Rabbi Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, and the Union



by Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber

On February 9th, the 16th of Sh’vat, the Reform Movement and the entire Jewish community was diminished by one of the g’dolei hador—one of the giants of his generation, Rabbi Gunther Plaut.  His story is the stuff of legend, a brand plucked form the fire of Nazi Europe, who grew to become a teacher of Torah par excellence, and whose wisdom most recently became available to the Russian Jewish community. Rabbi Plaut has justly been acclaimed as a teacher and scholar, a friend, a lover of tennis, a leader of the Jewish and general community, a renaissance man who was deeply devoted to his family. He possessed a remarkably quick wit and a gift for exquisite timing. Once when a young child asked him if he wrote the Torah, he paused as if to contemplate the question. Rabbi Plaut’s extraordinary legacy is crowned by his work (with the exception of Leviticus) entitled The Torah: A Modern Commentary. May we find profound meaning and comfort in knowing that our lives have been enriched because in essence all of us are students of Rabbi Gunther Plaut, z’’l.

Today’s 10 Minutes of Torah is dedicated to his memory and his teachings, as we share his own words about The Torah: A Modern Commentary.

From the Preface to the First Edition (5741/1981)

Seventeen years have passed since this commentary was first conceived. Its publication in complete form comes, alas, only after my co-worker in this enterprise, Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, has been taken to his eternal reward. He was a superior scholar, a teacher par excellence, a liberal to the core. His great Commentary on Leviticus (published separately before his death) stands, in more ways than one, at the center of this volume.

Our work reflects a liberal point of view. This is at once obvious in the occasional divergencies of opinion that exist between the comments on Leviticus and those on the rest of the Pentateuch. These differences have been left standing side by side, without any attempt to reconcile them. We would like to think that, in the spirit of the traditional phrase, both opinions reflect the search after the living God.

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page vii.

From the General Introduction to the Torah

This commentary proceeds from the assumption that the Torah is a book which had its origin in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people……

Does God have anything to do with the Torah? While God is not the author of the Torah in the fundamental sense, the Torah is a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God. This understanding has varied over the centuries as have human experiences. 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. These stand side by side in the book and tell us of our ancestors’ changing and developing beliefs. 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.

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page xviii.

From “I Never Thought: Growing old exacts a price. But aging is also a privilege,” Reform Judaism Fall 1999, pages 43-44

Another aspect of my daily labors tipped the scales of decision. Since 1964 I had been working on my life’s major scholarly enterprise, a commentary on the Torah to be published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. I was to write part of it and edit the whole. I had published the first volume to much public acclaim, and the rest of the project was well looked after—at least so it appeared. But serious setbacks occurred: the committee that oversaw the publications rejected the manuscript of one author; another indicated he could not proceed, and then—after I had personally assumed their assignments—lightning struck. The rabbinic scholar and friend who had begun labor on the last of the five books suddenly died. The whole enterprise threatened to grind to a halt, just when my own life had entered a difficult period. The work I considered the major goal of my literary and scholarly efforts was in danger of disappearing below the horizon of my hopes.

A difficult choice lay before me: I could continue as a congregational rabbi and turn the Torah commentary project back to the Union, or retire and devote myself entirely to its completion. My wife and I explored the choices at great length: what would it mean to us as a family, the impact on our finances, and the like. We concluded that completing the commentary was more important than completing another few years as rabbi of Holy Blossom, though it was by general consensus one of the best posts of its kind anywhere. Once the decision was made, we were greatly relieved and knew instinctively that we had done the right thing. The congregation was generous and made the transition as easy as it could, even continuing my employment on a minimal scale.

When the burdens of responsibility were lifted, I felt as it youth was paying me another visit.

Excerpt from the Introduction to Rabbi Plaut’s commentary on Parashat Mishpatim (pages 562-563)

The chapters now under consideration give the appearance of a self-contained code of laws. After a brief prelude this collection presents civil and criminal law, turns to cultic provisions, and ends with a description of how the covenant was concluded (chapter 24). Because of this last portion the whole section is referred to as the “Book of the Covenant” (Sefer Ha-Brit) and it is so called in 24:7. Many scholars have concluded that this code was originally a separate book which was later joined with and incorporated into the story of “Revelation and Commandment” which forms the section immediately preceding. However, there is wide divergence of opinion as to the age of this code and the place of its origin.

Much depends on how one views the relationship of the code to the laws of the ancient Near East, of which we now have extensive knowledge. There can be no question that a number of these laws were familiar to Israelite society, whether by way of patriarchal traditions which had been formed the Mesopotamian past, or indirectly through the practices of nations with whom the Israelites came into intimate contact (especially the Canaanites after the conquest of the land). The codes that have the greatest number of similarities with the Torah are the laws of the kingdom of Eshnunna and of Babylon, both composed in Akkadian in the “Old Babylonian” period, the former by an unidentified king, the later by the famous Hammurabi. However, we do not know nor may we ever know the full extent of the relationships, and neither do we know the role that Moses had in shaping the Torah laws, and especially those which have a particular religious cast. In subsequent Jewish tradition the code consists of devarim (“words”) and mishpatim (“rules” or “laws” or “ordinances”) became the core if the Jewish legal system.

Finally, in studying the code one should always keep in mind that it derived its authority not from Moses but was traced to God’s will. That means that Israel considered it to be at heart a religious document and thus essentially different from the legal systems of the age. In the words of Abba Hillel Silver, the “laws did not rest on custom but on divine authority. They were dogma and were based on revelation. There were man-made laws and there were traditional habits and usages of community life which are hardened into law. Both are responsive to the changing needs of man, and when they are just and long established, they come to be regarded as divinely sanctioned. But the ideals and the ultimate moral standards are conceived as having been revealed to man. They are given him by his Creator. They do not change. They do not ratify long-established tribal customs and time-honored practices. They proclaim that which should be done now and for all future time.

May Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s memory be a blessing as we continue to learn from his wisdom and words of Torah.

Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber is adult learning specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.

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