Editor’s Note: Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a rabbi in the United States before serving at a major Toronto congregation for four decades and authoring a Torah commentary that has become a standard text in the Reform movement, died Feb. 8, at 99, a decade after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The rabbi’s “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” was a forerunner of the denomination’s shift toward tradition, stressing the importance of advanced Torah study while offering a unique, Reform perspective on Jewish scriptures. The book — commonly known as the Plaut Torah — has sold nearly 120,000 copies. Rabbi Plaut, a major public figure in Canada, was vice chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress; he was named both an officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of Germany’s Commander’s Cross. What follows is a Reform rabbi’s reflection of the influence Rabbi Plaut and his Torah commentary had on him.
In his commentary on Genesis 28:10, “Jacob left Beersheva and went toward Haran,” Rashi teaches that when a righteous person dwells in a place, he brings splendor and glory in his wake. When that person departs, the splendor and glory do as well. This week the light of Jewish learning might seem to burn with a bit less splendor and glory as a result of the passing of W. Gunther Plaut.
Appropriate glowing paeans to Rabbi Plaut’s career have appeared around the globe, in secular as well as religious publications. I will not reiterate the accounts of his numerous achievements and accolades. Rather, I write on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism as one who felt the impact of Rabbi Plaut’s leadership through the course of my 23 years as a pulpit rabbi.
In my youth, Rabbi Plaut’s reputation as a strong voice of the teachings of prophetic Judaism was already well established. He was among the stern voices demanding justice in North American life and demanding, equally, commitment from the denizens of our congregations. His writings on the history and meaning of Reform Judaism were among the texts that shaped my own early understanding of what it could and should mean to live by the rigorous ideals of our movement.
Among those ideals was a commitment to intellectual depth and integrity in study of our tradition. And Rabbi Plaut, by example as well as in writing, made it clear that his expectations in this realm were not for rabbis alone, but for the laity as well. As I entered the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to begin my rabbinic studies in 1980, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) published his magnum opus, “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” of which he served as senior commentator. From the time of my ordination until my departure from the pulpit in 2008, no single instrument in my rabbinic toolkit even approached the text we all came commonly to refer to as “the Plaut” for its utility and value in fulfilling my role. Through this tome, traditional and modern scholars spoke with congregants not yet versed in Hebrew or text. They could engage actively and directly with the mightiest of our thinkers, and not be reliant solely upon their rabbis for access to the richness of Torah. This gift was enhanced many years later by the companion volume of Haftarah, and were it only for these two gifts and premier achievements in non-Orthodox scholarship, we could well say, “Dayeinu.”
But there is one, more recent gift, extended by Rabbi Plaut as he entered his later years which speaks to the depth of soul he brought to his rabbinate. When he penned “The Price and Privilege of Growing Old,” this sage opened his heart to us and called out to the community to rise to a new sensitivity to the needs but also the wealth of resource to be found in our elders. It was a message of eternal relevance, but never more than in today’s youth-driven popular culture.
Today we honor the memory of this generous teacher. And though it may seem that a bit of the splendor and glory have gone, happily they live on in the pages of his life and his texts. More significantly, they will live in the words of Torah in which we will continue to engage. We will remain inspired and enlightened by his scholarship and the demands he will continue to make upon us to rise to the best of spirit, thought and deed that live within our souls.
Rabbi Rex Perlmeter is worship and spirituality specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism.