Author Archives: Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

About Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.

Joshua & His Time

Reprinted with permission from The Haftarah Commentary published by Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
 
Joshua assumed the leadership of his people at a crucial time in Near East history. From Egypt to the borders of India, the superpowers were tottering and had lost their ability to control their vassals. These in turn grasped the opportunity to cut themselves loose, thereby upsetting traditional structures and turning the birthplace of major civilizations into a cauldron of armed conflicts. It was also the time when the so-called Sea Peoples migrated eastward in the Mediterranean and settled along the coast of Canaan and Lebanon.
 
These upheavals coincided with the use of iron for fashioning various instruments, primary among them the plow. Its introduction propelled agriculture into a dominant position, displacing nomads and semi-nomads in the process. Thus, the events described in the book of Joshua fit the general picture of migrations and territorial struggles of the time, and describe what took place in a small strip of land, located between the eastern desert and the western sea.
 
Joshua’s earlier life is described in the Torah: he was an Ephraimite who was one of the  spies sent to explore the Promised land and who (with Caleb) rendered an encouraging report (Numbers 13). He became Moses’ trusted assistant and eventually was chosen by God to be his successor (Numbers 27:15-23). His military prowess bore the stamp of divine approval and was embellished by legends about the crumbling walls of Jericho and the sun standing still at his bidding.
 
Still, despite the book’s detailed accounts of his leadership, he does not emerge as a distinct personality, and we know nothing about his personal life. Though called a prophet who could say with assurance, "Thus says the Eternal One" (Joshua 24:29), he remained in the shadow of his great predecessor. His overriding conviction was the same: Do God’s will, and the land will be yours.
 
The book concludes by recording his death to have occurred at the age of 110, exactly duplicating the life span of Joseph. Thus, tradition closes the circle by linking Joseph and Joshua: one caused his people to leave Canaan, the other brought them back.

Leviticus 19

Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

The prime emphasis (of the holiness described in Leviticus 19) is ethical. And the moral laws of this chapter are not mere injunctions of conformity. They call for just, humane, and sensitive treatment of others. The aged, the handicapped, and the poor are to receive consideration and courtesy. The laborer is to be promptly paid. The stranger is to be accorded the same love we give our fellow citizens. The law is concerned not only with overt behavior but also with motive; vengefulness and the bearing of grudges are condemned. Torah with glasses

Among ethical duties, that of sexual decency is singled out for particular emphasis. The Torah demands the control–not the suppression of–the sexual instinct. Life is sacred. The physical process by which life is generated is to be treated responsibly.

The ethical injunctions of Chapter 19 are interspersed with ritual commandments. Some of these are directed against pagan and superstitious practices deemed incompatible with biblical religion. The intent of others is not so plain. To the biblical author, these ceremonial rulings are divine ordinances with the same authority as the ethical commandments. Traditional Judaism regarded them as “royal decrees,” to be observed whether or not we comprehend them.

The Jewish modernist cannot agree with this. But he can recognize that worship and ceremony, undertaken thoughtfully and reverently, can elevate personal and family life. Though he may reject older views as to the origin and authority of ritual, he may still benefit from the practice of ritual in holy living. The ethical factor is primary, but it is not the only one. In combining moral and ceremonial commandments, the authors of the Holiness Code [as this section of the Torah is known by scholars] displayed sound understanding.

Can Anyone be Holy as God is Holy?

Such are the components of the way of life called kadosh (holy). Our chapter begins with the startling declaration that by these means we can and should try to be holy like God. The same Torah that stresses the distance between His sublime perfection and our earthy limitations urges us to strive to reduce that distance. The task is endless, but it is infinitely rewarding. Rabbi Tarfon said: “Do not avoid an undertaking that has no limit or a task that cannot be completed. It is like the case of one who was hired to take water from the sea and pour it out on the land. But, as the sea was not emptied out or the land filled with water, he became downhearted. Then someone said to him, ‘Foolish fellow! Why should you be downhearted as long as you receive a dinar of gold every day as your wage?'” (Avot deRabbi Natan, 27). The pursuit of the unattainable can be a means of fulfillment.

Who Was Korah?

Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of URJ Press.

Numbers 16:1 – 17:15: Two Rebellions Intertwined

Bible critics ascribe the difficulties of this section to a joining of two traditions. While a clear division is no longer possible, there appears to be a Korah rebellion that is directed against Aaron and levitic privilege and an anti‑Moses uprising led by Dathan and Abiram. [Authorship of] the former is assigned to the P (priestly) source and the latter to the J/E (Yahwist/Elohist) source.

The first story tells of Korah and 250 men who complain about the special religious status of the Levites. There is a contest involving censers; Korah’s people come to the Tent and are consumed by fire; their censers are taken away, destroyed, and symbolically refashioned; the 14,000 people who support the rebellion or who are unhappy with Korah’s punishment are killed by a plague. The story appears to reflect a struggle for priestly privilege. Once upon a time (as attested by Psalms) Korah’s people were full priests and singers, but after a power struggle they were reduced to doorkeepers.

korah rebellion

The second tradition tells of the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, and members of the tribe of Reuben, against the civil authority of Moses. They refuse a confrontation with him. Moses appeals to the community, which backs him up and withdraws from the rebels, who in turn are swallowed by the earth. This story may represent the memory of an intertribal struggle. Originally the tribe of Reuben was very important, but in time it was dislodged from its original preeminence. This is also reflected in the Jacob tale, where the first‑born Reuben is passed over in favor of others.

Rabbinic Solutions

The Rabbis attempted in ingenious fashion to harmonize the various difficulties and apparent discrepancies that arose from the interweaving of the two traditions. The talmudic discussion reveals the extent of their speculation in this matter. For instance, inasmuch as verses 31‑32 speak of the earth swallowing Korah’s men but do not mention Korah himself, some say that the earth swallowed Korah’s tent but that he was not in it; others that Korah was burned and that his ashes were swallowed; or that he died afterwards in the plague (see Sanhedrin 110a).

Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi: Back in the Land

Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 may well have originally consisted of one compendium, compiled by the original (“proto-Zechariah”) Zechariah’s disciples, which–besides the literary evidence linking the two–would make sense of the fact that we have no haftarah (prophetic reading in the synagogue) from the short book we now call Haggai.  The career of the prophet Haggai–about whom little is known– took place in or about the year 520 B.C.E., earlier than that of Zechariah. (Because Haggai is the only prophetic book from which there is no haftarah), Plaut provides little biography on him.)   This article is excerpted from The Haftarah Commentary, and is used with the permission of UAHC Press.

Haggai and Zechariah:  Rebuild the Temple!

The exiles who returned home from Babylon in 538 B.C.E. began plans for rebuilding the Temple, but adverse economic and political conditions delayed the project. Nothing happened until two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, passionately pleaded with the people to continue and complete the building. Zechariah (his name means “the Eternal has remembered”) was active between 520 and 518, and the sacred task was at last taken up again and finished in 516-515.

latter prophets

Zechariah

According to Meyers  (Anchor Bible: Haggai, Zechariah 1-8) “Haggai and Zechariah … must be given enormous credit for using their prophetic ministries to foster the transition of a people from national autonomy to an existence which transcended political definition and which centered upon a view of God and his moral demands.”

We know nothing about the personal life of the Prophet (Zechariah), except that he was the son of Berachiah and the grandson of Iddo. We have only the book that goes under his name, and it happens to be one of the most difficult in the Tanakh. Rashi and Ibn Ezra long ago noted its problems, which are exacerbated by a clearly visible difference between the first eight chapters and the last six. It appears to many scholars that chapters 1‑8 are by one person (called First or Proto‑Zechariah) and 9‑14 by another (called Second or Deutero-Zechariah).

Book of Numbers

Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

The Character of Numbers

The Book of Numbers is composed of narrative, legislation, and archival records. Its narrative begins at the point where Exodus leaves off. (Leviticus, which interrupts the flow of narration, consists almost entirely of legislation independent of historic precedent–with the exception of Lev. 16.) Exodus ends by relating the erection of the Tabernacle on the first day of Nissan, and Numbers starts with a census taken a month later, just a little over a year after the Children of Israel came out of Egypt. 

book of numbers in the wildernessThe book covers the years of the people’s wanderings in the desert. However, only the beginning and closing periods of the journey are described in some detail; the thirty‑eight years in which a new generation matures receive no attention at all. Biblical memory accords no further place to those who were saved from Egypt but did not prove worthy of the gift of freedom and so were condemned to die in the desert.

The law given is usually case law, arising from the specific circumstances in the narrative. For instance, telling the story of the dedication of the Tabernacle occasions the statement of priestly obligations and privileges in general. From the law applicable to a particular event told in the book, the Torah proceeds to state the broader law valid for all time.

The Four Main Sections

The book falls into four broad sections. The first (1:1 – 10:10) deals with regulations promulgated at Sinai; it contains demographic and legal material of the most varied kind: from the holding of a census to the ordeal of bitter waters; from prescriptions for offerings to the use of the silver trumpets.  It also includes the story of how the Tabernacle was consecrated after it had been set up.

The second part (10:11‑20:1).reports highlights of the early days of the march; emphasizing the various rebellions which occurred, especially the uprising of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and then it tells of the end of the old leadership: the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the judgment on Moses, and the selection of Eleazar and Joshua as the new priestly and secular leaders who will bring the people into Canaan.

The Latter Prophets

Excerpted from The Haftarah Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

Later or Literary Prophets are those ascribed to 15 individuals who left us prophetic legacies identified by the name of a specific prophet. The three who bequeathed us extensive writings are often called the “Major Prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), while the other 12 are referred to either as “The Twelve” or the “Minor Prophets,” because their surviving literary heritage is relatively small, in some cases only a few pages. However, some of the most often‑quoted orations stem from prophets like Hosea, Amos, and Micah, which makes it clear that the term “minor” refers to the quantity but not to the quality of their literary work […]Ezekiel

Who Were the Prophets? 

We tend to think of them primarily as people who foretold the future. Such foretelling was indeed an important part of their message, but they were not soothsayers or fortune-tellers. Their message was usually: “If you continue on your current paths and disregard God‘s ways, then disaster lies ahead. But,” they would continue, “if you turn from your evil ways you will live and enjoy God’s favor.” They would describe both misfortune and good fortune in vivid and memorable imagery.

Thus the prophet usually predicts what should be and delivers this prediction with a sense of certainty. “This rule applies even to the vision of messianic redemption: It is what should be, but whether it will be depends, at least to some extent, on us” (see Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “No Guarantees,” Jerusalem Report, August 11, 1994, p. 26).

What the prophets said was sometimes highly unpopular. For example, Jeremiah courted death and was jailed for announcing impending doom. At other times, when the people faced depression and despair, the prophet would give them hope by stressing that repentance was possible and that divine mercy was always available.

True prophets (there were false ones too) knew that they spoke as messengers of God. Possessed with divine fire, they were convinced that God’s spirit guided their speech. The Bible usually called the prophet navi, a word probably related to the Akkadian nabu, having the meaning of calling out or proclaiming. The Greek translation (of the Bible–the Septuagint) rendered the term as prophetes, which described a spokesperson for God. The true prophet did not convey a personal opinion, but rather proclaimed a divinely initiated message.

The Book of Exodus

Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

Exodus is the book which speaks of the physical and spiritual birth of Israel as a nation. It contains the stories of enslavement and liberation, of revelation and wanderings, of belief and apostasy; it is the repository of fundamental laws and of the rules governing national worship. It has two settings, Egypt and the wilderness of Sinai, and its timeframe is the latter part of the 13th century B.C.E.

A Continuation of Genesis

It is important to see the book as a continuation of Genesis, which we described earlier as a tale of beginnings and of God‘s disappointments (see “Introducing Genesis”). After many trials and disillusionments, God chooses a particular people whom in time to come He will make His allies and helpers. He selects Abraham and Sarah as the ancestors of this nation‑to‑be, and the rest of Genesis is the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families who will be the physical and spiritual forebears of the peofople Israel. 

moses in basketDuring a severe famine Jacob and his children and grandchildren migrate to Egypt. They leave Canaan behind, the land which God had promised them as their permanent inheritance. Their fate will be now forged in a strange land, amidst a people who will turn from welcoming hosts into a nation of oppressors. It is at this point of change that the Book of Exodus begins it will tell of the fashioning of Israel, the people of God’s choice, the nation that God needs.

History and Faith

The tales of Genesis were a mixture of myth, legend, distant memory, and search for origins, bound together by the strands of a central theological concept. With Exodus, the Pentateuch enters the realm of history, albeit not history in the modern sense. The latter describes events which are rooted exclusively in the human realm; the former depicts the will of God as the hinge on which human events must turn. In that sense, Exodus is history grounded in faith. Thus, the escape of the Israelites from Egypt may be said to represent history in the accepted, contemporary meaning [though many scholars questions whether even this much took place historically]; that this was brought about by divine interference, and was so experienced by Israel, gives the tale of liberation an additional faith dimension.

The Meaning of Ezekiel’s Vision

It is important to elaborate on a few points raised in this article. 1) Merkavah (chariot) mysticism is the basis of the early stages of Kabbalah. 2) The description of the prophet’s vision is poetic, and as such it transcends not only human imagination, but also the limits of the language. 3) Mystics of other faiths also transcended the limits of the language in trying to convey their encounter with God. Reprinted with permission from The Haftarah Commentary published by Union of Reform Judaism.

Innumerable attempts have been made to translate the descriptions of this complex vision into a comprehensible visual image, but none of them has been able to gain general support from the many scholars who have studied the text. Obviously, there are wheels and faces, but the way they move in all directions, and the wheels within wheels, present difficulties that cannot be overcome. This kind of vision, and especially the Prophet’s description of the divine throne, bursts the limits of the ordinary and has a reality all of its own.

No wonder, therefore, that those who believed that Ezekiel’s experience had a deeper meaning endlessly explored the text for hidden allusions and mystical messages. A whole literature sprang up around this chapter, which has become ma’aseh merkavah, chariot mysticism.

Students pored over the words–to such an extent that there was strong opposition to their introduction as the haftarah [prophetic reading] for Shavuot. In the end, Rabbi Judah’s permissive opinion prevailed, for after all, what pious person would not wish to understand the secrets of such a religious vision! (See Mishnah Megillah 4:10.)

Still, asking just exactly what Ezekiel had seen is asking the wrong question altogether. The prophet had an overwhelming experience that he tried to convey to others. As a descriptive exercise, his attempt failed for his words could not manage to convey with any sense of clarity what his spiritual eye had seen. But, unwittingly perhaps, he thereby suggested to his contemporaries, and the thousands of others who studied his words, that the Presence of God is forever beyond human description.

Zechariah’s Message

Reprinted with permission from The Haftarah Commentary published by Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The modern reader is likely to ask questions about Zechariah’s oracles, which are hard to understand today. If one wonders whether his own contemporaries were able to follow his message, the answer cannot be a straightforward yes or no.

Zechariah had extraordinary visions of things to come at the end of time. They told of happenings that no one had ever experienced; they put the familiar upside down and doubtlessly created astonishment among his listeners. Could everyone follow him? Probably not; but those able to read a transcript of his words could study his predictions and ponder hidden meanings.

The modern reader does the same, but in addition has to discover afresh what to the Prophet’s audience were familiar allusions. They knew about "living waters" and about the rainfall in Egypt; words like Mount of Olives, Aravah [Arabah], Geba, Rimmon, Eastern and Western seas did not have to be explained to them. The location of the gates in Jerusalem required no commentary, and Sukkot and its water festival were as much part of their lives as Thanksgiving Day is in North America.

Zechariah must have startled his contemporaries with his broad visions. He was a prophet who tied the fate of Israel closely to all humanity, and by doing so spoke of the future of Israel and that of nations far off in almost the same breath. With Jerusalem the spiritual capital of the world, and idolatry having disappeared, the Eternal would be the sole divinity whom people would adore.

The Prophet did not challenge his listeners to assist God so that this might come to pass. He did not think of missionaries traveling to the far ends of the globe in order to convert others to Judaism. If religious movements elsewhere were doing this, he did not know about them. For him, the sole motive power in this spiritual revolution was God, and none other. The time of the end would come when God was ready.

Zechariah’s messianic vision became in time the religious property of his people. The Eternal’s name would be on all lips, Zechariah foresaw, and by his vision, fortified a sense of pride and happiness in his contemporaries. The Temple was not just another building, it was a place of holy striving, where the flame of faith was kept burning for the time when God would make Jerusalem the goal of one vast human pilgrimage.

Shabbat As Protest

Reprinted with permission from Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year (Central Conference of American Rabbis)

If Shabbat is to have significance, it must confront one of modern civilization’s greatest curses, its internal and external unrest. This unrest arises from the twin facts that the life we lead is frequently without goals and that we are involved in competition without end. 

I view Shabbat as potentially an enormous relief from and protest against the basic causes of unrest. Once a week it provides us with an opportunity to address ourselves to the meaning of human existence rather than the struggle for survival; to persons rather than things; to Creation and our part in it; to society and its needs; to ourselves as individuals and yet as social beings. This has been called “the inner source of leisure,” the setting of goals which are both realistic and within one’s reach, yet also beyond one’s self.

shabbat restThere are few better places for such redirection than a religious service, whose major function ought to be not just the repetition of well-worn formulae but the celebration of human goals. If nothing happens to us during this or any Shabbat experience except an enlarging of our vision, we will have gained a new perspective of life’s meaning and will have diminished our sense of unrest. That will be Shabbat rest in the sense required by our time.

Endless competition is a specific form of restlessness. Shabbat can be a surcease from and a protest against all forms of competition even when they come in attractive packages marked “self-advancement” or “self-improvement.” Shabbat in this sense may be viewed as a “useless” day. Our ancestors had a keen understanding of the fact that sleep on Shabbat was a form of coming closer to God. We must once again understand that doing nothing, being silent and open to the world, letting things happen inside, can be as important as, and sometimes more important than what we commonly call useful.

Formerly a person who did not work was considered useless; what we need now is a purposeful uselessness, an activity (or non-activity!) which is important in that it becomes an essential protest against that basic unrest which comes from competition without end.