We knew the German-born Plaut, who never intended to become a rabbi, came to America in 1935 to accept a scholarship to study for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati — a decision that probably saved his life.
We knew he became an Army chaplain in World War II, attached to the 104th Infantry, an assignment that fatefully brought him back to his native Germany where he was among the first U.S. soldiers to liberate a concentration camp — Dora-Nordhausen.
And we knew he wrote or edited more than 20 books throughout his long rabbinate, including the Torah commentary that has become the standard chumash at hundreds of Reform congregations — “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” or, as generations of Reform Jews have come to know it, “The Plaut Chumash.”
All this we know, but so would anyone else who has read one of the many news obituaries written about Plaut since his death.
This much we know in our kishkes: No matter what kind of Reform Jew you are — a regular temple goer, an occasional attendee at Saturday morning Torah study, a once-a-year-Jew or a Jew who left organized religion behind shortly after your confirmation — W. Gunther Plaut touched your life, even if you didn’t know it.
If you’re a regular at services or Torah study, you’ve read the Plaut Chumash and are intimately familiar with the rabbi’s take on the weekly parasha.
If you’re a once-a-year Jew, you may have robotically picked up a copy of the chumash to follow along during a Torah service at some bar mitzva. Your eyes might have caught a passage here, an interpretation there, and you were impressed by it. And even if you didn’t do that much, the rabbi’s sermon you listened to was more than likely influenced by the chumash you didn’t read.
Finally, if your Judaism ended with your confirmation, more likely than not, the parting gift you received from your temple was the Plaut Chumash. And you kept it. You may have even thumbed through it once or twice over the years, glancing at the rabbi’s commentaries and interpretations. The Plaut Chumash became one of those few links to your faith that you just didn’t break.
Plaut didn’t pretend his opus, which included commentaries by Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger and essays by William W. Hallo, was for all Jews.
“Our work reflects a liberal point of view,” he wrote in his preface. He nevertheless hoped that such a viewpoint, like others in Jewish scholarship, would “reflect the search after the living God.”
We hope so, too, but we know the Plaut Chumash is omnipresent in a vast portion of the Jewish world. It has influenced holy discussions for generations — an achievement few humans ever reach.
We didn’t know W. Gunther Plaut. Then again, maybe we did.