Tribute to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut
When 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.