Rabbi Plaut: more than a spir­i­tual leader

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - — BILL GLAD­STONE

From the mo­ment in 1961 that he stepped into the role, Rabbi W. Gun­ther Plaut was al­ways much more than the rabbi of the his­toric Re­form con­gre­ga­tion, Holy Blos­som Tem­ple of Toronto.

It was en­tirely Toronto’s gain and St. Paul, Minn.’s loss when Holy Blos­som en­ticed Rabbi Plaut here, for he at once took on the ad­di­tional role as an adept and ar­tic­u­late spokesper­son for the city’s Jewish com­mu­nity. He also served as ex-of­fi­cio emis­sary-am­bas­sador be­tween the Jewish com­mu­nity and the wider Chris­tian so­ci­ety across Canada. Out­reach was his thing.

A re­spected scholar and au­thor whose To­rah: A Mod­ern Com­men­tary (1981) was al­most 1,800 pages long and 18 years in the mak­ing, Rabbi Plaut wrote for the Cana­dian Jewish News and con­trib­uted oc­ca­sional opin­ion pieces to the Globe and Mail. He per­pet­u­ally made the case for the Cho­sen Peo­ple in books like The Case For The Cho­sen Peo­ple, Your Neigh­bor is a Jew and many oth­ers.

His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Un­fin­ished Busi­ness, which also came out in 1981, re­ceived a glow­ing re­view in the Globe by Rabbi Stu­art Rosen­berg, ex-rabbi of Beth Tzedec. “The book is an easy read, warmly and gra­ciously writ­ten,” Rosen­berg wrote. “Much of it is told in con­ver­sa­tional style; we have the feel­ing that we are sit­ting down per­son­ally with a de­light­ful man as he spins out tale af­ter tale in wist­ful rem­i­nis­cence of an ac­tive and in­spir­ing life.”

Wolf Gun­ther Plaut was born in Mun­ster, Ger­many, in 1912, and grew up in Ber­lin amidst its huge Jewish com­mu­nity sur­rounded by the in­creas­ingly anti-semitic and rough­neck gen­tile so­ci­ety. He grad­u­ated from law school in 1934, but, be­ing Jewish, could not prac­tise law, so he turned to Jewish the­ol­ogy in­stead. “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.

Rabbi Rosen­berg as­tutely ob­served that the pre­dom­i­nant theme of Rabbi Plaut’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy was “his loss of in­no­cence as a Ger­man Jew in the mold of 19th-cen­tury ro­man­tic lib­er­al­ism, and his slow awak­en­ing and growth into a 20th-cen­tury ac­tivist Jew.”

In 1935, he was of­fered a schol­ar­ship at He­brew Union Col­lege in Cincin­nati, which be­came his ticket to es­cape the Nazis. Or­dained in 1939, he took a pul­pit in Chicago. The day he fi­nally re­ceived Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship in 1943, he en­listed as a chap­lain in the U.S. Army.

He served on the front lines in Bel­gium and Ger­many, and as­sisted in the lib­er­a­tion of the Nord­hausen-dora con­cen­tra­tion camp in Ger­many. Af­ter the war, he re­turned to Chicago, then moved to St. Paul, then Toronto.

Rabbi Plaut laboured zeal­ously to build chan­nels of dia­logue to his Con­ser­va­tive and Ortho­dox coun­ter­parts within the Jewish world, as well as to the wider gen­tile com­mu­nity. He co-founded Toronto’s Ur­ban Al­liance on Race Re­la­tions, served as vice-chair of the On­tario Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion and as pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Jewish Congress. He re­ceived many hon­orary de­grees and awards, in­clud­ing a U.S. Bronze Star and a com­pan­ion­ship in the Or­der of Canada.

An outspoken sup­porter of Is­rael and critic of neo-nazis, Plaut led a 12,000-strong march on the Soviet em­bassy in Ot­tawa in 1971, in sup­port of Soviet Jewry, and tried to prod the Chris­tian com­mu­nity to join the cause. “Where are the churches, where is the voice of or­ga­nized Chris­tian re­li­gion?” he later asked. “Why are they silent? Why do they not help us mount a univer­sal cam­paign to ex­pose this lat­est ex­am­ple of cul­tural and re­li­gious geno­cide?”

A se­nior scholar at Holy Blos­som af­ter 1978, Plaut en­tered his 90s still an avid tennis player and ded­i­cated hu­man­ist. Un­til Alzheimer’s dis­ease claimed him, he was a reg­u­lar and much-revered vis­i­tor at Holy Blos­som’s sea­sonal Out of the Cold home­less pro­gram, shar­ing a meal with a dif­fer­ent ta­ble of guests each week and talk­ing about the dan­gers of ra­cial prej­u­dice and the lessons of the Holo­caust. He died in 2012 in his 100th year.

In many things that he did, Plaut’s ac­tions seemed to re­flect his be­lief that “my pur­pose on Earth is to serve not only my peo­ple, but to serve hu­man­ity and do so as a Jew.”

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