A teacher, a talker, for Yom Kippur Dr. Kaplan to hold forth at Beth Am.

September 17, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Dr. Louis L. Kaplan clearly loves to talk, to be engaged in conversation. And he's a man who never confuses serious with dull. He's always serious, never dull.

He's the sort of talker who, when you ask about a house, he gives you a street. Ask about a street, you get a city. Talk about a city and you hear about a culture.

Kaplan will hold forth tomorrow on the afternoon of Yom Kippur as the rebbe of a kind of court of discourse that has become a tradition in the Baltimore Jewish community.

He'll stand on the bima of Beth Am Synagogue for about two hours and talk. He'll answer questions, he'll explain, he'll expound, he'll converse with the congregation assembled before him. Sometimes he'll argue. Sometimes somebody will argue with him.

He's done this 60 years, at a half-dozen synagogues. People come from almost everywhere in the community to listen to him and talk with him. Beth Am will be packed.

"I'm a rebbe," Kaplan says. "I'm a teacher. I was a professional teacher."

He was, in fact, dean and president of the Baltimore Hebrew College for 40 years, and many say instrumental in its advance to university status. He was executive director of the Jewish Board of Education for the same 40 years. He was a member of the University of Maryland Board of Regents from 1952 to 1976, and its chairman five years.

Kaplan's now 88 and three quarters, as he puts it, and executive director of the Joseph Meyerhoff Foundation. He's at his desk, the Bible in both Hebrew and English translation at hand.

"I don't consider myself a rabbi," he says, "although I perform some of the functions of a rabbi. I marry people, bury people. I've done a lot of these things. But I never took a fee for these services because I didn't want to be classified as a rabbi."

But he helped found Beth Am congregation 17 years ago, as an "independent" synagogue. He stoutly resists the conventional division of Judaism into Conservative, Orthodox and Reform branches. Beth Am is in the handsome old Chizuk Amuno building at 2501 Eutaw Place.

When a little younger, Kaplan was a fellow at the department of rabbinics of Dropsie College, Philadelphia, where he got his doctorate in 1927. He studied in Jerusalem in 1924 and 1925 at Hebrew University and with the great archaeologist William Foxwell Albright at the American School of Oriental Research.

Here are some of the things Kaplan says on the eve of Yom Kippur. Some may come up tomorrow. But Kaplan doesn't anticipate what his congregation wants to talk about.

"The Jewish people precedes the Jewish religion," he says. "There was a people before there was a religion. Abraham, who's supposedly the father of our people, doesn't come in until Chapter 12 in Genesis. He's a Johnny-Come-Lately. . . .

"The Bible starts with the creation of the world. We have a particular history, but it's enacted on the world stage.

"The Prophets never spoke only to the Jews," he says. "Every one of the Prophets spoke to all the other nations around them. . . .

"As a matter of fact, this very holiday, Rosh Hashana week, supposed to be the most solemn one, there's nothing Jewish about it. It's for mankind."

"Even in the liturgy, we say all mankind is judged on this day," he says. "It indicates the universalism even in the liturgy, on Rosh Hashana."

"Yom Kippur is interesting," he says. "Kippur means 'atonement, to atone, forgiveness.' But Yom Kippur can only forgive for sins committed by man against God, not against his fellow man, providing of course, he repents and makes at least a promise he's not going to do these same bad things again.

"There's a very interesting verse in the Bible: 'From all your sins before the Lord will you be cleansed.' And the rabbis, as limited as their vision may have been in those days, 2,000 years ago, they said only in your sins before the Lord, not the sins before mankind.

Those you have to go and make good.

"You offended somebody. Apologize. Make amends. Square yourself."

He expresses a certain skepticism about ritual.

"I dislike a good part of the traditional liturgy because it says things I don't believe. But I believe we have to commune with God to be in touch with the source of life, so as to grow.

"So if I pray, either I make up my own prayers or I say those prayers which don't offend my theology and skip those which do. . . .

"Just as in the physical sense," he says, "we have to eat in order to continue to live, and drink. Eat the right foods and not drink the wrong liquids.

"In an intellectual and spiritual sense, to commune with God means -- not a private meditation, I don't go into a chamber -- taking up a book that has philosophy, or theology, or history, or culture and studying it is a communion with God.

Kaplan talks about the Gaon of Vilna, the great Jewish thinker of 18th century Lithuania.

"He was called Gaon because it means 'genius'," Kaplan says. "He didn't go to synagogue, he prayed at home because he studied 18 hours a day. I'm sure he prayed very fast because to him study was much more important than prayer.

"When he was asked why, he said, 'If I don't study 18 hours a day, the rabbi in Berlin won't study 12 hours a day, the rabbi in London won't study six hours a day. So how will they know anything?' "

It's a Jewish tale. And if you're at Beth Am synagogue tomorrow afternoon, you might hear Rebbe Kaplan tell more like it, serious but not dull.

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