York to the Power of 50: Rabbi Plaut donates his library to York

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut has generously donated his extensive library to the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections at York University.

The Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Elizabeth S. Plaut Library, which includes approximately 4,000 books that Plaut, 95, used for his writings and sermons, has been certified as cultural property of outstanding significance and national importance by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board, an independent tribunal of the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. Plaut is an internationally renowned Jewish scholar who has written more than 25 books and published more than 1,000 articles on philosophy, religion and other topics. His magnum opus, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, has been described as essential reading for Jews and religious scholars of all faiths.

Above: Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut (centre) with his daughter Judith Plaut (left) and son Rabbi Jonathan Plaut (right), at the Honour Court dedication and reception on June 11

“This collection is a treasure trove for researchers and scholars,” says Sara Horowitz, director, Centre for Jewish Studies. “For more than half a century, Rabbi Plaut has been a leading authority on Reform Judaism. His sermons address the complexities of modern life, and his collection will be invaluable to those studying such topics as theology, the Holocaust, contemporary Jewish literature and interfaith relations.”

The library reflects the broad range of sources Plaut used to develop his ideas and commentaries. In addition to works on religious scholarship, there are books devoted to science, ethics, politics, history, refugee studies, race relations, military chaplaincy, art and popular fiction, ranging from novels to the cartoons of Charles M. Schultz ("Peanuts"). “Plaut has often been described as a Renaissance man, and his library bears witness to this fact,” says Michael Moir, University archivist and head, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections. The library also includes out-of-print volumes of the Bible, Talmud and other books of Jewish law. Many of the books bear Plaut’s handwritten notes or have been bookmarked by him to locate a significant passage.

“My father has enjoyed a long association with York University, including serving as a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Refugee Studies,” says his son, Rabbi Jonathan Plaut. “He instructed the family to donate his complete library to York University with the sole condition that it remains intact. In the 1990s he had already donated 450 of his rare books to the University.”

York’s Centre for Jewish Studies, meanwhile, is the recipient of the Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut Intellectual Property Collection, including the copyrights to a major portion of Plaut’s published works.

“Rabbi Plaut devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, understanding and human rights causes,” says York University Foundation President & CEO Paul Marcus. “His library is a wonderful contribution to our growing archives, and both these gifts will be highly appreciated by York scholars and the greater community well into the future. We are so honoured to be associated with Rabbi Plaut, an outstanding community leader, in such a meaningful way.”

Born in Germany, Plaut fled the Nazi regime in 1935 and moved to the US, where he became a rabbi in 1939. In 1943 he became an American citizen and enlisted as a chaplain in the US Army. He served with the 104th Infantry Division in Belgium and Germany during the Second World War, and was present at the capture of the first concentration camp in Germany. After the war, he had pulpits in Chicago and in St. Paul, Minn., and from 1961 to 1977 was senior rabbi of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Upon his retirement he was appointed senior scholar. He has been president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and, as a passionate supporter of human rights, served from 1978 to 1985 as vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Plaut has received 19 honorary degrees and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. He has also received an Order of Ontario and Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He was conferred with an honorary doctorate of laws from York in 1987.

Both gifts support York University Foundation’s York to the Power of 50 fundraising campaign –already at $160 million, more than three-quarters of the way toward its $200-million goal.

Plaut was honoured as a benefactor at this year’s Honour Court dedication and reception on June 11. The Lorna R. Marsden Honour Court and Welcome Centre is a pavilion and garden at the main entrance of York’s Keele campus. The University’s leadership supporters are acknowledged with personally engraved stones in the Honour Court.

For more information, visit the York University Foundation Web site.