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The Pious Man
What is piety? Is it abandonment of the world?
Is it scrupulous performance of rites or fanatic zeal?
Let us observe the pious man and probe into his soul.
We shall discover in it that which transcends man,
That which surmounts the visible and available,
Steadily preventing him from immersing himself in sensation or ambition,
From yielding to passion or slaving for a career.
For him life takes place amid horizons beyond the span of years.
He senses the significant in small things, he is alive to the sublime in common acts and simple thoughts.
He feels the warmth of good beneath the thick crust of evil.
In the rush of the passing, he notes the stillness of the eternal.
He complies with destiny; He is at peace with life.
Every experience opens to him the door into a temple of light, though the vestibule be dark and dismal.
His responsibility to God is the scaffold, on which he stands, as daily he builds his life.
He serves family, friend, community and nation….
Engrossed in the beauty of what he worships, he shuns self display.
The wise man, master of himself, oft deems himself author of his mastery;
Not so the pious who, no less master of himself, administers his life in God’s name.
The wise man seeks to penetrate into the soul of the sacred;
The pious man ever strives to be penetrated by it.
Faith engages a man’s mind;
Piety, his entire life.
Faith precedes piety; Piety is faith’s achievement;
Faith desires to meet God; Piety to abide by Him;
Faith strives to know His will; Piety, to do it;
Faith yearns to hear His voice; Piety, to respond to it.
The pious man is never alone, for God is within reach of his heart.
In affliction, though desolate for a moment, he need but turn his eyes,
To discover his grief outflanked by God’s compassion.
Having achieved understanding, he believes;
Having acquired, he gives away;
Having lived, he knows how to die.
He craves not vainly for the endless rotation of his own life’s wheel.
He is content to merge his being into that of the God he loves.
“The Pious Man” is a prayer-poem first published in The Sabbath Prayer Book (New York: The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, 1945) and originally composed by Mordecai Kaplan in a diary entry, September 19, 1942, The digital images for Mordecai Kaplan’s Diaries are accessible at the JTS Library system. This is a direct link to the resource, and if that does not work, search their Makor library system for “Papers, 1910-1975; Mordecai Menahem Kaplan 1881-1983.” and then select “View Online” at the entry, “Papers, 1910-1975.” This only worked for us using the Microsoft Edge browser. on the virtue of piety as expressed in an essay published earlier that year by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Piety was a Roman virtue, but in this essay, A.J. Heschel appears to be describing an idealization of Ḥasidut. I am grateful to Mel Scult for bringing my attention to this prayer-poem via his autobiography of Kaplan The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Indiana University Press 2013), ch. 10 “Mordecai the Pious,” p. 209-210. Scult writes (p. 208-209):
In the spring of 1942, the young Heschel wrote a very fine essay in English, “An Analysis of Piety,” that appeared in The Review of Religion. Abraham Joshua Heschel, “An Analysis of Piety,” The Review of Religion 6, no. 3 (March 1942): 293-307, reprinted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays — Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996), 305-18. The essay caught Kaplan’s eye. Kaplan had been contemplating the ontological issue of whether the rational and the spiritual were reducible to the psychological or whether these realms of our thought actually exist beyond the bounds of our brains. In other words, are our ideas merely mental constructs, or do they reflect an outside reality? His concern could be formulated in what medieval philosophers called the nominalist- realist problem-are the particulars or the universals the most real? Do our concepts merely name a group of particulars, they asked, or does the name itself stand for something, independent of the particulars? Kaplan was reassured that Hesch el shared his belief in the independent reality of the spiritual or, as he put it, “the need of viewing the spiritual dimension apart from the other two dimensions of experience.” Kaplan’s diary entry reads as follows:
Mon. Apr.6/1942…. The following from Abraham Heschel’s “An Analysis of Piety” (The Review of Religion March /1942) is in line with the need of viewing the spiritual dimension apart from the other two dimensions of experience: “[Ideas are not to be confused with the psychical setting in which they appear. It is fallacious to identify knowledge with the process of its acquisition or realization.] The text inside the square bracket is in Heschel’s essay but not quoted by Kaplan in his diary. The spiritual content is not identical with the act itself, nor are concepts tantamount to functions of the mind. The spiritual objective content is universal, and should be distinguished from subjective psychical function. Piety is an objective spiritual entity. [There have been times in which piety was as common as knowledge of the multiplication table is today.]”
Kaplan’s concern with the spiritual comes to us as a surprise. We tend to think of him as concerned primarily with community and with “Judaism as a Civilization.” Yet there is another side to Kaplan that centers on the spiritual and its expression. His religiosity is complex, and, as we have seen again and again, it is a mistake to believe that his thought can be reduced to the naturalistic and the pragmatic. Though a thoroughgoing rationalist, Kaplan valued piety. I would go so far as to say, amid the numerous accusations of heresy and blasphemy waged against him, Kaplan was a pious man.
Kaplan had always believed that one way to compose new liturgy was to take an inspiring essay and turn it into a prayer. After reading Heschel’s essay on piety, Kaplan composed a prayer based on Heschel’s thoughts and a few years later inserted it into his 1945 prayer book. It is a skillful transformation of an essay into a poem.Not a simple translation, nor a cut-and-paste job, the poem illustrates Kaplan’s keen spiritual sense and the clarity of his thought.
[Above] is the first half of Kaplan’s poem/prayer. Nearly all the words are taken directly from Heschel’s essay, though Kaplan has inserted a few key changes of his own. Readers of Heschel will feel the familiar cadences of his prose.
|1||The digital images for Mordecai Kaplan’s Diaries are accessible at the JTS Library system. This is a direct link to the resource, and if that does not work, search their Makor library system for “Papers, 1910-1975; Mordecai Menahem Kaplan 1881-1983.” and then select “View Online” at the entry, “Papers, 1910-1975.” This only worked for us using the Microsoft Edge browser.|
|2||Abraham Joshua Heschel, “An Analysis of Piety,” The Review of Religion 6, no. 3 (March 1942): 293-307, reprinted in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays — Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1996), 305-18.|
|3||The text inside the square bracket is in Heschel’s essay but not quoted by Kaplan in his diary.|
“The Pious Man, a prayer-poem by Mordecai Kaplan adapted from the essay “An Analysis of Piety” by Abraham Joshua Heschel (1942)” is shared by the living contributor(s) with a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication 1.0 Universal license.
Works of related interest:
Life Is What We Make It, a prayer-poem based on the writings of Rabbi Leo Baeck by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1945)
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