Kaplan’s Emphasis on Experience: A Sukkot 5776 Discovery

by Mel Scult

One of Kaplan’s favorite verses, almost a mantra for him, is from Psalm 34. Verse 9 reads “Ta’amu u’reu ki tov Adonai”. The JPS translation is accurate: “Taste and see how good the Lord is.” In my conversations with Kaplan in the 1970’s, he repeated this verse often. “Taste God” – what could that mean? And Kaplan never explained it to me. He just repeated it as if the meaning were obvious.

I never really understood what the verse meant until the morning of the first day of Sukkot this year, while I was in synagogue. Everyone in our congregation had a lulav and etrog. The rabbi explained several of the possible meanings of the ritual wavings in multiple directions, which most obviously symbolizes that God is to be found everywhere.

But all of sudden, in the middle of the ritual, an insight came to me. It has to do with the specific and the abstract. The ancient Israelite mind is wedded to specifics. There are very few abstract nouns in Biblical Hebrew.  One might say that Biblical Hebrew is not a philosophical language. For example, the word sechel, which in later Hebrew means mind, is rare in Biblical Hebrew. The seat of the intellect in the Bible is in the heart, the lev.

My point is that the ritual of and lulav and etrog brought home to me in a very powerful way that the Torah commands us to find the Divine in specific experience. It is not accidental that sacrifices play such an important part in ancient Israelite life. The sacrifice is often a cooked animal that has a certain smell, and it is often eaten by the priests. We have trouble relating to sacrifices, but we do relate to the lulav and etrog. You can smell the etrog; its aroma is strong and pleasant. The rabbis also comment on the taste and aroma of the leaves we join to the palm.

“Taste and see how good the Lord is,” the verse says. It is through the experience of the senses that we come to know something of the Divine. Inevitably we lift the specific and the sensory to the abstract, as well we should, but Kaplan would have us remember what our ancestors understood so well – that ultimately even the most fundamental knowledge is related to our senses. And of course one must remember the primacy of sight in the Biblical understanding of our quest for knowledge. Moses, for example, implored God to let Moses see God’s glory.

Kaplan over and over emphasized the centrality of experience. Whatever else we might say about experience, the five senses are central. Philosophers rightly assert that our primary knowledge is gained through the senses. Perhaps we might also consider that such knowledge can lead to a sense of the transcendent.

It is this thought that Kaplan wanted us to consider in thinking about Psalm 34:9.