With the death last week in Toronto of Rabbi Dr. W. Gunther Plaut, the North American Jewish community has lost one of its G’dolei Hador, an intellectual and spiritual giant, a brilliant and unparalleled scholar. The New York Times referred to him as “one of the most prominent rabbis in the world.” It was not an exaggeration.
Born in Germany in 1912, Plaut was a graduate of the Universities of Heidelberg and Berlin, earning LLB and Doctor of Laws degrees. He fled from Adolf Hitler’s Germany to the United States in 1935, and entered the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1939.
He served as a U.S. Army chaplain with the 104th Infantry in Germany during World War II, and was present at the capture of the first Nazi concentration camp. He received a Bronze Star.
After serving in congregations in Chicago and St. Paul, Plaut was elected senior rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, where he served until 1978 when he was appointed its senior scholar.
As an uncompromising enemy of all forms of racism, he was the founder of Toronto’s Urban Alliance for Race Relations,. and over the years served as vice chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, among other civil rights organizations and agencies.
As a leader in the Jewish and larger community, he served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Toronto Committee on Community, Race, and Ethnic Relations. He served as a one-person federal commission to redraft Canada’s refugee legislation. He chaired the Toronto Jewish Appeal for a time. He received the Order of Canada, the highest award given by the Canadian government.
He also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and as a member of the Board of Governors of his alma mater, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which honored him with the honorary degrees of Doctor of Divinity and Doctor of Humane Letters.
As a scholar, he published more than two dozen books on theology, philosophy, and history, as well as several works of fiction. His most well-known and major scholarly contribution was as editor and primary author of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” the first liberal commentary on the Torah, published initially in 1981. In this field, he was a pioneer, opening the doors of multiple contemporary interpretations of our sacred Jewish texts.
In his nonpublic life, Plaut was a mentor to younger rabbis who sought out his counsel and found in him an attentive listener who guided with understanding and sensitivity.
At rabbinic meetings, colleagues sought room at his table to share and learn from his insights into human nature and the spiritual needs of contemporary Jews.
He was also an avid and accomplished tennis player. He competed as a young man for Germany in at least one pre-Hitler-era Maccabiah. It is a sport he continued to play and enjoy late into his life. Even when he was already in his 80s, he would seek out younger colleagues to play a few sets; not many could prevail. He loved the sport and the competition, and he loved the challenge.
In his more personal life, his wife was smitten with Alzheimer’s disease and eventually was hospitalized. Gunther went to visit with her every day. At a meeting of Retired Reform Rabbis, he shared with us the pain of seeing his wife, who no longer knew him. He spoke, with deep emotion, about his fear that he might die before she would; and his concern about who would take over the tasks of taking care of her.
It was a theme that resounded deeply among colleagues, who in their own lives were/are wrestling with similar issues. He verbalized the unspoken concerns of all. When he finished there was, without exaggeration, not a dry eye in the room. In his later years, he still had the will and the determination to teach, not by text, but by deed and example. He was a true Rav B’yisrael, a Gadol Hador. He will be missed; there is none to occupy his place.