TORONTO — The thousands of books Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut consulted over the decades for his sermons, essays, articles and books, have been donated to York University.
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, centre, pictured with his daughter Judith Plaut and his son Rabbi Jonathan Plaut, donated his extensive library to York University. [photo courtesy of York University]
Friends and family gathered at York on Nov. 2 to recognize the gift of Rabbi Plaut’s library that consists of more than 4,000 books, some of which are very rare and centuries old, said Sara Horowitz, director of York’s Centre for Jewish Studies.
The books in the Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Elizabeth S. Plaut Library, which is in the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections section of the York library, have been shelved in the same way as Rabbi Plaut had them arranged when they were in his possession.
“Rather than simply being merged into the library of congress system, the books are grouped the way he grouped them, which is an interesting way of understanding how his thinking developed, because in addition to being a rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, he was also one of the foremost thinkers and theologians of the Reform movement of the 20th century, not only in Canada but internationally,” Horowitz said.
Horowitz said this acquisition is significant because it also gives York’s Centre for Jewish Studies the copyrights to Plaut’s published works.
“It means we can develop Jewish intellectual projects that might have Rabbi Plaut’s writing at the centre. In the future, we might decide to take a particular essay or a sermon of his, or something he published on any given issue that might have wide-reaching implications, and we could use his essay as a jumping-off point,” Horowitz said.
Rabbi Plaut, who was born in Germany, fled to the United States from the Nazi regime in 1935, and was later ordained as a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College. He served in World War II as a chaplain and was present when the first American troops entered a concentration camp in Germany.
Among other designations, Rabbi Plaut, 96, served as Canadian Jewish Congress president. He also helped found Toronto’s Urban Alliance for Race Relations and served as the Ontario Human Rights Commission vice-chair.
For more than 20 years, Rabbi Plaut was a columnist for The CJN and a contributor of opinion pieces to the Toronto Star.
In 2003, Rabbi Plaut announced, by way of his last column in The CJN, that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and since then, he has largely removed himself from public activities.
Horowitz said that Rabbi Plaut, who has published 26 books on theology, philosophy, history and even fiction, had spoken with his family years in advance about donating his collection to York.
“I think the groundwork, the seeds for this, were laid much earlier by Rabbi Plaut himself when this was something that was projected well into the future.”
She guessed that Rabbi Plaut chose York over another institution with a Jewish studies centre because of his relationship with the school and the members of the faculty.
“I know that he had a relationship with the first director of the Centre for Jewish Studies, Sydney Eisen, and I believe he had one with Michael Brown [another of the centre’s directors], and so I think [because of] these relationships and the way that the Centre for Jewish Studies and the Jewish studies program developed at York, he felt this would be an appropriate place to have this collection.”
The rabbi’s eclectic library consists of works on religion, science, ethics, politics and history, as well as art, popular fiction and cartoons.
“Among other things, it includes rare books of Judaica, books of biblical commentary on Halachah, books by really important Jewish thinkers that are, the books themselves, several centuries old, and they are quite rare. These are books that you would very infrequently encounter,” Horowitz said.
“To just see them and be able to touch them and look at their pages is really exciting.”
She added that the books will be kept in a controlled environment among the library’s special collections. Students and faculty will be able to consult the books, but they would have to remain in the controlled environment of the special collections reading room to preserve the books.
She said she was struck by how far-reaching Rabbi Plaut’s influence is.
“Many people at York University, who are not in Jewish studies per se, have approached me in the last month or two since this has become public, and have said, ‘Oh, Rabbi Plaut, he was so important in my life. He officiated my wedding. I remember this sermon, and that sermon,’” she said.
“His theological thinking, both his way of applying modern methodologies to Jewish texts and his way of applying Jewish sources to modern issues is really significant for anyone who wants to study not only the development of Reform Judaism, but religion as a field altogether.”