When I began writing this column some years ago, I was on the same page – literally – as Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut. It was a daunting prospect. Not that I ever met Rabbi Plaut, although I knew of him well from my days at Canadian Jewish Congress. But knowing my contribution would appear next to his column and compared by readers to his words was, to say the least, enough to make one weigh every letter put down on paper.
In the wake of the many obituaries of Rabbi Plaut, what more can we say except that we, Canadians of all religions, have lost a unique individual: one known not just for his scholarship and forceful voice within the Jewish community and within Reform Jewry, but in our nation.
Given the tensions arising today from the need to find a way to live together, we need voices like that of Rabbi Plaut, who not only led his congregations but also took on the task of leading the way in creating a truly multicultural country.
As with thousands of others, our home has his most famous works on our bookshelves. His Torah commentary, as one obit noted, has an entirely different voice than the old and widely used Hertz commentary. Hertz wrote at a particular time in history, one in which antisemitism was rife and the Holocaust on the horizon. While truly scholarly, it is often apologetic. Rabbi Plaut was not apologetic.
As my tribute to this great man, I quote from his introduction to The Torah: A Modern Commentary. The words illustrate his scholarship, which encompassed Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform approaches to the Bible, as well as literature and philosophy of many hues. Agree with him or not, his faith in the essentials of Judaism brought into our homes a unique perspective.
On myth and legend:
“The contemporary reader familiar with the history and nature of the text will have to remember that a literal understanding of the Torah may lead to grave misconceptions.
“Even the ancient Jewish sages, who believed that the Torah was a divinely authored book, did not take the text literally. They… always looked behind the flat literal meaning. They realized that the Bible… abounded in subtle metaphors and allusions, that it used word plays and other literary devices, that it sometimes spoke satirically, and that its poetry could not be subjected to a simple approach…
“The reader must further understand that the Torah contains a great variety of material: laws, narratives, history, folk tales… and, especially in the early parts of Genesis, myths and legends. By myth, we understand a tale involving human beings and divine powers, a tale which was meant and understood as having happened and which by its existence expressed… important aspects of existence…
“The reader of the Bible should not however, be misled into dismissing myth or legend as irrelevant. What usually passes for history is not an accurate scientific recording of events but an interpretation [my italic] of such events – assuming that one knows what the event “really” was. The best of modern historians is an interpreter, selective summarizer, commentator and often philosopher who brings a point of view to the material…. For what people believe their past to mean assumes a dynamic of its own; the experience itself becomes creative.
“[The Torah] may be said to mirror the collective memory of our ancestors, and in the course of centuries this record became a source of truth for the Children of Israel. The reader will therefore do well to keep in mind that the Torah not only speaks of history but has made history by helping to shape human thought.”
For example, is the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim, an erotic love poem or an allegory of the love between Israel and God? Surely one does not negate the other, but each enriches our understanding of the many modes of love.
Or can we prove the truth of the Exodus story, the founding story of the Jewish people? Again, the wrong question. Rather, we celebrate the seminal moment that is the foundation of an ethical system that we uphold and cherish today.
His conclusion: “The origins of the Torah are one thing, its life through the centuries another, and its ability to speak to us today yet a third.”