Tribute to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

Rabbi W. Gunther PlautWhen we look at Rabbi Plaut’s influence on the greater Reform Movement, it seems to me that there are two areas of accomplishment that deserve special mention.

The first, not often discussed but of great importance, is his remarkable courage.

As a spokesman for Jewish values and tradition, Gunther Plaut was usually ahead of the pack.  He said things that others did not want to hear, or were not ready to hear.  He articulated unpopular beliefs, and he fought for those beliefs.  But Gunther knew no other way.  He spoke the truth as he say it, with no apologies and no excuses, but always in a voice uplifted by faith and by hope for the ultimate redemption of the world.

For example:  when the Reform rabbinate was caught up in an intense debate on the question of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages, Gunther spoke up strongly against, at a moment when others thought the issue too heated to even engage; at a time when the erev Shabbat service was the centerpiece of Shabbat worship for the Reform Movement, Gunther asserted that Shabbat morning worship was no less important, if not more important, than Friday night worship, and he challenged his colleagues to rethink their approach to Shabbat prayer; and at a time when the word mitzvah  was rarely uttered in Reform circles, he insisted on its use, and he applied it in particular to Shabbat observance, which – he reminded us – involved positive and negative commandments and not simply rest and relaxation.

Gunther paid a price for his courage.  Indeed, many of the honors that eventually came to him during his long career might have come to him much earlier were it not for his outspokenness.  But his honesty and determination enriched us and enriched our movement in ways that we cannot fully appreciate or fully measure.

The other accomplishment that I would mention tonight is, of course, his authorship of the URJ’s modern commentary on the Torah.

In writing this book, Rabbi Plaut did far more than simply write a book.  He laid the foundation for the return to Torah that is now so central a theme of Reform Judaism.

For much of the last century, Jewish education in North America was what Bertrand Russell called “knowledge by description,” or what one Jewish educator termed “aboutism.”  Members would come to the synagogue on Tuesday night or Thursday night, and someone would stand in the lecture hall and talk about Torah, or about the prophets, or about the psalms, or about Jewish belief or liturgy.  The problem is that this is not what our tradition means by Jewish learning.  Jewish learning is about a Jew grappling with the text, confronting a text, arguing with a text directly; it is not what somebody else tells me, but what I see and experience for myself.  And, above all, Jewish learning is democratic:  a central principle of Judaism is that Torah belongs to everybody, and that every Jew – not just yeshiva bochers, not just the intelligentsia – has an obligation to study the text himself or herself.

For Reform Judaism to reaffirm this principle, however, it meant that we would have to produce a modern commentary that would make Torah accessible to the general membership.  The apologetic, outdated commentaries then in existence would have to be replaced by something both authentically Jewish and suited to modern sensibilities.

And whom would we find to write such a commentary?  The assumption was that we would find a university professor.  After all rabbis are busy people, pulled in 100 directions by communal responsibilities and administrative tasks.  Surely it was not possible to take the rabbi of a large congregation who could both succeed in his congregational responsibilities and find the time to produce such a monumental work!  But there was such a rabbi—Gunther Plaut.  And the result was a superb volume, hailed by lay leaders and scholars alike, that succeeded in doing exactly what it was intended to do:  it brought Torah to the people, making it once again the inheritance of every Jew.  And not at all incidentally, in doing what he did, Gunther served as an inspiration to the rabbinate; because whenever we rabbis are overwhelmed by trivia and Torah is taking a back seat to committees, his example of dedication to study reminds us that our legitimacy as rabbis is rooted in Jewish learning and piety, and unless our other activities build on that, they have no value.

It says in the Sifre:

“One’s teacher should be seen as one’s father.”

Because Rabbi Plaut, in a very real way, has been the teacher of the Reform Movement, he should also be seen as father to our movement, indeed as father to us all.  We mourn him now, and extend deepest condolences to every member of his family.


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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

7 Responses to “Tribute to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut”

  1. avatar

    Rabbi Gunther Plaut (zt”l) Comes to Greensboro

    Rabbi Gunther Plaut zt”l, one of the greatest and most scholarly rabbis of the twentieth century, died today. He was ninety nine years old. Among other things, Gunther will be remembered for his incredible commentary on the Torah, a commentary which is still used to this day by many liberal Jews.

    I think that it was in 2003 that Gunther Plaut posted on Ravkav that he was aggravated that he had aged out of being asked his opinion about anything. I could really feel his pain. Here you had one of the most brilliant rabbis of his generation who had already outlived most of his peers and who felt he was being ignored!

    So I wrote him an email. I told him that I was really short on money, but that our congregation would really like to learn from him. I made a proposal that he should come here. He would preach on Friday night, teach Torah study on Saturday morning and do a study session on Saturday afternoon. I mentioned to him that I would like for him to share his early biography with us and his service to our country in World War II. I offered him an absurd amount as an honorarium. I think it was only around $500 plus expenses. I was not trying to exploit him. We really did not have the money!

    To my shock and delight, he accepted and asked me to call him. I called him. He sounded completely normal, but he asked me if it was acceptable that he be accompanied by a “lady companion.” Actually, I thought that it was cute. Gunther was forty years older than me. He was at that time over ninety years old.

    I guess he told his son Jonathan about our deal. Shortly thereafter, I got a call from Jonathan. Jonathan asked me if I knew that his dad was suffering from the onset of dementia. I said that I did not and asked Jonathan if this was a good idea. Jonathan said that it was a good idea as long as I knew what we were getting into. I asked him for advice and he said that some of the time, his dad needs to be verbally nudged by a comment or a question. He felt that Gunther’s ability to do a straight lecture was not good.

    Understanding these limitations, I accepted.

    Gunther’s lady friend was none other than Janice (or Janine?) Rothschild who had been married to Jacob Mortimer Rothschild (1022-1973), the esteemed rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta. He had been a passionate advocate for Civil Rights and had been the rabbi at The Temple when it was bombed in 1958.

    Janice took great care of Gunther and did so in a most loving way. It was clear to all that he absolutely adored her and loved being with her.

    Gunther read something at services on Friday night and did fine.

    On Saturday morning at Torah study, I immediately understood what Jonathan was trying to tell me. Gunther really could not teach this class. However, if I asked him a question or to interpret a particular verse, out from someplace in the depths of his mind came incredible pearls of wisdom! I became a “Barbara Walters” character, interviewing Gunther about the Torah portion.

    The reaction of the lay students was wonderful. The Torah study session was a smashing success!

    All of them came back in the afternoon for the Seudah Shelishit and Havdalah. I continued the interview style and we quickly began to learn all about his early life and his war experiences.

    In April of 1945, he was part of the group which liberated Nordhausen. According to Gunther, he found numerous bodies which were in need of a Jewish burial. He went to his commanding officer and asked for permission to force the people of the town to bury the dead. The commanding officer said to Gunther that he had the full force of the US Army behind him in this task.

    Later that afternoon according to Gunther, he went to the mayor of the town and told him what needed to be done. The mayor replied that such a task was “inhumane,” by which he meant “gross and disgusting” for the people who would be doing the burials. Many of these bodies were badly decayed and the stench was horrible.

    Gunther then said to us something amazing. He told us that he pulled a pistol on the mayor, held it to his head and told him that if every able bodied man from the town was not at the town square at 8 am the next day, he (Gunther) would hunt him down like he dog that he (the mayor) was and he (Gunther) would put a bullet in his head.

    People’s mouth dropped in shock! I remember feeling so much love and respect for him at that moment. I had never spent any time with him before that weekend and this could very well been the last time he was a visiting scholar. I am not sure.

    Gunther went on to tell us of the incredible thirst that the survivors had for Jewish religious items. In his opinion, they seemed to want these items more than they wanted food!

    Our congregation loved that weekend with Gunther. He brought to us even at his advanced age and slightly limited mental capacity a sense not of only of his brilliance, but also of his humanity. I realized that I could never be as brilliant as Gunther, but I hoped that in some way, I could strive to be as dedicated to the Jewish people as Gunther was. He was at that moment both an inspiration and a role model for me!

    That seems like a long time ago. I once learned that when a soul leaves a body in which it has been severely limited, it recreates emotionally the joy that the Jewish people felt upon our liberation from Egypt. Gunther’s holy neshamah has now experienced its liberation!

    This week at the end of Torah study, we will say Kaddish for Gunther. Many in that group still remember our time with him.

    May his memory continue to be an inspiration and a blessing. Zecher Tzaddik levracha!

    • avatar

      Hi Fred,
      This is quite story. After reading your wonderful tale above…the part about the putting the pistol to the mayor’s head didn’t quite sit right with me. I checked with other family members and we have never heard this addition before. Not really in context to who he was and wondering if his aging mental issues were at play here. Regardless, we appreciate your sharing this piece of ‘Plaut commentary’ and family folklore with us.

  2. avatar

    Rabbi Plaut was truly one of the shining stars of our Reform movement and of the Jewish community in Canada. His wisdom will be missed.

  3. avatar

    I was pastor at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in Memphis from 1995 to 2002. During those years, there were many occasions when Rabbi Micah Greenstein and the Congregation of Temple Israel hosted events for Memphis clergy. Always a wonderful occasion with imp. Always, stimulating issues, discussions…

    I also purchased there in your Synagogue Book Store Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s commentary: The Torah: A Modern Commentary. I used it often, particularly when I was preparing sermons where texts were drawn from the five books of Moses.

    Now retired, I have but wonderful memories of our joint ministries to the Memphis community.

    Please remind Rabbi Greenstein of my debt to you for such warm memories of our time in Memphis.

  4. avatar

    Rabbi Plaut was my Rabbi for many years and he had tremendous impact on my life. He made history real. My faith was sealed because of this special man. I had the pleasure of having bible study with him for some weeks. Although I felt rather jaded at the tender age of 16, I would rush to that study group. I must say I adored that time spent in his presence. I often think of him. I am sure I am not alone.

  5. avatar

    I met then chaplain Plaut when he was in the US Army in September 1942 in Verviers, Belgium. I was then a twelve years old jewish child who had emerged from hiding during the German occupation of Belgium, Subseqyently, Tabbi Plaut arranged a jewish group to send me a “care”package to Belgium, I have never forgotten that gesture even now that I am 79 years old. I moderate the worldwide yahoo! group, Remember_The_Holocaust.

  6. avatar

    Errata: It was in September 1944 that i met chaplain Plaut. I had gone in hiding in l942.So here we go :I met then chaplain Plaut when he was in the US Army in September 1944 in Verviers, Belgium. I was then a twelve years old jewish child who had emerged from hiding during the German occupation of Belgium, Subseqyently, Tabbi Plaut arranged a jewish group to send me a “care”package to Belgium, I have never forgotten that gesture even now that I am 79 years old. I moderate the worldwide yahoo! group, Remember_The_Holocaust.

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