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W. Gunther Plaut

PLAUT, W. GUNTHER (1912– ), U.S. Reform rabbi and author. Plaut was born in Munster, Germany, and earned his law degree at the University of Berlin in 1934. When Nazi decrees made a law career impossible, he switched to Jewish studies. He was tutored by Abraham Joshua *Heschel and attended the Hochschule (later, Lehranstalt) fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. In 1935, Plaut and four other students accepted a lifeline – an invitation to study at *Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1939. HUC-JIR awarded him an honorary D.D. in 1964, followed by an honorary L.L.D. from the University of Toronto in 1977.

Plaut became rabbi of Congregation B'nai Abraham Zion (Washington Boulevard Temple) in Chicago (1937–48), taking a leave of absence in 1943 to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve as a chaplain in the infantry at the European front. He was present at the opening of the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp in April 1945 and was awarded a Bronze Star.

Plaut's next pulpit (1948–61) was at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he served as president of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, was appointed to the Minnesota Human Relations Committee, and headed the Governor's Commission on Ethics in Government. In 1961, he was named senior rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada, becoming senior scholar in 1977. He was also a founder and co-chairman of the Canada–Israel Committee (1975–76) and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (1977–80). In the wider community, he served as president of the World Federalists of Canada (1966–68); as vice chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (1979–85); and as a judicial officer in cases of human rights violations (1987). In the Reform movement, he chaired the Reform Jewish Practice Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1973–79), served as its vice president (1981–82), and as president (1983–85). He also served as vice president of the *World Union for Progressive Judaism and chaired the CCAR's Response Committee (1989–94).

Plaut was a prolific writer. A 1982 bibliography of his writings, compiled as a Festschrift titled Through the Sound of Many Voices, contained approximately 1,000 entries. In addition to chronicling the evolution of the Reform movement in The Rise of Reform Judaism (1963) and The Growth of Reform Judaism (1965), Plaut grappled with theological issues in Judaism and the Scientific Spirit (1962) and The Case for the Chosen People (1965). Other major books include The Man Who Would Be Messiah (1990); The Magen David: How the Six-Pointed Star Became an Emblem for the Jewish People (1991); The Price and Privilege of Growing Old (1999); and The Reform Judaism Reader (with Michael A. Meyer, 2001).

His masterpiece remains The TorahA Modern Commentary (1981), which was praised by Robert *Alter as "the finest commentary [on the Torah] in English or, for that matter, in any language." He complemented it with The Haftarah Commentary (1996), which is used in Reform synagogues throughout the English-speaking world.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.