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
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,
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
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. …