W. Gunther Plaut Nov. 1, 1912 -- Feb. 8, 2012 Rabbi and Scholar Whose Torah Helped Define Reform Judaism

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W. Gunther Plaut, a rabbi whose vast, scholarly and ardently contemporary edition of the Torah has helped define Reform Judaism in late-20th-century North America, died last Wednesday in Toronto. He was 99.

His son, Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut, confirmed the death, saying that his father had been ill with Alzheimer's disease for nearly a decade.

At his death, the elder Rabbi Plaut was the senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, where he had served as senior rabbi from 1961 to 1977.

One of the most prominent rabbis in the world, Rabbi Plaut (the name rhymes with shout) wrote more than 20 books on Jewish theology, history and culture.

He was best known for "The Torah: A Modern Commentary," his magnum opus, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), the umbrella organization for Reform Jewish congregations in North America.

First published as a single volume in 1981 and issued in a revised edition in 2005, Rabbi Plaut's Torah has become a touchstone for Judaism's liberal branches.

While Jews have long studied the Torah -- the first section of the Hebrew Bible -- with the aid of rabbinic commentaries, none like his had ever before appeared.

"God is not the author of the text," Rabbi Plaut wrote in the volume's introduction, "the people are; but God's voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds."

The Plaut Torah has sold nearly 120,000 copies, according to its publisher. It is used today in many Reform synagogues, as well as in some Conservative and Reconstructionist ones, throughout the United States and Canada.

"This is the first non-Orthodox full commentary on the Torah published in English for congregational use," Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, a senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said.

Before the Plaut Torah, the commentary most widely used in North American synagogues across the Jewish spectrum was by Joseph H. Hertz, the chief rabbi of Britain.

Published in the 1920s and '30s, Hertz's commentary was written from the Orthodox perspective, and as such it considered the Torah the word of God, given to Moses at Mount Sinai.

The Hertz Torah "represents a point of view that is now unacceptable to many," Rabbi Plaut told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1981.

He continued: "Furthermore, it was written at a time of growing anti-Semitism when Hitler was coming to power, and so it is highly apologetic. Its language is magnificent, but Jews today are entitled to be given insights that go beyond the traditional."

Rabbi Plaut's Torah, the first edition to be produced in the New World, spans nearly 1,800 pages and took more than a decade to prepare. Even its cover gives quiet but unmistakable evidence of its unorthodox intent: The 1981 edition opens from left to right, like a conventional English book, instead from right to left, as traditional volumes of Hebrew Scripture do. …