Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

A Life of Torah

Rabbi W. Gunther Plautby Rabbi Jan Katzew

When a sage dies, everyone becomes kin.
-Babylonian Talmud

A sage, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, has died and once again we are all family.

You may never have met Rabbi Plaut personally, yet it is likely that he taught you Torah. He served as the editor and primary author of the first liberal Jewish commentary on the Torah. Published initially in 1981, The Torah: A Modern Commentary was a literary pioneer, leading the way for multiple contemporary interpretations of a sacred ancient text. Rabbi Gunther Plaut was a renaissance rabbi, who led congregations in Chicago, Illinois, St. Paul, Minnesota (Mt. Zion Temple) and Toronto, Ontario (Holy Blossom), a renowned teacher of Torah throughout the world and a talmid chacham, an exceptional scholar.

It seems fitting to give the final words to Rabbi Plaut, whose Torah and whose torah will continue to live. “Our commentary disagrees with traditional interpreters over divine origin and Mosaic authorship, but it does agree with them on treating the text as it is, a unified whole, for it was approached that way by many generations and in this way it has made its impact on history… to us the Bible is primarily the living textbook of the Jew…”

Baruch dayan haemet.


Editor’s note: We welcome you to post your remembrances and messages of condolence in the comments section below.

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27 Responses to “A Life of Torah”

  1. avatar

    How is it that his 1981 commentary was the first ever liberal Jewish Torah commentary?

    At any rate, the world has lost a real tzaddik. May his memory be a blessing, and his life’s work abide among us as a loving benediction.

  2. avatar
    Rabbi Joan S. Friedman Reply February 10, 2012 at 6:11 am

    Barukh dayan emet. I learned so much from Gunther, not only in the pages of his magnificent books and in his various articles on Reform halakha and through his guidance of the Responsa Committee, but, quite literally, in every conversation I ever had with him. He gave me guidance when I was new to the rabbinate, for which I am grateful, and encouraged my scholarship later on. He was truly a larger than life figure in every way and we are diminished by his passing. We have lost one of the g’dolei ha-dor. Yehi zikhro barukh.

  3. avatar

    Many blessings to Rabbi Plaut on his new Journey, and prayers to his family at this time. At Congregation B’nai Israel (Bridgeport, CT), our Rabbi Jim Prosnit and his assistants have led us through years of meaningful Saturday morning Torah study, each session having been greatly enhanced by Rabbi Plaut’s commentary. Thank you, Rabbi Plaut.

  4. avatar

    At Washington Blvd. Temple back in the 40s, Rabbi Plaut was beloved for “telling stories” to the students. My husband, sister-in-law and I always remember the students saying, “Rabbi Plaut, tell us a story”.

  5. avatar

    I met Rabbi Plaut at the 1993 CCAR convention just weeks after my ordination. I remember being in awe of these who I had known only through his writings; I stuttered a bit when I was introduced, but he put me at ease with a smile , welcoming me warmly as a colleague. I remained in awe then, and will continue to be. Farewell my teacher and colleague.

  6. avatar

    I recall Rabbi Plaut imploring us, at a CCAR conference, not to overlook the significance of the haftara when preparing b’nei mitzvah students. “The maftir is often without context,” he said. But the haftara is of a whole and always teaches something significant about Jewish history and Jewish values. He was a tzadik who loved life and embraced the Jewish people. He could evoke belly laughs from his audience. We left his presence with a sense of awe. As with Abraham Joshua Heschel, Gunther Plaut filled the room with holiness. I will miss him. He has joined our Sages. Va-yeasef el-amav. He is gathered to his kin.

  7. avatar
    Rabbi Donald R Berlin Reply February 10, 2012 at 8:48 am

    My Rabbi has died and I mourn like so many others. I was never his congregant but Gunther Plaut was a vibrant inspiration to me as a Jew, as a Rabbi and as a human being. He taught me. He guided me. Live better as a Jew by embracing Torah in every way! Make that mean something important! What an awesome and sometimes irritating challenge was that! Uniquely, he inscribed his own memory az a blessing on our generation for all time. B’shalom!

  8. avatar

    Rabbi Plaut officiated at my Bar Mitzvah, one of his last as Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossum. He had impact on us all. We loved his Friday evening sermons, delivered with insights, questions, and the exceptional vocal gift of oration. His High Holiday talks were always memorable – people crowded to whichever venue he was speaking. His articles in the Toronto paper were the voice of the Canadian Jewish community throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He will be missed. May his memory be alwsys for blessing.

  9. Rabbi Daniel Freelander
    Rabbi Daniel Freelander Reply February 10, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Rabbi Plaut’s scholarship and leadership laid the groundwork for the explosion of Reform Torah study in the past three decades. While some visitors to congregations may come away with the impression that Rabbi Plaut authored the Torah, we celebrate his contribution of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” for unlocking so many layers of Jewish tradition and learning to the members of our community. Zichrono Livracha.

  10. avatar

    I met Rabbi Plaut at the first conference I ever attended,in fact I sat next to him at the back of the auditorium where an address was being given.
    I had just established the first Reform congregation in Hameln, Germany with 17 Russisn Jewish emigrees.
    I had no idea who he was, nor he me. We just chatted quietly instead of listening to the speaker.
    He congratulated me and encouraged me to keep up the good work.
    I then heard the speaker lauding the contribution Rabbi Gunther Plaut had made to Reform Judaism. As he rose (I thought to leave) I said, “Wait,I didn’t get your name”, he turned to me with a wink and said, “I’m nobody-I just wrote the Torah. Keep studying it with your members.”
    The lightbulb went on as I watched him walk toward the podium.
    Ever since then, our congregation has held Shabbat Torah study sessions with the Plaut, in English, German and now Russian. How pleased he would be to know these sessions are being held in the first newly constructed Reform synagogue in Germany.
    Baruch dayan emet.

  11. avatar

    ברוך דין האמת
    Thank you Rabbi Plaut for all you did for us!

  12. avatar

    He will be missed. There was so much more he had to teach us.

  13. avatar
    Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman Reply February 10, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I was a student at the University of Tornto when Rabbi Plaut came to Toronto. He immeditaely became a major religious leader and figure in the life of the community and Canadian Jewry. His words touched us all as did his scholarship. Hebuilt unique relationships with all branches of acnadian Jewry, religious and secular, traditional and progressive. It was a golden period in the life of Toronto Jewry and Canadian jewry and he was truly a leader in so much that was done. Although my family and I were not members of Holy blossom his words and influence reached and touched us profoundly and he has remained my mentor and teacher for as long as i can remember. He lived a life of Torah, blessing, activism and his influnece will remain for generations. he never lost interest in the Torontonians who came to HUC and took great pride in everything we tried to do. Our profound condolences to Jonathan and the entire family and to myriad thousands whose lives he touched.

  14. avatar

    I echo the comments of Rabbi Freelander regarding Rabbi Plaut’s contribution to the flowering of Torah study among Reform Jews that began with the publication of his liberal commentary on the Torah. It certainly had a great effect on me.

  15. avatar

    Baruch Dyan HaEmet To Rabbi Plaut’s family: his memory and legacy is our blessing. May you/we be comforted among the mourners of Israel.

  16. avatar

    I mourn the passing of Rabbi Plaut, although I never met him. The scope of his work was prodigious. I read his words regularly, and they continue to inspire, provoke, and teach. We are so fortunate to have the influence of his scholarship and passion on our learning and faith. Baruch Dayan Emet.

  17. avatar

    W. Gunther Plaut, z”l, was one of the g’dolei hador, not only for his Commentary, his sermons, his books on the rise of the Reform movement, his presidency of the C.C.A.R., his love of Shabbat morning service, but also for his humanity, his insights into outer society and the inner person. His personal kindness to our extended family will always be treasured in memory.

  18. avatar

    I met Rabbi Plaut in Framingham, Mass in the mid to late 1970s and have kept his commentaries on my bookshelf and consult them often. He has been an inspiration most of my adult life and I am saddened by the news of his passing. More so since the Reform movement has moved so far off his teachings in the past two decades.

  19. avatar

    A great tzadik has left us! I remember fondly attending his URJ workshops at Biennial. He leaves us with a legacy of mitzvot and resources for continued learning. May Carmi and all the Plaut family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

  20. avatar

    baruch dayan haemet.
    I have lost my childhood rabbi. He was such a special force in my Toronto community and it was because of him that I am the kind of Jew I am today. Definitely a visionary and a gadol of our time. It was a special time in Toronto Jewry and at Holy Blossom Temple. He always had an encouraging word and cared deeply about those of us growing into leadership positions. He lead the community intelligently and articulately and was able to get to the heart of the matter whether it was political or social issues. He was a pleasure to listen to during his sermons. I am thankful for the many things I received from from him.
    Zichrono Livracha.

  21. avatar

    Let me also add that Rabbi Plaut’s commentary reached out profoundly to non-Jews struggling to understand their connection with Judaism and Judaism’s connection to other cultures and traditions. In our extended family of multi-cultural backgrounds, Rabbi Plaut’s Torah and Haftorah commentaries have been a bridge of peace and understanding between communities. Our deep and sincere condolences to his family, we feel them to be a part of ours.

  22. avatar

    One hundred years of life, more than two thirds of them dedicated to Liberal Judaism. Imagine the changes Rabbi Plaut witnessed, the changes he instituted and, yes, the changes he may have resisted. How many generations of Rabbis and congregants trace their religious roots to him? When we discuss his commentary we call it “The Plaut”. In our culture and many others, they call the most revered “The____.” The Plaut has died, we feel grateful for his life.

  23. avatar

    I remember Rabbi Plaut as our assistant rabbi at Washington Boulevard Temple in Chicago (which later became Oak Park Temple). He officiated with Rabbi Samuel Schwartz at my Confirmation in 1941. After Pearl Harbor he became an Army Chaplain, and did not return to our congregation. He was a very dear warm person and along with Bernie and Phil Sang gave me a strong background and commitment to volunteer in the Youth Group, Sisterhood and congregation.

    Last time I spoke with him was after an address he gave here in Seattle. He said he couldn’t go anywhere without meeting WBT

    Saludos to his blessed memory.

  24. avatar

    His memory shall be for a blessing. His gifts enriched us all.

  25. avatar

    When PARDeS, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, met in Toronto in May 1999, we were welcomed to Holy Blossom for dinner and study with Rabbi Plaut. It was a memorable experience, one that I treasure. It was a privilege to learn from him. And each time we open a volume of a Plaut commentary, he continues to teach us.

    Harriet Zoller

  26. Audrey Merwin

    Those of us who work on 10 Minutes of Torah rely on Rabbi Plaut’s (z”l) teaching, scholarship, and editing on a daily basis. Through his legacy, we’ll be fortunate to continue learning from him for years to come as we go through the Torah cycle.

  27. avatar

    Our hearts are filled with sorrow.
    Our movement has lost a sage.
    Iris and I have lost a colleague from Plaut Manor in Toronto- our teacher of Torah and a great friend to each of us. We are comforted by the wonderful times that we shared.
    -Iris and Paul Vanek

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