Our Senior Scholar Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, Senior Rabbi at Holy Blossom from 1961 to 1977, has died at age 99. Rabbi Plaut is predeceased by his wife Elisabeth, by his parents Jonas & Selma Plaut, and his brother Rabbi Walter Plaut. His survivors are his children, Judith Plaut and Rabbi Jonathan V. & Carol Plaut; his grandchildren, Daniel and Amy Plaut, Deborah and David Elias; his great grandson, Steven Elias.
The funeral for Rabbi Plaut will be on Sunday, February 12th at 11 a.m. at Holy Blossom Temple.
When Rabbi Plaut turned 90, along with Natalie Fingerhut, I organized a book of essays in his honour, A Rabbi of Words and Deeds (2002). I wrote the following introduction to the book:
In the mid-1980s, while attending a rabbinic conference inPalm Springs, I found myself in a doubles tennis match. My partner, a friend from seminary days, was a very good tennis player. Opposing us were a scholar from Brandeis Universityand the then President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis — both men older than us by decades. This looked easy.
However, things did not go as expected. Then they got worse. I wasn’t playing badly, but my friend was. He made mistake after mistake and was way off his game. Finally I said to him, “What’s wrong? I’ve never seen -you play like this.” My friend looked at me and said, “That may be so, but I’ve never been face to face with the man who wrote the Torah!”
I knew what cowed this now distinguished rabbi. We flinched a bit, both of us, in the presence of someone we admired greatly, even as he beat us badly that day with guile and smarts. For here was a rabbinic model we had rarely encountered, one who valued Torah not for rhetorical reasons, but for intrinsic ones. A scholar and congregational rabbi who, in exhorting other rabbis to study, spoke from a record of distinguished learning, a rabbi who was willing to caution, and even chastise, his colleagues that authenticity as a rabbi did not come from charisma or calculation, but from knowledge of Torah alone.
Oh, and did he lecture us. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut stood before some 200 Reform rabbis from the Western United States and told us that learning was not sufficiently at our centre, and that neither social action nor nice lifecycle events — and certainly not bonhomie — was a rabbi’s calling card. I noticed that he didn’t seem to care overly much about what his colleagues thought of him.
I was galvanized. Long hungry to know this kind of Reform rabbi, I understood I was watching someone serious: a rabbi who lived both in the broader world and among Jews; whose inner world was sustained by learning; who brought the ideas and the intellectual verve of the academy to the congregation; a rabbi who knew what he was talking about and was prepared to stand by it. Here was a rabbi who appeared willing to sacrifice social nicety for truth when necessary.
I had not come across this kind of rabbinic figure before. I was moved by his substance and his style, his call to learning. His voice sounded older, more constructed by the past, than any I had heard before. It was seemingly unmarked byAmerica’s relentless secularity, yet, given what I had heard of his history, strangely unaccented. Who knew that within a couple of years I would find my study next to his — in the synagogue he once led and now still represents admirably?
Arriving in Toronto in 1987, I discovered that Rabbi Plaut didn’t remember our tennis game in Palm Springs. He did however remember his talk to our colleagues: “They didn’t like what I had to say, did they?”
I have continued to watch Rabbi Plaut closely over these past fifteen years. And I have listened to him carefully during our many informal conversations, usually about the very matters he brought up in Palm Springs: the all-too-often wanting state of Reform Judaism, the requirement of rabbis to learn and to read, matters of Klal Yisrael, and the irrevocable centrality of the State of Israel to Judaism— as well as to Jews.
My knowledge of Gunther Plaut, while not as lengthy as others yet at closer quarters than most, has put me within his wide circle of admirers. So as Rabbi Plaut turns 90, I wanted to give back in a small way. Hence this book: an expression of respect and affection for a man whose unique career has spanned decades and whose impact is likely to be felt for years to come.
Each contributor to this book shares this affection and respect. And each of our contributions is driven by a question that, while never discussed, is common to all: why exactly has Rabbi W. Gunther Plant been a success? What has allowed him to be, at one and the same time, the Senior Rabbi of one of the pre-eminent congregations on the continent, a leading rabbinic figure on the international scene, a major communal figure in Toronto, an advisor on refugee law and human rights to the Canadian government, and the author of arguably the most important Torah Commentary of the 20th century — and much more?
Let me suggest three reasons for Rabbi Plaut’s success over the years
The first reason has to do with the world he left behind, yet managed to bring with him to these shores. Gunther Plaut emerged from a world that valued knowledge and classical learning, aEuropethat cultivated an informed and literate citizenry. When he leftBerlinat age 22, he did so with a law degree in hand, and a head full of learning. Raised in a home with books at its centre, he was imbued with the ideas in them.
Though a product of liberal Berlin, he was hardly bereft of Judaism when he arrived inAmerica. Shabbat, Kashrut and Yom Tov were staples in the Plant home. In Albeck, Heschel, Bamburger and Baeck, he had been exposed to some of the great Jewish thinkers and scholars of the 20th century. And so while Gunther Plaut’s Jewish learning was not yet deep, his intellectual foundation was solid and he had learned how to learn. That foundation provided him with a sense of place, even as he prepared to move half a world away. He was already first a Jew.
This identification with his people provided Gunther Plaut with a point of view that would not waver, even inAmerica. “I did not accept tradition as immutable, but neither was I prepared to overlook it or discard it as irrelevant or nearly so.” (Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal, “Reform Judaism: Past, Present and Future,” 1980, p. 4.) This intellectual position was also an existential one: Gunther Plaut was steadfastly a Jew, even as the winds of change had begun to gather. The idea of honouring both past and present was also integral to Gunther Plaut’s specific milieu: the great world of 19th and early 20th century Jewish Berlin, a world rich in learning, liberalism and literacy. It was here, too, that Gunther Plaut’s lifelong habits of discipline and productivity were honed.
The second reason for Rabbi Plant’s success is more elusive than his European background, yet no less salient a factor: a remarkably adaptive personality that, nonetheless, does not readily brook compromise with principle.
This personal flexibility within a rather steadily built life meant that Gunther Plaut became an acculturated and patriotic American, and then a deeply appreciative Canadian— both without losing his European sensibility or his loyalty to either of his host countries. This apparent dichotomy is at the heart of his unique relationships to the countries and lands that shaped him — and which have been, in a small way, shaped by him.
On the one hand, he is a European through and through. Particularly a 20th century Middle-European Jew, with the appropriate distrust of the political extremes that ravagedEurope. And as a European, he well understands the uniquely European notion of the relationship between community and society: one’s intimacy with community allows one to be part of the larger society. Few have used the platform of their own community to serve the society as well as Gunther Plaut.
On the other hand, he is an acculturated North American. Knowing, as linguists tell us, that a foreign accent is normally retained upon arrival in a new country only after age 13, I was fascinated the first time I heard Rabbi Plaut speak. Here was a man who came to America from Germany at age 22, who had, nonetheless, only retained the broad outlines of his accent —which even then is not easily identifiable as German. He tells us in his memoirs that he worked hard to lose that accent in those early days. He sought to accommodate himself toAmerica, so important was the need to be accepted in his new country.
But it is more than that, of course. What may be an aspect of personality — the wish for acceptance — is also a matter of being a refugee from a certain time and place.
I understood what I believe is both — a desire for acceptance and a distrust of political extremism — when he remarked to me in the midst of the 1988 Canadian federal elections, “Given that as a man of the community I normally keep my personal politics somewhat private, I bet you haven’t a clue as to how I will vote.” I said, “Of course I know exactly how you will vote.” I told him and he looked at me utterly surprised. “How did you know? !”
I didn’t tell him all that I knew from watching and listening closely: that a man of his past and place might be spurred to reconcile differing views and be inclined toward a particular temperament for adjudication — and would therefore prefer the party in the middle. The rational and elegant culture of fin de siècleBerlin, and the poisonous passions that spewed forth fromGermanyafter the First World War, have together remained in the shadows of Rabbi Plaut’s life. They have modulated his views, providing him with fixed principles and personal flexibility to work for civility, an ordered society for all citizens, and a distinct place within it for the Jews.
The third reason for Rabbi Plant’s success is the most compelling. Given his teacher Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus’s admonishment to him upon leaving Rabbinical School, “You are quite unprepared to lead an American congregation” — we might wonder how he managed to overcome his illustrious professor’s doubts and exceed all expectations. After all, Rabbi Plaut was a greenhorn: his accent in those days was still thick, his grasp of the English language, while extensive, was still awkward, his mannerisms a bit foreign and rough around the edges.
What then made the difference? Rabbi Plaut’s success in those early years, as well as later is owed overwhelmingly to Elizabeth Strauss Plaut. Her no-nonsense common sense, her humour, her acute sensitivity to pretence, and her love made a scholar also a mensch, a foreigner a native — and most importantly, a rabbi of the word also a rabbi of the deed.
As Gunther Plaut’s anchor,Elizabethwas the one who in the early days, when adulation grew too great, would remind him not to be taken in by it all. Her ambitions were not for his fame, but rather for his satisfaction and for that of the people he served. Anyone who has watched Gunther Plaut around Elizabeth knows her as the private ballast for this public man. Though ill these past three years, she remains his inspiration, and his success is still shared by two.
This book has three components. The first is a selection of Rabbi Plaut’s papers from the past number of years that deserve wider circulation. The second section contains essays by people intimately familiar with different aspects of his rabbinate, particularly inCanada. Finally, the book concludes with a series of personal reflections by a few of the many that Rabbi Plant has influenced over the years.
Natalie Fingerhut helped to conceive this book and made it better at each of its stages. Thanks are also due to our contributors, and to those who helped to finance it. Special thanks to Tania Blumenthal, who did much of the behind-the-scenes work, and also to Dr. Adam Sol, Rabbi Yael Splansky, Judy Nyman, Sheila Smolkin and Gary Posen for their assistance. Each and all share in the affection and respect for Rabbi W Gunther Plant.
Finally, while I cannot say that Rabbi W Gunther Plaut dramatically shaped my own views –they were in place when he and I became office neighbours 15 years ago — I can say that he motivated me to speak them differently from before, more clearly and passionately, and without fear of consequence.
Not necessarily alike in past or personality, Gunther Plaut and I are very much kindred spirits in values. My own values — of community taking precedence over the individual, of the requirement to read and to learn, my love for Israel, and my deep belief that Judaism is serious business and nothing else — have been reinforced by observing and listening to this unique rabbi. If I say more clearly and passionately what I believe today, it is in part because of Gunther Plant. Because my own rabbinate is different, better than it would have been otherwise, I stand in awe and gratitude as one of many who salute Rabbi W Gunther Plaut now as he turns 90.