We received the news last week of the death of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut with sadness and quiet reflection.
After 99 years in this world, his soul departed.
Nearly a decade earlier, he departed from communal life with the all-too recognizable, sorrowful, incremental withdrawals into the hazy, murky, mysterious world of the Alzheimer’s sufferer.
In eulogy of the great teacher, great man, great Jew that Rabbi Plaut was, I reproduce excerpts of a column about him that appeared on this page on Feb. 28, 2008 and of the editorial in The CJN on Dec. 11, 2003. The words that were written then about Rabbi Plaut are especially apt today.
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In a sermon delivered on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 22, 1968, on the subject of “The Counterforce in Human History,” he said: “The world cries ‘Zionist’ and we know they mean us and we are proud of it, we do not shrink back from it. The world cries ‘Jew’ and we respond, yes! God says to us, ‘Where are you, My people?’ On this eve of another year, we respond with one voice, ‘Here I am: Thy ways are dark, the road uncertain, but I believe – and here I am.” Quoted from One Voice: The Selected Sermons of W. Gunther Plaut, edited by Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut, (Dundurn Press, 2007).
Rabbi Plaut’s voice is now silent, but he still has the power to stir our hearts. Sometimes we feel enveloped by darkness, but his words are a light that still shine. I have no doubt that many of us will turn to the pages of this anthology from time to time, seeking, as we inevitably must, the strength and the courage to contend with the struggles and travails in our own lives.
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It is a rare occasion when an editorial is written about a columnist who retires. This week is such an occasion because the retiree himself is a rare individual. This newspaper, along with the entire community, owes him an irredeemably impossible debt. In keeping, therefore, with our people’s long tradition of hakarat hatov, acknowledging the good that others have done for us, we pay homage to and thank Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut.
After an association with this paper that has spanned more than three decades and almost a quarter-century as a regular contributor, Rabbi Plaut is putting away his CJN pen.
In truth, however, the retirement is not entirely voluntary.
It has, alas, been forced upon him, upon us, by the cruel, incremental wearing away at his skills and abilities by Alzheimer’s disease. In his typically elegant and eloquent way, Rabbi Plaut has now made that fact known to the world. He will contend with the disease as he has contended all his life with other malevolent deniers of humanity – frontally, with courage and with all his strength.
We, his community and his friends, have been the great beneficiaries of that courage and strength – and of a great deal more.
One anecdote will illustrate. It involved the widely respected Torah sage, Halachist, posek and scholar, Rabbi Gedalia Felder.
Some years ago, after Rabbi Felder had suffered a debilitating stroke, a tribute honouring the stricken rabbi and showcasing his many publications was held at the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue in Thornhill. Though confined to a wheelchair, Rabbi Felder politely and courteously greeted the hundreds of attendees at the doorway. Rabbi Plaut was also there. When he arrived, Rabbi Plaut walked immediately over to Rabbi Felder. The two men embraced like two brothers recalling lost parents, holding each other close, lest the moment and the shared recollection slip away.
For some people, the effusive embrace was surprising. After all, the two men were very different, ideological opposites in terms of the practice of their faith. And yet, the respect and affection they felt for each other were palpable and demonstrable for all to see. And perhaps that was part of the point of their embrace. Despite their differences, these two great men embraced – for all to see.
When we wish to express our gratitude for having benefited from the countless bounties of God’s wondrous and wonderful world, we usually recite a blessing. It is appropriate therefore that we thank God for giving us the gift of the example, the sagacity, the heart and the weekly columns of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut.
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who has shared of His wisdom with those who revere Him and who has given of His wisdom to [his creations of] flesh and blood.”
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Now that we mourn the loss of Rabbi Plaut, it is, alas, appropriate to add may the memory of this righteous individual be for blessing.