Like most of the rest of the Jewish world, I was deeply saddened to read of the passing of Rabbi Gunther Plaut. It hit me personally.
Having been the assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto from 1983 to 1986 I had the privilege of occasionally working with him, although he was no longer the senior rabbi, but had the title senior scholar. 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 different from the male rabbis at Holy Blossom. I remember him asking in my first week if I needed help on my introductory sermon. I think he was shocked and equally delighted when I told him thanks anyway, but I wanted to succeed or fail on my own two feet for that first sermon.
After that, we felt totally comfortable with each other.
I looked up to him, because while he truly loved Jews, he wanted them to be better Jews, and he was willing to accept the consequences of unpopular and high standards. He pushed, he cajoled and he demanded. 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, 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.
I looked up to him because he had no tolerance for racism, sexism or homophobia. In 1998, upon the publication of my first book on feminist analysis of Torah, he told me that had he known “then” what he knew “now” about 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 that perspective. He was then 85 years old, and even though he came from a totally different era, he was completely prepared to learn something new from and about women in the rabbinate.
I looked up to him, because as I was deciding whether or not to go to rabbinical school in the late 1970s, I looked around me and was often disappointed with the rabbis I saw.
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 Torah and “hippie” rabbis who only cared about their own souls. 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 Maimonides by heart.
Because I looked up to him, I now find myself asking: 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? Who can move mountains and government officials and simple Jews? 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? I don’t mean popularity, or the most “likes” on Facebook, or the cleverest blog. Someone whose sermons not only make it onto the Huffington Post but someone whose deep Torah teachings changes lives. Not fame or well-reviewed books or New York Times opinion articles, but profundity, authority and clarity. Someone who’s unafraid of who’s to their left or who’s to their right.
Who would you consider a giant who can stand in the shadow that Rabbi Plaut cast?
The Jewish world is poorer by far, and I for one am blessed to have known someone I could truly look up to.
This column will appear in the March 8 issue of The CJN