NEW YORK - W. Gunther Plaut, a rabbi whose vast, scholarly, and ardently contemporary edition of the Torah has helped define Reform Judaism in late-20th-century North America, died Feb. 8 in Toronto. He was 99.
His son, Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut, confirmed the death, saying that his father had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for nearly a decade. At his death, the elder Plaut was the senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, where he had served as senior rabbi from 1961 to 1977.
One of the most prominent rabbis in the world, Rabbi Plaut wrote more than 20 books on Jewish theology, history, and culture. He was best known for “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,’’ his magnum opus, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization for Reform Jewish congregations in North America.
First published as a single volume in 1981 and issued in a revised edition in 2005, Rabbi Plaut’s Torah has become a touchstone for Judaism’s liberal branches. While Jews have long studied the Torah - the first section of the Hebrew Bible - with the aid of rabbinic commentaries, none like his had ever before appeared.
“God is not the author of the text,’’ Rabbi Plaut wrote in the volume’s introduction, “the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds.’’
The Plaut Torah has sold nearly 120,000 copies, according to its publisher. It is used in many Reform synagogues, as well as in some Conservative and Reconstructionist ones, throughout the United States and Canada.
“This is the first non-Orthodox full commentary on the Torah published in English for congregational use,’’ Rabbi said Daniel H. Freelander, a senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations is now known.
Before the Plaut Torah, the commentary most widely used in North American synagogues across the Jewish spectrum was by Joseph H. Hertz, the chief rabbi of Britain. Published in the 1920s and ’30s, Hertz’s commentary was written from the Orthodox perspective, and as such it considered the Torah the word of God, given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
The Hertz Torah “represents a point of view that is now unacceptable to many,’’ Rabbi Plaut told The Globe and Mail of Canada in 1981. “Furthermore, it was written at a time of growing anti-Semitism when Hitler was coming to power, and so it is highly apologetic. Its language is magnificent, but Jews today are entitled to be given insights that go beyond the traditional.’’
Rabbi Plaut’s Torah, the first edition to be produced in the New World, spans nearly 1,800 pages and took more than a decade to prepare. Even its cover gives quiet but unmistakable evidence of its unorthodox intent: The 1981 edition opens from left to right, like a conventional English book, instead from right to left, as traditional volumes of Hebrew Scripture do.
Inside, the five books of Moses - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - appear in Hebrew and English, accompanied by Rabbi Plaut’s commentary. (The commentary on Leviticus was written by Rabbi Bernard Bamberger.)
Drawing on scholarship in science, biblical archeology, Near East studies, folklore, linguistics, and feminism, and on non-Jewish texts including Shakespeare, the Koran, and the New Testament, the commentaries in the Plaut Torah ascribe layers of possible meanings to the text. This makes probing analytical discussion - even argument - among worshipers not only possible but often satisfyingly inevitable.
“He used critical scholarship, and was open to it, in a book that was going to sit in the pews in synagogues,’’ said Richard Elliott Friedman, the Ann and Jay Davis professor of Jewish studies at the University of Georgia. “Which the Conservatives - forget the Orthodox - weren’t even doing then.’’
Rabbi Plaut’s Torah has a Janus-headed aspect. In an era in which American Reform Jewry had become increasingly assimilated, with worship conducted largely in English, it represented a return to Hebrew Scripture. But it also made it possible to interpret that Scripture in ways that a strict adherence to tradition did not admit.
Long considered the de facto leader of Canadian Jewry, Rabbi Plaut was for decades a well-known public figure in Canada. He wrote and spoke often to ecumenical audiences on a range of religious and human-rights issues, in particular the rights of refugees.
In recent years, until his health no longer allowed it, Rabbi Plaut wrote frequently in Canadian newspapers about the pervasive scourge of ageism.
The son of Jonas and Selma Plaut, Wolf Guenter Plaut was born in Munster, Germany.
In 1935 he was awarded a scholarship to study for the rabbinate at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, and he took it, a decision that may well have saved his life.
He was ordained in 1939.
He became a US citizen in 1943 and adopted Gunther as his first name; the respelling, he reasoned, would be easier on Americans who were familiar with the writer John Gunther.
Rabbi Plaut’s wife, the former Elizabeth Strauss, whom he married in 1938, died in 2003. In addition to his son, Jonathan, the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Jackson, Mich., he leaves a daughter, Judith; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.