Four years and some two months ago, on Dec.11, 2003, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut’s last column appeared in The CJN. To that date, he had been a regular contributor to the paper for more than two decades.
With tender honesty, he announced to his readers that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “I want you, my friends and readers, to know this straight from me,” he wrote. “I will continue to do my best, but my best is no longer what it once was.”
“How exactly can I do my best?” he asked? “Chazak, v’amatz,” he answered. “I will attempt to be as strong as possible and muster up as much courage as possible.”
Since he wrote those words, Rabbi Plaut has endeavoured to follow his own prescription. Last November, he turned 95 years old. But his voice, alas, is quiet now and he no longer picks up the pen to record his thoughts.
We miss him.
Moreover, the world is such that we still need him, his insights, his sage counsel and his historical perspective on current events.
Thus, the recent publication of the single-volume anthology of some of the rabbi’s writings is a cause for individual and communal gratitude, if not celebration too.
One Voice: The Selected Sermons of W. Gunther Plaut (Dundurn Press, 2007) is a collection of 44 sermons and lectures, edited by Rabbi Plaut’s son, Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut. The Dec. 11, 2003, column in The CJN is also reproduced in the collection.
The filial love and respect of the editor for his father, the task of selecting the material for the book and the deep learning in each of the essays are evident in the book’s introduction.
“My father is a Renaissance man – a scholar, a leading authority on Reform Judaism and a passionate supporter of numerous human rights causes. Why then, one might ask, should the sermons he delivered over a period of almost 55 years be now worthy of publication? The answer is simple: because each one of them is as timely and meaningful today as it was when first delivered from a pulpit.”
Having read through the book, one can have no quarrel with the editor’s assertion.
Jonathan Plaut has organized the works into eight broad categories that deal with religion; faith and God; ethics and values; being a Jew; Reform Judaism; Israel; age and generation; and death.
On which page of this collection do we not find scintillating, inspiring gemstones of wisdom from Rabbi Gunther Plaut? The controlled cadences and elegant vocabulary of his voice echo on every page.
And what is more, the subjects that concerned Rabbi Plaut and on which he offered his insights dealt with the large, ultimate issues of existence. We therefore have an opportunity to read his thoughts on questions such as: The Individual and the Cosmos, How Can I Believe in God?, The Meaning of Life, The Challenge of Freedom, Why Remain Jews?, Our Responsibility to Israel, and so on.
In speaking about the meaning of life on Yom Kippur, Sept. 18, 1972, he told his congregants: “At the roots of my being there is a conviction that merely to be is not enough, merely to live is not sufficient. Merely to breathe and exist is no warrant for true experience. For me, the values of life lie in my acceptance of life as meaningful. And so, when I am asked to make a choice between good and evil, life and death, I find this choice important rather than unimportant, meaningful rather than meaningless. Despite… the doubts in my own soul, I hold that a mitzvah is better than a sin or that doing a mitzvah is better than not doing it. I believe that there is a God who cares about man and who has built this caring into the very structure of life.”
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.”
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.