Toronto's Rabbi Plaut has died aged 99.

Rabbi Plaut dead at 99

  • February 16, 2012

TORONTO - One of the most persistent voices for religious engagement in every public debate in Canada, a scholar and a popularizer of modern Scripture scholarship has died. Rabbi Gunther Plaut was 99 when he passed away Feb. 8.

Many Toronto Catholics will remember his column in The Globe and Mail through the 1970s and '80s. But Rabbi Plaut was also famous for one of the most widely read commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah: A Modern Commentary has been through 13 printings and was last revised in 2005. It has sold almost 120,000 copies.

"Every Jewish family I know, regardless of their stream of Judaism, I always see Gunther Plaut's commentary on their bookshelves or sitting by their chairs. It's just become a standard reference," said Fr. Murray Watson, Scripture professor at London, Ont.'s St. Peter's Seminary.

While he was rooted in centuries of Jewish scholarship, in some 25 books he published over his career Rabbi Plaut had the ability to make serious research and reflection accessible.

"He had that wonderful gift. He was a scholar, but a scholar who could communicate the benefits of scholarship to a more average, educated readership," said Watson.

As president of the now defunct Canadian Jewish Congress from 1977 to 1980, vice chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1985 and a founder of Toronto's Urban Alliance for Race Relations, Rabbi Plaut pioneered efforts to have religious communities and religious leaders work together for social justice. His wisdom was appreciated by governments, including the federal government who asked him to help revise refugee laws in the 1980s.

Rabbi Plaut had a good relationship with Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic over the years — two scholars with vivid memories of the Second World War who rose to be leaders in their communities.

"He certainly made a significant contribution and he will certainly be dearly missed in his community," said Fr. Damian MacPherson, ecumenical and interfaith affairs officer for the archdiocese of Toronto.

Rabbi Plaut was born in Munster, Germany, in 1912 and earned a law degree from the University of Berlin in 1934. The Nazi government elected in March 1933 forbade Jews from practising law, so he turned to religious study, then fled to the United States in 1935.

He was ordained in Cincinnati in 1939 and spent the Second World War as an Army chaplain at the front in Europe. He was there for the liberation of the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp in April 1945.

By 1961 Rabbi Plaut was senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and held that position until he retired in 1977.

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