Louis L. Kaplan has been holding his Yom Kippur open forums for so many years that they might as well be thought of as a Baltimore institution -- if there could be such a thing as an institution devoted to a passionate and provocative assault on complacency.
It was 40 years ago that Dr. Kaplan looked around and decided he was dissatisfied with the way Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of fasting and repentance for sins against man and God, was being observed.
"I thought the prayers were too redundant, and people said them without having to feel meaning. I thought there was something more important than just saying prayers which people didn't understand," he said of the Day of Atonement, which begins today at sundown.
So Dr. Kaplan, a "rebbe," or teacher, began taking on all sorts of issues -- everything, over the years, from abortion to the Palestine Liberation Organization -- and did so with such gusto and insight that pretty soon his Yom Kippur forums were drawing not just Jews but Catholics and Protestants as well. They became legendary in Baltimore's religious and intellectual circles.
"I find it extraordinary theater," said Peter Culman, a Roman Catholic who is managing director of Center Stage, and who has been to six or seven of Dr. Kaplan's forums. "This is a man who is passionate about life. When he loves and laughs he's fully present, and when he's upset he's correspondingly passionate."
"The open forums are the intellectual highlight of the year because Dr. Kaplan is one of the most brilliant people who has lived in Baltimore," said lawyer Shale Stiller, who has enjoyed about 30 forums with Dr. Kaplan.
Dr. Kaplan was not a young man when he began his forums 40 years ago. He is 92 now. He's frail and his eyes are sore from reading. He walks with a cane and lives in a retirement community where he says he spends much of his time in bed, though he still works two days a week for the Joseph Meyerhoff Foundation.
And yet, if he gets out of bed tomorrow and decides he's up to it, the tradition will continue -- before a standing-room-only crowd of 1,300 at Beth Am Synagogue, at 2501 Eutaw Place in Reservoir Hill, at 2 p.m.
Dr. Kaplan, who has been through two operations and the death of his wife of 68 years, said last week that he hopes to make it.
"If I feel well, I'd like to do it," he said. "It means more to the people who come there. Some people who come don't belong to the synagogue at all. Catholic friends and Protestant friends will come. And Jewish friends who are not religious.
"The open forum is not part of Yom Kippur, but it's part of my Yom Kippur."
Dr. Kaplan's approach to Yom Kippur has been softened by neither age nor sentiment.
"A lot of people surround God with wonderful eiderdown quilts and it's all cozy like apple pie and motherhood," said Mr. Culman. "Louie is quite hostile to that view of God. He thinks you need to be hard on yourself. If you're going to follow those commandments, a lot is asked of you."
Happy asking questions
Mr. Kaplan's mind is still sharp, opinionated and overflowing with a wisdom laced with an exhaustive foundation of world history and theology. In his old age, Dr. Kaplan is as comfortable questioning Jewish theological dogma as he is attacking the Orthodox Jews on the occupied West Bank -- he says they're almost as fanatical as the Palestinians.
He draws on a rich lifetime of theological study to give perspective to modern problems.
Ask him about the hope of a lasting peace between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East and he tells a story of Jewish and Arab friendliness that dates back centuries.
"From the 10th and 12th centuries there was a tremendous interchange" between cultures, he said.
Before the 10th century, Dr, Kaplan said, "Jews didn't have metered poetry. Metered and rhymed poetry came into being in contact with the Arab culture in the 10th and 12th centuries."
Arab philosophy also influenced Jewish thought during those centuries, he said.
Dr. Kaplan's education impresses his fans and students, not only for what he knows, but for what he does with his knowledge.
"Louie thinks all this scholarship is of no value unless it influences your behavior. If you won't respond to your neighbor, forget it," said Mr. Culman.
Dr. Kaplan has spent all his adult life teaching values through Jewish history.
Born in Lithuania, he decided to go to Hebrew school when he was three years old, he said the other day. By the time he was 6, his family had moved to Brooklyn, New York.
80 years of fasting
He remembers his first Yom Kippur fast at age 11. Tomorrow , he said, he has every intention of fasting again, despite his advanced age and recent health problems.
In 1930, he moved to Baltimore as a Hebrew teacher and eventually became dean and president of the Baltimore Hebrew College, now Baltimore Hebrew University, where he served for 40 years.
He was also the executive director of the Board of Jewish Education for the same 40 years and was on the University of Maryland Board of Regents for 24 years -- five of them as chairman.
He counts Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, among his friends. On Dr. Kaplan's 90th birthday, the author visited Baltimore for his own public conversation with the great teacher at Beth Am.
Dr. Kaplan's friends and long-time students hope he feels well enough tomorrow to come to Beth Am.
"He is provocative. He is stimulating. He doesn't mince any words whether he believes or doesn't believe in something. He is challenging," said Mr. Stiller.
As for Dr. Kaplan -- just a few months shy of his 93rd birthday -- he sees "the importance of an open mind."
"There are things I believed in 15, 20 years ago that I don't believe today," he said. "And I may change my opinion again -- if I live."