Skip navigation

Tuesday February 14, 2012

Scholar urged Jews to engage larger world

Identification with the struggles of others who endure prejudice led him to co-found Toronto's Urban Alliance on Race Relations

SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The world lost a veritable sage last Wednesday, when Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut died in Toronto at the age of 99. Spiritual leader, writer, human rights activist and among the pre-eminent Jewish scholars of his time, Plaut was Canada's rabbi, the unofficial leader of the country's Jewish community until Alzheimer's disease sidelined him about a decade ago.

In fact, he was one of the most prominent rabbis in the world, a New York Times obituary noted, pointing to his magnum opus, a commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). It was a mammoth work that, as the first liberal Torah commentary published in English for congregational use, has become the standard text in Reform synagogues around the world. The Plaut Commentary, as it is known, spans 1,800 pages, and has sold more than 120,000 copies.

A stalwart of Reform, or liberal Judaism, Plaut (rhymes with doubt) served as rabbi at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, the country's largest Reform synagogue, from 1961 to 1977, and thereafter as its senior scholar. While opening channels of dialogue with his Conservative and Orthodox counterparts, who if nothing else respected his intellect, he believed that Jews should free themselves of their insularity and parochialism and engage the larger world, or at least the struggles of those who also have also known prejudice.

That zeal drove him to co-found Toronto's Urban Alliance on Race Relations. From 1978 to 1985, he served as vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He was the first rabbi to become president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He wrote 25 books, including two novels, and an opera libretto. He received 19 honorary degrees. Inducted into the Order of Canada in 1978, he was promoted to Companion in 1999.

But he never forgot the ego-checking words of a feared but admired cousin back in the old country. "You got everything going for you except that you are intolerably arrogant," cousin Leo told him. "You think you know it all and you are so impressed with yourself that it makes me sick."

Plaut remembered the words verbatim, and they kept him modest. Leo "did a lot for me," he wrote in his autobiography, Unfinished Business.

Wolf Guenter Plaut was born Nov. 1, 1912 in Münster, Germany to Selma Gumprich and Jonas Plaut, a teacher and school headmaster. Plaut often told the story of an anti-Semitic bully, Schultz, who tormented him at school. Each day, Schultz would face young Gunther and smack him squarely across the mouth. This was accompanied by the ritual exclamation, "that's yours for the day, shitty kike."

Plaut attended law school in Berlin and watched Adolf Hitler rise to power. He graduated in 1934 but, as a Jew, could not practise law. So he began studying Jewish theology. "I wanted to know what it truly meant to be a Jew if I was made to suffer for it," he said in a 1998 interview.

The following year, he accepted a scholarship to study for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. "Torah grabbed me," he later said, and he was ordained in 1939. He took a pulpit in Chicago and only hours after receiving American citizenship in 1943, he signed up to become an Army chaplain.

Assigned to the 104th Infantry's "Timberwolf" Division, he assisted in the Allied liberation of the Nordhausen-Dora concentration camp in Germany. Plaut was heartened to learn that Jewish survivors yearned for religious articles more than for food, but the sight of the camp "was something altogether different."

Put in charge of burying piles of decomposing corpses, the young chaplain insisted that local residents, who pleaded ignorance of the camp's existence, pitch in. "We did not have enough spades to do the work," Plaut wrote later, "but in my anger - now turning towards revenge - I told the burghers to use the knives, spoons and forks from their homes. I ordered the women to come out and wash the bodies. "

Awarded a Bronze Star and back stateside, he took a pulpit in St. Paul, Minn., where he befriended two future U.S. vice-presidents, both Minnesotans: Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Told of Plaut's age when he died, Mondale exclaimed, "Isn't that something? He made it to 99!"

The two were "old, dear friends," Jimmy Carter's vice-president told The Globe. "He was one of the giants here in the Twin Cities. He was a great ecumenical leader and a wonderful minister."

The Canadian Jewish community Plaut encountered in 1961 was slumbering. "When I first came, the Jews in Canada made their point by submitting petitions and submissions - a word I have always recoiled from," he told The Globe in 1997, on his 85 birthday. "In a democratic government you shouldn't submit. It was just at that particular time, the real impact of the [Holocaust] survivors was felt. They weren't afraid to march in the streets."

He took on all the epic battles of the day: the fight to free Soviet Jews, neo-Nazis in Canada, large-scale rallies and political persuasion to support Israel.

"There was a time," he said, "when I would give the word, and people would turn out by the tens of thousands."

Indeed, in October, 1971, bullhorn in hand, he led a crowd of 12,000 to the Soviet embassy in Ottawa to let visiting premier Alexei Kosygin hear the cry of "Let my people go!"

A staunch believer in free expression, Plaut felt that the opening in Toronto of an office of the Ku Klux Klan in 1980 could not be stopped. "We have to respect at all times the expression of free opinion," he said at the time. "When the expression crosses the line and becomes incitement to hatred, we have ways and means within the law to deal with it. [But] you can't ban attitudes, however repugnant."

In the mid-1980s, the one-time refugee headed a one-man commission to draft a policy on how Canada should deal with the thousands of refugees arriving annually. His report shaped the refugee-determination system that Canada has today. "On the whole, in comparison to others, it's not bad," he said in 1997. "In fact, it's quite good in many ways."

He also chaired a board of inquiry into whether Sikh children could wear their ceremonial dagger, or kirpan, to school. In 1990, he ruled kirpans did not present a danger, a decision upheld by courts. For his ruling, he received death threats.

It wasn't often he felt the need to defend his Reform camp from charges of inferiority, even illegitimacy from Orthodox Jews. "We have nothing to apologize for!" he once thundered before a meeting in Toronto of Reform rabbis from across North America.

But for all that, he was a traditionalist inside his own movement. When the Reform rabbinate was caught up in an intense debate on whether to officiate at marriages between Jews and gentiles, Plaut spoke up strongly against it "at a moment when others thought the issue too heated to even engage," wrote Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in his tribute to Plaut.

He even challenged fellow rabbis to rethink their approach to Sabbath prayer. At a time when Friday evening services were the centrepiece of the Sabbath service in the Reform movement, Plaut asserted that it was Saturday morning worship that was no less important, perhaps more so than Friday nights. His outspokenness had a price: Plaut was kept from the presidency of the Reform branch's Central Conference of American Rabbis until 1983.

Still, he believed that tradition was not immutable. Whereas more conservative Jews abjure all but study and prayer on the Jewish Sabbath, he believed you could play a relaxing game of tennis on a Saturday, for example, and still be right with God.

Plaut "was usually ahead of the pack," Yoffie wrote. "He said things that others did not want to hear, or were not ready to hear. He articulated unpopular beliefs, and he fought for those beliefs. But Gunther knew no other way."

What he could not abide, his son said, was the "passivity" of worshippers who sang the songs and recited the prayers while looking at their watches. "He thought this was not a future for Judaism or the Reform movement," said Jonathan Plaut, a rabbi in Jackson, Mich. "He saw Jews studying the Torah, and so he wrote his commentary to focus on the study of God's law. This has helped revitalize and refocus the Reform movement into the 21st century."

His son recalled a man of courtly, Mitteleuropean manners and values. With a formal bearing and clipped way of speaking, he could appear aloof. Even a joke was told "with all due seriousness," Jonathan eulogized last Sunday at his father's funeral.

The death in 2003 of Elizabeth, his wife of 64 years, afforded him the chance to reflect on whether God is vindictive. "I cannot believe she was singled out for such cruel retribution," he sermonized. "I do not blame God. I do not believe Elizabeth was punished. My faith is not weakened. ...There is always some light that can shine on our life."

In 2008, well into Alzheimer's cruel grip, Plaut donated his huge book collection to York University. The Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Elizabeth S. Plaut Library includes more than 4,000 titles, including one of his favourites on the comic strip character Pogo. His personal papers are at Archives Canada.

Plaut once said he believed he was created "as a Jew to be God's tool ... that my purpose on Earth is to serve not only my people, but to serve humanity and do so as a Jew. Others may see only themselves and their goals, private and national. We Jews see our goals as more than private goals."

It was a conviction he hoped his brethren shared.

He leaves his children Jonathan and Judith, two grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

Back to top