) is planning to launch a “Jewish Rediscovery Project” on the campus next fall. Its motivation is “a common desire to rediscover Jewish values relevant to current problems and to act upon such problems as a Jewish group,” according to a prospectus released here. The youngsters are working with Rabbi Leonard M. Kaplan of Congregation Obav Sholom, the Jewish religious advisor at SUNYA. They estimate the Jewish student population at 2,370 or 19.5 percent of the 12,125 total, and the Jewish faculty at 200 members, 9.2 percent of the total. According to Rabbi Kaplan, Jewish student activists are already largely responsible for the creation of the first full Judaica department in the entire New York State University system, which will open in September under the chairmanship of Prof. Jerome Eckstein. They are also responsible for a Free University of Judaica, offering courses that would not normally come under the Judaica Department; a kosher food plan provided by the University, and a special Passover food plan administered by the University, Rabbi Kaplan reported.

“The Jewish Rediscovery Project” is the tentative name for a series of programs expected to attract large numbers of students who find traditional Jewish organizational hierarchies and programs repellant and irrelevant to their interests and their intellectual and spiritual needs. The series eschews formal leadership structure in favor of what the students call sub-cooperatives without chairman and officers, in which leadership is expected to rise spontaneously according to the project’s needs. The student most responsible for the program, according to Rabbi Kaplan, is Tobi Goldstein a sophomore. The prospectus calls for four sub-cooperatives–a Study Cooperative, an Information Cooperative, an Action Cooperative and a Religion Cooperative. In the latter, students will explore Hassidism as an avenue to mystical experience. “Many college students turn to drugs and the Eastern religions searching for a mystic and deeply spiritual experience,” the prospectus said. “Most of these are not at all aware of Judaism’s great mystic and spiritual tradition. Especially relevant to this quest is Hassidism, which stands unique as the world’s only popular mystic movement.”

To be Continued in the next post here- Lost Aryeh Kaplan Part II

22 responses to “Aryeh Kaplan: a lost homily from his Iowa pulpit and outreach at SUNY-Albany

  1. Alan, Thank you for joining the discussion that I responded to on H-Judaica. Your added information is very much appreciated…. I have collected some interesting material on Rabbi Kaplan’s entry into the field of meditation and would like to hear more on this if you have any more findings on this most fascinating personality.

    Rabbi Kaplan was also Hillel director of Hunter and Baruch Colleges in New York. The gem that you quote above is a small part of his extended article in Intercom “The God of Israel”.

  2. Is the following sequence correct for Rabbi Leonard M. (Aryeh) Kaplan? Perhaps you can fill in more details tracing his career? Please note that I am assuming that the Adas Israel Synagogue is in Mason City, Iowa (in north central Iowa and not in Washington D.C.) and I noted that Rabbi Leonard M. Kaplan led services there each Friday evening and organized a Sunday school at 10:30 AM.
    1. Rabbi of the Adas Israel Synagogue, 7th N.W. & Adams in Iowa in the mid 1960s. (according to the Nov. 20, 1965 issue of the Mason City Globe Gazette)
    2. Rabbi of a Conservative Congregation Ohav Shalom, (affiliated with United Synagogue of America) Albany, New York and B’nai B’rith Hillel adviser at State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA) (Jewish Telegraphic Agency April 17, 1970, July 7, 1970).
    3. Hillel director of Hunter and Baruch Colleges in New York. By 1972, he had left his physics research in favor of Talmudic and Kabbalistic research (Intercom, vol. XIII, no. 1, Feb. 1972)

    P.S. Leonard Kaplan was associate editor of Intercom from February 1972 until May 1973. In the December 1972 issue, he began using Aryeh instead of Leonard.

  3. The 7th NW and Adams address is Mason City, Iowa. Here are two more articles from the Mason City Globe-Gazette.

    Globe-Gazette – Mason City Iowa – Feb 20, 1965 – page 26
    Rabbi arrives in Mason City
    Rabbi Leonard Kaplan who has been at Hyattsville, Md, arrived in Mason City late Friday to become rabbi of Adas Israel Synagogue. His family is expected to arrive shortly. He will conduct services here next Friday.

    Mason City Globe Gazette – • January 17, 1966 – • Page 15

    St. John’s Episcopal Church ….

    In the general annual meeting which followed a potluck meal, the group heard Rabbi Leonard M Kaplan of Adas Israel Synagogue say:

    “ We often spend much effort in making a god out of our particular religion. Shouldn’t we spend just as much effort in making our religion a religion of God?” Rabbi Kaplan called for efforts to appreciate strange and often exotic religions, understanding that each one speaks for God and may even have a message for us.

    For many of the world’s people, Rabbi Kaplan said, religion is the most important thing in their lives and understanding them calls for understanding their view of God.

    “In a sense, every religion is an open eye upon God, giving us its own flat, one-dimensional view, He said. It is only the totality of them all that can give us a multidimensional view of the Divine and a panorama of infinite depth.…”

    Rabbi Kaplan said that many scholars are finding they must study mankind as “a single gigantic organism… spread over the face of the earth.

    “If it were God’s purpose in creating this creature that is mankind, to create a being that perceive the divine, then is it not logical that He should have given it many senses?”

    “The eye does not hate the ear for not seeing. The ear does not despise the nose for not hearing. The many religions perceive God, each in a different way. But as long as they all look toward God, they are one. “

  4. thank you for this excellent entree into the details of Rabbi Kaplan’s biography. I’m excited for the next post!

  5. Thankyou for this !!

  6. What’s the Louisville, KY connection?

  7. Any researcher of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan who has not interviewed Rabbi Gedalya Fleer has missed a treasure trove of information. Rabbi Fleer, Kaplan’s friend, visited him once in Albany and wondered why Kaplan was wasting his time there. R’ Kaplan responded by taking him to the living room where he showed Fleer a shelf full of papers. “I’ve been keeping busy.” The papers are what became the amazing “The Handbook of Jewish Thought.” And then there’s the time R’ Kaplan almost got kicked out of yeshiva. (Ahh, but it was for a reason that most Roshei Yeshiva would /wish/ their students would do.)

  8. Phil,
    I spent countless shabbatot with Fleer back 25 years ago. I heard all the stories, including the almost getting kicked out of yeshiva. I wanted to have footnotable sources a few years ago, but found that there were none. That is why I was surprised at the new digitized material. I knew to look for the material specifically because I have heard all of Fleer’s stories. If you are in contact with him, then please send da”sh and also if you could send me his contact info by email.
    I also interviewed several students of his a few years ago.

    • I’d have to Google R’ Fleer’s email, since I don’t really know him. Chances are almost certain that you know more stories from him than he told over when he came to my town. What is da”sh? Good luck!!

  9. Pardon me for quibbling, but I don’t think I would have said that R. Kaplan had been at one time a “Conservative rabbi”. I would have said he was “rabbi of a Conservative congregation”. I think there is potentially a vast difference; as is true with some other rabbanim who took Conservative pulpits. In this, and some other cases, I think the difference is more than merely semantic.

    Phil – da”sh is ‘drishat shalom’ or regards.

  10. Hi Dr. Brill,
    If scientists are successful in creating true life, our belief in God should be all the stronger, for who else but an omniscient- God could have created the elementary particles of matter with all the inherent potentialities of the human spirit? The handwriting of God is clear — not on the wall — but in the very heart of nature.

    I haven’t been exposed to any of Kaplan’s work as a scientist. I have to say, if this quote is accurate – it’s just bad science. It’s the sort of thing the Christian ID’ers (and, I’m told the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists) like to peddle. I’m not impressed by his “insight”.

    Also, as far as this is concerned:

    Many college students turn to drugs and the Eastern religions searching for a mystic and deeply spiritual experience,” the prospectus said. “Most of these are not at all aware of Judaism’s great mystic and spiritual tradition… .

    Whether or not the kids were aware of it wasn’t the problem. I’m not at all certain that Jewish esoteric teachings and meditative techniques are as sophisticated or as highly developed as those to be found in Asian religions to begin with, but in any case, in the latter they’re certainly better studied and organized. More importantly, however – in those traditions, they’re more widely <i.available. Despite efforts of the past twenty or so years, I don’t think the situation has been all that much improved.

    In Judaism, these teachings were always restricted, and as far as esotericism is concerned, I’ve heard it said that most of the legitimate lineage holders died during the Holocaust, and the few who are left have gone underground and are almost impossible to find. You would know more about that than I.

    However, if one wishes to learn Buddhism or “Hinduism” (a term I rather dislike and try to avoid), there are teachers of these traditions in all major American cities at this point. I recently spent three years as a house manager in a Tibetan center here in Boston – and Boston, being a small city, doesn’t have as much as some others (I think the fact that we have as much as we do is due largely to Boston’s status as a popular college town).

  11. You are correct, there is little to compare to Samadhi in Judaism.

    The issue, however, was one of knowledge. Most of those attracted to Kaplan were interested in the counter-cultural bricolage where Kabbalah, I-Ching, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Whole Earth Catalog were the same. I was in correspondence the other day with one of his students from the 1970’s and she said that she was surprised and upset to learn in his classes that Kabbalah was not the same as pop-Hinduism. She assumed that everything counter-cultural was in agreement. People at the Hillel in Albany and in Brooklyn were looking for an alternative to the straight establishment, not to sit in retreat and master Samadhi techniques. Nor did they want to practice kavvanot and yihudim everyday. They just wanted a cultural demarcation of mysticism and eastern ideas to infuse in their lives, a little breslov, a little chabad, and some Buber.

    About the myth that there were lots of Jewish spiritual masters before WWIII and that Judaism had linages of mediation pre-WWII, I am not sure who started that myth. I think it comes out of Renewal circles.

    On the science part, I do think he would have written more. But his views were closer to science fiction and Analog magazine than science or intelligent design, unfolding of deeper secrets. He would probably have loved string theory.

  12. i am from albany myself, and i did not know that r’ kaplan was a rabbi at ohav shalom, a wonderful conservative shul in town. what a nice thing!

  13. I just found some notes I took about ten years ago when R’ Gedalya Fleer spoke about R’ Kaplan at our shul.
    1. the story about the stolen cake. (but no way would he say a bracha over stolen cake, so….)
    2. He would feed kids Jewish questions to “show up” the camp counselors
    3. a car bumped into his jalopy, and he got $200.
    4. he wore a toupee at one time
    5. he learned programming in two days
    6. he was Oppenheimer’s secretary for two years
    7. had beatnik friends in Greenwich Village
    8. had a 198 IQ
    9. he won 2nd place in a competition for his translation of R’ Nachman. On that basis, Moznaim got him to learn Ladino. It took three months.
    10. He would pick up a new hobby a year. Three were photography, cactus growing, and art.
    11. was once threatened by a rabbi to stop publishing
    (If any of these are a bit off, I’m totally open to correction.)

  14. I thought I’d add a few more tidbits from my notes, four years later:
    12. He got a plaque from President Johnson
    13. When he was 21, his rosh yeshiva compelled him to learn 18 blatt of gemara together from 4:45-6:45 AM. (The compulsion was necessary, because Kaplan tended to skip seder.)
    14. The Rebbe (Lubavitcher, IIRC) wanted someone to write a book on Jewish Meditation. First, Rabbi Kaplan had to learn avodah zarah.
    15. He answered “the impossible math question.” — I have no idea what Rabbi Fleer was referring to, sorry.

  15. Dear Phil. On the Rebbe and his relationship to R. Kaplan about Jewish Meditation, please see my article “The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Call for a Scientific Non-Hasidic Meditation.” B’or Ha’torah, vol. 22, 2013, 109-123, https://1drv.ms/b/s!AvQGdIpZHA5OomsjRwGy2Ovr7TSM or https://www.academia.edu/2503448/The_Lubavitcher_Rebbe_s_Call_for_a_Scientific_Non-Hasidic_Meditation

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