In the weeks since his death, many voices have risen to pay tribute to Professor Neil Gillman, the eminent theologian whose teaching career at the Jewish Theological Seminary had an enormous and profound influence on generations of Conservative rabbis and laypeople, myself very much included. Dr. Gillman’s unrelenting insistence on personal honesty and theological integrity forced us all to confront the reality of God in our lives, and to develop a conceptual vocabulary adequate to the challenge of embracing that Presence.
For me personally, Professor Gillman’s death closed a circle that first brought me into the world of Conservative Judaism in 1971. I was raised in the more open modern Orthodoxy of the fifties and sixties, a product of Yeshiva education and graduate of Yeshiva University. It was only a creative scholarship program for Junior Year Abroad study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem that brought me to Camp Ramah, a shining star of the Conservative movement. It was there that I was first exposed to Jews who were not Orthodox, but took their Judaism very seriously. In the relatively cloistered world of my youth, I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that such people existed. They struggled with issues of Jewish law and its relationship to modernity in ways that I had not previously encountered. It fascinated me.
I can recall, as if it were yesterday, being in camp in 1971 and hearing a lecture delivered by Seminary Professor Joel Roth to the staff. He described Conservative Judaism’s essence as a passionate commitment to Jewish law, coupled with a simultaneous commitment to dispassionate critical study of sacred text. I remember sitting there and having my Jewish sense of self awakened in a way that my life in the Yeshiva world had never afforded me. I had no way of knowing then how much of a tectonic shift my religious life was about to undergo, but that was clearly its earliest beginning.
It was just at that time that I was also first meeting and getting to know Neil Gillman, also at Camp Ramah. As I was later to learn, Professors Roth and Gillman, learned colleagues and friends, represented the yin and the yang of Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Roth taught the imperative of mitzvot as commandments; Rabbi GIllman struggled with what it meant to feel commanded. For Rabbi Roth, God was, and is, a Commanding Presence; for Rabbi Gillman, it was incumbent upon each of us, in our own ways, to take ownership of the profound teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel: as a report on revelation, Chapters 19 and 20 of Exodus are at best a Midrash. If the story of Sinai is not literal truth, how shall we understand the imperative of Jewish law, and what is its hold on us?
Joel Roth and Neil Gillman became good friends of mine, as well as teachers and mentors. Those relationships, so precious to me, endured for more than 40 years as I grew in my own rabbinate and career..
With the impact of my Ramah experiences steadily encroaching upon my previously comfortable Jewish world, I l accepted a position as an administrator at the Ramaz Primary School in Manhattan. Ramaz represented state of the art Jewish day school education, and it seemed like an opportunity that I could not turn down. Every morning, at 7:45 AM, I would be greeted by more than 200 young children. One of them, as it happened, was first-grader Debbie Gillman, Professor Gillman’s daughter.
And so it happened that one morning, as he was dropping off his daughter, I encountered Professor Gillman at the front door of the school. He sent his daughter in, and then looked me straight in the eyes and said, in these exact words, “Why are you here?” You should be at JTS, in the Rabbinical School?” Never having thought seriously, or at all, really, about studying for the rabbinate, that tectonic shift began setting off more serious tremors…
All these years later, my long and fulfilling rabbinic career in Forest Hills attests to the fact that Professor Gillman was right. I was not where I could make the greatest contribution tp Jewish life, When I visited the Shivah house last week and had a chance to talk with his wife Sara and daughters Abbey and Debbie, I wondered aloud with them how many people had come to console them by saying that Neil had made a profound difference in their lives. But I told them how grateful I was to have the chance to tell them that he didn’t just influence my life; he changed my life. He literally and figuratively changed the arc of my life, very much for the better. What was so very gratifying for me was their response. They told me that that little conversation on the steps of Ramaz was something that Neil spoke of often, and that they all knew of. Through the years, he took great pride in my rabbinate, and in his role in making it happen. What more could I possibly wish for from a treasured mentor and friend?
The last gift that Professor Gillman gave me was, arguably, the most important. Learning that he had remembered that seemingly insignificant exchange taught me anew the power of even the briefest conversation to have a lasting effect. A rabbi, or mentor, must never take for granted the potential impact of any interchange with another person, young or old. What seems like an off-handed comment to a mentor may wind up shaping a person’s life. That is, I readily admit, a terrifying responsibility, but also a remarkable privilege. Thank you, Neil, for that, and for so much more. Y’heh zihro barukh... may his memory always be a source of blessing.