Neil Gillman: Revelation and Relationships, Myths and Metaphors

Rabbi Neil Gillman, who played a significant role in the shift of Conservative Judaism over the past forty years from its original positive-historical framework to a more dynamic orientation to Jewish law and life, died on the 6th of Kislev 5778 after an extended illness. He was a  theologian and mentor to multiple generations of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and an influential teacher of many rabbis serving in Canadian congregations.  Gillman often spoke with affection and  pride of his Canadian roots.

Gillman often spoke with affection and  pride of his Canadian roots.

Neil and his sister, Betsy, were raised in the small Jewish community of Quebec City. Their father, Ernest Gillman, manufactured clothing  and their mother Rebecca was the bookkeeper and office manager of the family business. Neil Gillman often referred to his grandmother, Devorah, as one who nurtured his love of traditional rituals and practice. Senior members of my congregation in Toronto remember the Gillman family with much fondness.

While an undergraduate student at McGill University, Gillman was exposed to a lecture and writings by Will Herberg, a labor organiser who introduced social theory and existential thought to the Jewish community.  After graduating in 1954, Gillman brought his growing Jewish and French philosophical interests to the upper West Side of Manhattan, where he was ordained in 1960 by JTS.

Encouraged by Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, then chancellor of the Seminary, to remain at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Gillman began a life-long intellectual engagement with the dueling theologies of Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan. Heschel influenced Gillman to place revelation and the personal God of pathos at the centre of his thinking. Kaplan taught him that a midrashic reinterpretation of traditional beliefs was essential for Judaism to remain in creative dialogue with modern science and social realities. Heschel and Kaplan led Gillman to think deeply about God-talk and how to bridge the classical belief in “the giving of Torah” with literary-historical evidence of its human composition.

Heschel and Kaplan led Gillman to think deeply about God-talk and how to bridge the classical belief in “the giving of Torah” with literary-historical evidence of its human composition.

In his 2004 book The Way Into: Encountering God In Judaism, Gillman described his initial attraction to Heschel’s notion of a personal God. “The personal God lives in a dynamic, ever‑changing relationship with people; the impersonal god knows nothing of relationships… This metaphor of a personal God is concretized in …relational qualities: a shepherd needs sheep, a sovereign needs subjects, a lover needs a beloved. They all capture the sense that God is personally and intensely involved in relationships with people.” Although Neil “fervently resisted” the naturalistic theology of Kaplan, eventually he was attracted to Kaplan’s conceptualisation of Judaism as belonging, behaving and believing. Although Gillman directed his attention the third part of this triad, he came to agree with Kaplan that Judaism is not systematic, it is social: “Judaism is whatever Jews say it is.” And he adopted Kaplan’s position that divine revelation of Torah was best re-conceptualised as human discovery of God. Gillman’s re-interpretation of Judaism in contemporary theological language owes much to Kaplan’s integration of  “theology, ideology, and program.”

Gillman’s doctoral studies at Columbia brought him into contact with the writings of the Protestant thinkers Paul Tillich and Paul Ricoeur, as well as the French-Catholic thinker Gabriel Marcel, who served as the subject of Gillman’s thesis. As he began to reflect on how human beings know and speak about God, Gillman explored the hermeneutics of religious language and how re-interpreting earlier expressions of faith might allow their re-acquisition for a contemporary spiritual life. From Tillich he learned that religious symbols and narrative symbols still had meaning and might be used as “word pictures” to enable modern Jews to appreciate “the residual power of traditional theological claims without [their] literalist baggage.” Gillman’s fusion of 20th century Christian theology with classical Jewish thought constitutes his primary intellectual achievement.

Gillman’s fusion of 20th century Christian theology with classical Jewish thought constitutes his primary intellectual achievement.

In his award-winning book, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, Gillman creatively linked a rabbinic midrash about the fragments that remained after Moses shattered the covenantal tablets following the episode of the Golden Calf to the idea of “second naiveté” developed by Paul Ricoeur. Describing the crisis of faith brought on by modern philosophic, historical and scientific thought, Ricoeur wrote: “In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can…aim at a secondary naiveté in and through criticism. In short, it is by interpreting that we can hear again.” Echoing Ricoeur, Gillman wrote, “For many of us, the traditional set of images that characterized Judaism from antiquity on has been irreparably shattered… In this situation, we too have to carve out our own new set of tablets. But we also know that we can never discard the fragments of the old, however inadequate they may seem to us.”

In his academic reading and his teaching of future rabbis,  Gillman  moved from teaching the intellectual history of Jewish thought to a constructive theology that framed this renewal and engagement. As he later explained, “I felt it was my responsibility to help my students develop a personal theology that would cohere with the rest of their Seminary education and shape their teaching and preaching as Conservative rabbis.” Gillman’s warmth and concern for his students led to the personal and intellectual relationships that enabled him to be so influential over time. I came to know Neil during my rabbinical studies and when he served as the final supervisor for my doctoral studies. I still have an image of him puffing his pipe, leaning back in his chair, and scratching the hair that remained on the sides of his head during our discussions about what eventually became Conservative Judaism: The New Century.

During his five decades at JTS, Gillman served terms as Dean of the Rabbinical School and as Chair of the Department of Philosophies of Judaism. He often engaged in public debates with his colleague and friend, Rabbi Joel Roth, a champion of the more traditional wing of Conservative Judaism. In his eulogy for Gillman, Roth observed that Neil’s administrative responsibilities “were ultimately but trivial details.  What he really worried about was whether we, all of us, each and every one of us, were grappling with the theological issues with which rabbinic education at the Jewish Theological Seminary was confronting us.  Of course he wanted us to master Hebrew, to learn how to read Gemara in the original and understand it, to study Jewish history, to read medieval and modern Hebrew literature, and to read medieval philosophy and theology. But if we did not confront the religious and theological implications of our education, that education would have been a complete failure in his opinion.  That was always absolutely clear to each and every one of us.”

Responding to tributes to him published in 2008 in the journal, Conservative Judaism, Gillman identified some of his key theological concerns as how we “know” God, what revelation might mean given historical evidence of human handprints on the text of the Torah, the meaning of mitzvot if Torah is not the immutable word of God, the personal challenges of suffering and death, and the eschatological culmination of Judaism. These were also the focus of his last book, Believing and its Tensions. As he explained, revelation is, “for me, the central theological issue: how one understands revelation determines how one deals with the authority of Torah on all matters of Jewish belief and practice.”

Following Maimonides, who recognised that terms used for speech and action did not mean the same thing when applied to God as they did when describing human behaviour, Gillman questioned, “But then what was Torah? Whence its sanctity? Its authority? More broadly, what was the epistemological status of any theological claim? Finally, as a rabbi, how could I justify teaching and advocating the bulk of Jewish practice which, I continued to believe, remained central to any authentic understanding of Judaism?”  These were the critical questions that he wanted his students to consider.

Drawing upon the work of Tillich and Ricoeur, Gillman identified “myth” as a means by which humans speak metaphorically about what is significant, but not directly verifiable, extrapolating from our knowledge of this world to embrace what is not immediately perceivable. In a dramatic reversal of Heschel’s concept of theopocentrism, Gillman came to understand all Biblical and rabbinic discourse about God “as humanly-crafted images” that derived from our experience and self-awareness.

Gillman’s anthropological theology led to a liberal orientation to Jewish law and an advocacy for ritual change.

Gillman claimed that myths are not only used by religious traditions, but also by scientists to express what is ineffable. “Myths are the connective tissues that knit together the data of experience, thereby enabling these data to form a coherent pattern and acquire meaning.” For Jews, Gillman argued, these narratives and “word pictures” are canonised in Torah. While some of these myths are “dead” and without meaning if understood in a literal way, they are “tenacious” and “plastic,” open to midrashic reinterpretation to enable these “human constructs” to regain personal significance, to “become true when we embrace them and live them” through liturgy and ritual. His anthropological theology led to a liberal orientation to Jewish law and an advocacy for ritual change.

Still, Gillman saw great value in communal and personal Jewish life, “Not because it is ‘the’ Truth, not because it originated in the explicit word and will of God, but rather because of its intrinsic richness, its ability to help us cope with life, to make sense of our world.” Contending that Judaism must be more than community to attain religious significance, Gillman followed the argument of Gerson Cohen that a meaningful theology must have a fulsome eschatology.

In his book, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, Gillman turned his attention to “the ultimate enigma.”  He examined the development of Jewish thought about physical resurrection and spiritual immortality, tracing the historical evolution and interweaving of these two distinctive beliefs. This became a platform to affirm his “hope for the hereafter” and to disagree with the common liberal Jewish rejection of physical resurrection. The articulation of belief in the “death of death” became another of Gillman’s distinctive contributions to contemporary Jewish thought.

The articulation of belief in the “death of death” became another of Gillman’s distinctive contributions to contemporary Jewish thought.

Seeing the move from chaos to cosmos as a critical aspect of Jewish belief, Gillman returned to Will Herberg’s contention that Judaism takes the historic progression of time as a serious theological datum, so that “the death of death marks the final step in the triumph of the monotheistic God.” He drew upon Gabriel Marcel’s notion of embodiment as essential to our sense of self. And he applied contemporary neurological studies of the unity of body and mind to affirm the “psycho-physical” unity of soul and body.  Gillman was then able to assert his existential belief about “the everlasting preciousness to God of the life I led here on earth” and to reclaim, with “second naiveté” the myth that God “brings the dead to life,” and to praise the “goodness and majesty of God.”

In many ways, Neil Gillman followed Martin Buber who taught that “all real life is meeting.” At his funeral, Gillman’s friend and bar plugta, Joel Roth, noted, “What gives meaning to death is the knowledge that one’s acts and learning do not die, but … convey the meaning of life that cannot be eradicated by death….” While following Kaplan’s path of natural theology, Neil remained committed to what he would characterise as the myth of a caring and concerned God. Enacting that metaphor, what Gillman really “cherished most was a fabric of relationships.”  In addition to a life of academic debate, Neil wrote that “encounters, many in my office with students, colleagues and many in adult education… were transformative moments.”

encounters, many in my office with students, colleagues and many in adult education… were transformative moments.”

Neil Gillman’s students, colleagues and friends remember him for his wit, his witness to a modern melding of truth and tradition, and his willingness to expose his own weaknesses and doubts in relationships that would encourage others to explore the myths and metaphors that gave meaning to their faith.

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch has served congregations in Albany, New York and Toronto. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He serves as a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus. He received a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University.
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