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Farewell: Remembering Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, 1912-2012

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, renowned scholar, author, and leader of Reform Judaism, died on February 9, 2012 at the age of 99. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, where he served as rabbi from 1961 to 1978.

The author of more than 25 books on Jewish theology, history, and philosophy, Rabbi Plaut is best known for writing and editing The Torah: A Modern Commentary (URJ Press, 1981), the first non-Orthodox Torah commentary to be published in the United States. Today it is widely used in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations throughout North America.

Born in Germany, Wolf Gunther Plaut received his Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Berlin in 1934. Unable to practice because of anti-Jewish laws imposed by the Nazi regime, he studied Jewish theology because “I wanted to know what it truly meant to be a Jew, if I was made to suffer for it.” A rescue program for scholars spearheaded by the Hebrew Union College and NFTS (now Women of Reform Judaism) secured his safe passage to the United States. In 1939 he was ordained at HUC, and during World War II he enlisted as a military chaplain with the 104th Infantry. Witnessing the liberation of the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany, he never forgot how the starving survivors did not ask for food, but for religious items.

Rabbi Plaut spent much of his professional career as a congregational rabbi in Chicago, St. Paul, and Toronto. A fierce opponent of racism and champion of human rights, he also founded Toronto’s Urban Alliance on Race Relations, was a founding member of the North York (Toronto) Committee on Community, Race and Ethnic Relations, and served as vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He was responsible for the commission’s controversial decision to allow Sikh students to wear traditional ceremonial daggers to school. He also served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (1977-1980), and the Canadian government named him an Officer of the Order of Canada (1993).

As a leader of the Reform Movement in North America, Rabbi Plaut served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1983-1985). In his CCAR presidential address, he proposed, unsuccessfully, that Friday night services be abandoned in favor of Saturday morning worship. Yet his stature was never diminished. At the 1985 Los Angeles Biennial the Union for Reform Judaism honored him with its Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for “a lifetime of scholarship and leadership in the Reform Jewish community.”

A major turning point in Rabbi Plaut’s career came in 1978, when at the age of 66 he decided to retire as senior rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple and devote his energy to writing and editing The Torah: A Modern Commentary. He continued to serve the congregation as its senior scholar until about 10 years ago, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

In all that he did, Rabbi Plaut communicated thoughtfully, deeply, and eloquently. Here are three examples of his writing, the first from his general introduction to The Torah: A Modern Commentary and two from Reform Judaism magazine.

On the Torah Commentary

The commentator who…proceeds on the premise of human rather than divine authorship faces two initial questions: (1) Does God have anything to do with the Torah? (2) How is the book different from any other significant literature of the past?

  1. Does God have anything to do with the Torah? ...The Torah is a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God….Since the Torah tradition was at first repeated by word of mouth, and only after many generations set down in writing, the final text testifies to divergent ideas about God and the people….In this sense, then, the book is not by God, but by a people. While individual authors had a hand in its composition, the people of the Book made the Torah their own and impressed their character upon it….

  2. How is the Torah different from any other significant literature of the past? For those of us who see in the Torah a people’s search for and meeting with God, the answer is self-evident….

[In] reading the Torah one should keep in mind that what the authors said in their own time to their own contemporaries within their own intellectual framework is one thing and what later generations did with this text, what they contributed to it by commentary and homily, is another. This long tradition of holding up the book like a prism, discovering through it and in it a vast spectrum of insights, makes the Torah unlike any other work. This is particularly true for the Jews. They cannot know their past or themselves without this book, for in it they will discover the framework of their own existence….

—From “General Introduction to the Torah,”  The Torah: A Modern Commentary (URJ Press)

On God

“It’s your imagination,” the skeptic says. “The idea of a God who connects intimately with billions of humans is preposterous. Why should God pay attention to you, in all this multitude?” That argument might have commanded attention a hundred years ago….But today, when…our computers can instantly connect us with millions of others, when a Pentium chip can perform 885 million calculations per second, such a belief is no longer beyond our imaginations. Tomorrow, such capacities will be increased a thousand-fold or more….We accept this as an inevitable accompaniment of our technological advance.

My concept of God operates along similar lines. I believe that God’s possibilities of connecting and caring are endless in space and in time. There is an essential mystery here that will always lie beyond my comprehension. If I cannot fathom how a piece of silicon can perform its tasks, how much more reason do I have to stand in awe before the presence of the One who made the world and its resources and put them at our disposal! This sense of awe and wonder, said Abraham Joshua Heschel, should be the basis of one’s religious outlook. It is of mine.

—From “God, Where Were You? Keeping Faith After Auschwitz,”  Reform Judaism magazine, Summer 1998

On Growing Old

The worm of time has not passed me by. It nibbles away, bit by bit, at my strength and—perhaps most importantly—at my desires.

It took me quite a while to become aware that some of yesterday’s desires had become less important to me—even unimportant. Possessions fall into that category. Several years ago, we sold our home and disposed of many things, including significant parts of our library. Surprisingly, disposing of our cherished acquisitions collected during three and a half decades stirred not an ounce of regret. After all, books are only things that join the grand parade of desire/acquisition/possession/discard.

Since then, I have learned that such painless letting go of things has another dimension. Having grown old, we stop acquiring things and instead acquire a growing indifference to them….

The older I become, the better I understand the deeper meaning of “being there” and grasp the sense of an experience that Martin Buber relates. A philosopher-colleague had spent a day as his house guest. The night before leaving, the two men sat in silence before the fireplace. The hours passed; no words were spoken. When the morning light broke the spell, the guest took his departure, saying, “Thank you for the wonderful conversation we had last night.”

When we age, we have a chance to be ourselves, which is “being there” when it is needed most. In earlier days, we are caught in the treadmill of trying to accomplish something; now that we are on the sidelines of the workaday world, we can fill many a waking hour being there for our families, for our friends, and, through the intermediary of religious institutions or social organizations, for strangers. Our identity becomes real as we meet others in a meaningful way. Buber put it succinctly: A person becomes “I” only through “Thou.”

For me, old age has resulted in some restrictions, but my mind is more attuned to formerly overlooked opportunities. Yesterday, I took health for granted; now I don’t. Having adjusted to a lower energy level, I find, when I sit still and think about my life, I experience a kind of serenity that I did not formerly possess….

Some days I step on the balcony…and listen to the leaves rustling in the treetops. They must have rustled in this way since day one, but I never heard them before….

Growing old exacts a price. But aging is also a privilege. It is not visible to the eye, for it is a new state of our spirit: changed priorities, reordered values, serenity, and, hopefully, a pervasive sense of gratitude.

These days, when someone asks. “How are you?” I may respond: “I am!” I am grateful to be here. I am challenged to make the most of the days left to me and live them to the fullest. “Now” has a special urgency: to enjoy the fruits of time I have gathered over the years.

—From “I Never Thought It Would Happen to Me,”  Reform Judaism magazine, Fall 1999

May Rabbi Plaut’s memory forever be a blessing.

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