I, like most of the rest of the Jewish world, was deeply saddened to read of the passing of Rabbi Gunther Plaut.
Having been the Assistant Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple from 1983-86 I had the privilege of working closely with him. Although my immediate “senior Rabbi” was Rabbi Dow Marmur (another great name in the Rabbinate, in my opinion), Rabbi Plaut took an immediate liking to me and a vested interest in my success. In those days I was the only female Rabbi in the whole country and I think it piqued Rabbi Plaut’s imagination to see if I would be very “different” from the male Rabbis at Holy Blossom. I remember him stopping by my office in my first week and asking if I needed advice or help on my introductory sermon; I think he was shocked and equally delighted when I told him that I wanted to succeed or fail on my own two feet for that first time. After that, I felt comfortable going to him with any question at all, and I was always in amazement when he could quote a midrash or Talmudic verse perfectly from memory.
Watching him “work the crowd” was amazing. He truly loved Jews but he wanted them to be better Jews, and he was willing to take the consequences of unpopular and high standards. He pushed, he cajoled; he loved his fellow Jews, but he demanded of them too. He didn’t mind not pleasing all the people all the time—he cared more about being true to Jewish values. He truly relished being a Rabbi, but he had little patience for foolish, or territorial, or ignorant Rabbis. He held his fellow Reform Rabbis to a very high bar and was often the voice of the “loyal opposition” to Reform policies he doubted would advance the cause of the entire Jewish people.
He didn’t just preach tikkun olam, he lived it. He had no tolerance for racism, sexism, or homophobia. In 1998, upon the publication of my first book on feminist analysis of Torah text, he told me that had he known “then” what he knew “now” about women’s voices and feminist approaches to text, he would have been much more sensitive and attuned when writing his famous Torah commentary. He admitted that his great commentary, which everyone accepted as authoritative, was lacking in a feminist perspecxtive. He was at that time 85 years old, and even though he came from a totally different era with a much different mindset, he was completely prepared to learn something new from and about women in the Rabbinate. And he made no excuses for his passion for social justice. He was prepared to go to the highest levels of government to make justice flow down like mighty waters. He was a formidable force to be reckoned with even among formidable forces.
As I was deciding whether or not to go to Rabbinical school in the late 70’s, I looked around me at the Reform role models I had and was often disappointed. I saw learned Rabbis who didn’t touch people’s hearts, and sincere charismatic Rabbis who didn’t know text. I saw Rabbis marching for civil rights who didn’t live in a spiritual way and New Age Kabbalah Rabbis who only cared about their own souls. I wondered where I would belong as a more traditional, text-oriented Rabbi. I started to follow Rabbi Plaut’s writings and teachings, and I saw in him what I most believed a Reform Rabbi could and should be.
So when the opportunity to serve at Holy Blossom came, I jumped at the chance to be close to a real Rabbi’s Rabbi; a scholar who cared about the world outside his books and an activist who could quote the Rambam off by heart.
Now the question must be asked: who will be the next Rabbi Plaut? Who in the Reform movement has the greatness, the learning and scholarship, the burning passion for justice, the respect of almost every other Rabbi of not only our own denomination but the others as well; the ability to move mountains and government officials and simple Jews toward betterment? Who will be the Rabbi’s Rabbi, the one we can all look up to and hope to emulate and follow and learn from? There are great names, to be sure, but many if not most of them are also older and will be gone in my lifetime. Who of a younger generation in the Reform movement has that greatness? Not popularity. Not the most “likes” on facebook or the most clever blog. Not only sermons that make it into the Huffington Post but deep Torah teachings that change lives. Not fame or well-reviewed books or NY Times op-eds but profundity, authority, clarity? Please share with me your thoughts and the names you would consider “giants” who can stand in the shadow Gunther Plaut cast.
The Jewish world is poorer by far, and I for one am blessed by having had a glimpse of a true Reform Jewish giant.