On any given Shabbat morning, anywhere from a dozen to three dozen members of this community (and some interested non-members) gather for Torah study. Most do it “religiously”, building it into their weekend schedules as a not-to-be-missed part of their week and/or their experience of Shabbat.
I have led Torah study in our congregation for the past twenty-two years. Over the course of that time I have cycled through the Torah at least four times, either portion-by-portion or verse-by-verse. One might think that I’d get tired of doing so. The truth is, I have always looked forward to Torah Study with our “regulars”, some of whom are seasonal attendees, some of whom have departed for Torah Study experiences elsewhere and some who have simply departed this life (and who may yet be studying Torah...who knows?!)
One constant through the decades has been the Torah commentary we have used: The Torah: A Modern Commentary whose General Editor and Chief Author was Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut (z”l) This marvelous compendium of erudite scholarship, critical essays, and helpful footnotes served a great need for a modern, liberal Torah commentary when it was first published around 1980. It sources draw from a variety of academic disciplines: biblical criticism, archeology, psychology, anthropology, physical sciences, etc. A revised edition, published within the past few years, has allowed this marvelous guide to Torah to remain vital and informative.
Rabbi Plaut died on February 8 at the age of ninety-nine. In his memory, and in deep appreciation for his intellect and energy that led to the creation of The Torah: A Modern Commentary, I want to share the following insights into his life written by Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion:
“Rabbi Plaut was an unparalleled scholar, leader, and rabbi of our Reform Movement and our People. HUC-JIR will be forever blessed that it had the zechut to bring him from Germany to our Cincinnati campus during the 1930s and save him from destruction during the Shoah.
Born in Germany, he studied at the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin, and received the LLB (1933) Doctor of Laws (1934) from the University of Berlin. He fled from Hitler in 1935 for the United States, and found a safe haven at our Cincinnati campus, where he was ordained in 1939. He served as a chaplain with the Infantry during World War II, was present at the capture of the first concentration camp in Germany, and was decorated with the Bronze Star.
Rabbi Plaut served as a rabbi in Chicago, St. Paul, and, from 1961 on, at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He retired from his post as Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in 1978 and was appointed its Senior Scholar.
He published over two dozen books on theology, philosophy, and history, as well as works of fiction. His best known work is The Torah -- A Modern Commentary, of which he was editor and chief author.
Known as an uncompromising enemy of all manifestations of racism, he was the founder of Toronto's Urban Alliance on Race Relations; a founding member of the North York (Toronto) Committee on Community, Race and Ethnic Relations, and he served as a one-person federal commission to redraft Canada's refugee legislation (1984-85). From 1978 to 1985, he served as Vice-Chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and upon leaving the Commission served for a number of years as a Board of Inquiry (Adjudicator). All of his decisions have been published.
A leader in the Jewish and larger community, he served as the President of the Canadian Jewish Congress, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Chairman of the Toronto Jewish Appeal.
Rabbi Plaut served on the HUC-JIR Board of Governors and was honored by HUC-JIR with the Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, in 1964, and the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, in 2003. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, York University, and McMaster University. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada and received the Order of Canada Award, the highest award given by the Canadian government.
In his scholarship, congregational calling, and his life, we will not see his like again. Baruch dayan emet.”
Tomorrow morning, as we begin our Shabbat encounter with Torah, we will pause to honor the life and the contributions of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut.