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The Rest Is His Commentary

Shivah Stars

Marc Tracy
February 16, 2012
Rabbi Plaut.(Lanemontgomery/NYT)
Rabbi Plaut.(Lanemontgomery/NYT)

Each week, we select the most interesting Jewish obituary. Today, it’s that of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, who died last week at 99. Through his The Torah: A Modern Commentary, he was arguably the most influential Reform rabbi in 20th century America. It explicitly considered the Torah not to be the direct word of God but rather something of a medium through which Jews could understand God. He was also pretty much the undisputed head of Canadian Jewry; he died in Toronto. “Rabbi Plaut’s Torah has a Janus-headed aspect,” the Times reports. “In an era in which American Reform Jewry had become increasingly assimilated, with worship conducted largely in English, it represented a return to Hebrew Scripture. But it also made it possible to interpret that Scripture in ways that a strict adherence to tradition did not admit.” The obituary concludes with a story Plaut liked to tell about the fickleness of textual interpretation. Upon arriving in Cincinnati in the 1930s (he was born, grew up in, and even got a law degree in Germany), he thought a newspaper was reporting an Italian revolution when he saw the headline, “Reds Murder Cardinals.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.