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100 years later: an orphan’s legacy

In 1889, at the age of 32 or 33, R. Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan died suddenly, a few months before the birth of his son, who was named after him. The orphan was raised mainly by his maternal grandparents. He became one of the geniuses in the Slobodka yeshiva in Lithuania. He aspired to write a commentary on the entire Talmud. It is said that, in 1914, at a sheva berachot of another genius in Slobodka, R. Aharon Kotler, after the groom delivered a long and complex halachic discourse, R. Kaplan stood up on the spot and retold the entire discourse in poetry and song. He missed not a single, subtle point.

This remarkable orphan developed wide interests alongside Talmud and Tanakh: music (instrumental and vocal), literature, pedagogy, Musar and poetry. 

In 1920, because of his Talmudic expertise and broad interests, and because of his winning personality, he was called to the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin.

In the space of two years, 1922-1924, he published the first pieces of his projected commentary on the Talmud and wrote literary criticism, poetry and Musar. He strengthened Talmudic studies at the seminary dramatically. Evidence of this included the significantly higher number of students whom he motivated to enroll in a East European yeshiva as part of their studies.

In 1924, R. Kaplan died suddenly — like his father before him.

He was 34 years old.

Those who expressed deep mourning upon his passing included Rabbis Israel Meir Kagan (Chafetz Chaim), Abraham Isaac Kuk and Isser Zalman Meltzer. At a young age, R. Kaplan’s mind, heart and pedagogical leadership had penetrated the highest levels of rabbinic scholarship and authority.

His 100th yahrzeit was observed this week, 14 Iyar.

After R. Kaplan’s death, many of his writings were gathered in one volume, Be-Ikvot ha-Yir’ah, “Steps Toward the Fear of Heaven,” named after its opening essay. 

Threads of systematic thinking run through the essay, perhaps reflecting R. Kaplan’s cultural exposure. At the same time, the essay reflects the penchant of R. Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, and his early disciples to avoid systematic thought in favor of metaphor and arresting rhetoric, sometimes intentionally disjointed, designed to catch one’s attention, to compel personal response and ultimately behavioral change.

The opening essay, typical of many Salanterian writings, needs “soul work.” It needs to be read a piece at a time (the discrete pieces not necessarily identified as such); then re-read, perhaps several times, until the reader himself identifies the link between one piece and another (the two not necessarily adjacent).

Beyond structure, the substance of R. Kaplan’s interweaves an approach all his own. Fear of Heaven, he is at pains to describe and prescribe, is a sobering brace, symbiotically interwoven with joy, good cheer and the language of holiness and insight.

The essay’s poetic reflections on the ultimate passage of the spirit, on death and afterlife, strike the reader retrospectively as eerie, given R. Kaplan’s early demise, though no sense of premonition is detected.

R. Yisrael Salanter himself spent most of the last 25 years of his life wandering around towns of Germany, trying to strengthen observance there (1858-1883), with limited success. For R. Kaplan, musar was a personal imperative and a basic, if informal, part of the Berlin seminary’s curriculum. Musar was both a motivating factor for a student to attend a East European yeshiva and a spiritual tonality strengthened there.

The following summary of “Steps Toward the Fear of Heaven” is a modest attempt to perpetuate the beautiful memory, noble insights and lofty aspirations of R. Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan.

From out of the author’s vivid illustrations, penchant for the poetic, and preference for personal response, we may distill his ultimate message:

Fear of Heaven is easily misunderstood as anguish and depression, which the author colorfully describes in its physical manifestations (“ . . . forehead creased, eyes agape . . . chained knees . . . ”). True fear of Heaven is undeviating attention to one’s obligations to G-d. Like a father balancing his child on his shoulders, undeviating attentiveness imparts a sense of security, of joy and trembling, interlocked. Rejoice in the child. Keep the child safe. “Rejoice with trembling.” The two constitute fear of Heaven. 

The two are mutually intensifying, and should characterize the Jew on Rosh Hashanah, who balances a marvelous complementarity, “the threat of a noble fear of Heaven, which weaves its way through rings of cheerfulness.”

Together, fear and trembling enable the healthy soul to skip over the many gaps between oneself and one’s Creator — to perceive one’s spiritual failings and G-d’s looming punishment, which, in turn, nurtures repentance. Repentance enables one to circle back to the trait of undeviating attentiveness. Now it imparts trust in G-d and His steady presence.

Even so, failure never ceases to threaten. Hopelessness lurks. Despair and small-mindededness always need to be, but can be, overcome. Sometimes one waits too long to act and dies a spiritual cripple; sometimes it takes a lifetime to overcome spiritual slippage — but it need take only a moment.

It is not pride that hinders one in overcoming the failure to sustain attentiveness to G-d’s constant presence. It is humility. The author defines humility as an excuse for remaining within the cultural determinants of one’s style of religiosity. But one who truly fears Heaven is like Abram, who received G-d’s word: Go forth! One who truly fears Heaven not only receives G-d’s command to teach twofold fear of Heaven but announces the nature and possibility to the whole Jewish nation.

If the Jewish nation does not listen, the fault lies with those who lack the courage that true Fear of Heaven imparts. Go forth!

This is an edited version of my longer article, which included a translation of the essay, “Steps Toward the Fear of Heaven,” that appeared in Tradition (Fall, 2020), and included the references to the biographical and other facts cited.

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