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Remembering Gunther Plaut’s Chumash (Pentateuch)

February 19, 2012

PlautOn February 8th, Gunther Plaut died at age 99, after a nine-year-long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.  He was a leading rabbi in the US and Canadian Reform Judaism movements.

There are many interesting points of his life that can be noted:  his parents’ courage in running a Jewish orphanage (dissolved in 1939) in Hitler’s Berlin, his escape to the United States, his service in the US Army (as a chaplain)  in 104th Infantry unit that liberated the Dora-Nordhousen concentration camp (his NY Times obituary states “though the survivors were starving, he recalled, they did not ask for food, but for religious items”), his work in rescuing a Torah nearly destroyed during Krisstallnacht, his service on the Ontario Human Rights Commission (and his decision allowing Sikh students to wear ceremonial daggers in public schools), his sermons, his newspaper columns, and his many books.

Instead I plan to focus on two of Plaut’s books:  in this post, I want to talk about Plaut’s Chumash (Pentateuch).  In a later post, I will talk about Plaut’s 1992 Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture:

German-Jewish Bible Translations: Linguistic Theology as a Political Phenomenon

W. Gunther Plaut is one of the great rabbis of Reform Judaism today. In 1992, he held the 36th Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture at the Leo Baeck Institute New York. Plaut analyzes German Bible translations by Jews. In order to explain why German Jews have produced such a plentitude of translations, he looks at the translations by Moses Mendelssohn, Leopold Zunz, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Simon Bernfeld, Martin Buber-Rosenzweig and Harry Torczyner (later known as Tur-Sinai). Plaut shows that the translations are in a significant measure part of the tension between Germanness and Jewishness.

Jewish Bibles are different than Protestant Bibles.  At a first glance, they might seem analogous:  in a typical Protestant church you expect to find pew prayerbooks, hymnals, and

Bibles; in a typical Jewish synagogue you expect to find pew siddurim (prayerbooks), tehillim (psalters), and chumashim (Pentateuchs).  But open up the pew books and the similarity breaks:  in particular, a Jewish chumash is likely quite different in format than a Protestant Bible.  While the Protestant Bible will contain an English Bible and perhaps some cross-references, a chumash in an American synagogue will likely contain the Hebrew text of the Torah, an English translation, and either classical commentary (e.g. Rashi or Onkelos Targum) or modern commentary. 

For decades in the US, the Hertz chumash reigned supreme.  In many ways, the Hertz chumash was a remarkable edition.  S. (who now mostly posts at the On the Main Line blog), on one of his early blogs, quotes Artscroll general editor Nosson Scherman in a Forward interview: 

“The Hertz was a masterpiece in its time, a piece of literature. What he did was heroic,” said ArtScroll’s Rabbi Scherman. “He was trying to convince people that the Chumash was worthwhile. He would quote Shakespeare, church fathers and other Christian sources. Nowadays, people are offended by that. Now you have people with a yeshiva education. They want to know what the Chumash means to Jews, what the traditional sources have to say.”

If American chumashim have generally turned to the right since Hertz, the Plaut chumash (which began to be published in 1974,was completed in 1980, and was revised in 2005) was a marked turn to the left.  The publisher describes the original Plaut chumash as “the first liberal Torah commentary ever produced.”  I am not certain that is correct, but it was certainly set a high standard for liberal chumashim that have not yet been exceeded by other volumes.  It was shocking.  Instead of being organized by traditional parashah divisions, it was organized by smaller thematic units.  In addition to extensive scholarly (not particularly devotional) commentary, it featured critical essays on each every section of the Torah text.  But most shocking of all was its brief “gleanings” that drew from the broadest range of writers – not only Jewish sources, but non-Jewish authors like Gerhard von Rad and John Ruskin and Karl Barth and William Shakespeare and works like the Koran and the New Testament and the Enuma Elish and Giglamesh.  Scholars including William Hallo and Bernard Bamberger contributed to Plaut’s chumash (and, in the 2005 revision, Adele Berlin and Carol Meyers and David E. S. Stein).

The Plaut chumash did not apologize or seem embarrassed for its position at all.  It was a confident entry that clearly proclaimed a point of view.  It suggested that liberal Jews – not scholars, but ordinary synagogue members – could be equally familiar with the text as their more traditional brethren who attended Orthodox services. 

Moreover, the Plaut chumash opened the gateways for a large variety of later liberal text-based books; ranging from the Kravitz-Olitzky liberal commentary on Mishnaic classic Pirkei Avos (which has a foreword from Plaut!) to the Lawrence Hoffman multi-volume commentary on the Jewish prayerbook.

In producing his chumash, Plaut was not only a scholar and leader, but a great teacher.  The New York Times quotes his publisher as claiming that the volume has sold more than 120,000 copies.  Plaut’s chumash may be radical in many ways, but in some ways it is traditional:  it is focused on teaching and devotion; it is textually based with the Hebrew text being supreme; and it is created for people of faith.  Even when the Plaut chumash finally loses its supremacy in the marketplace to new entrants, it is hard to imagine that any liberal chumash would not be influenced by Plaut’s example.

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