A Theologian for the Modern Age

A former student introduces the most recent work by Rabbi Neil Gillman.

by Rabbi Julie Roth

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The first time my father was forced to work on Shabbat by Nazi gunpoint, his faith in God radically changed. Seeing that he was not struck down by God as he had been taught, he began to adjust how he thought about God and Torah, transforming his worldview rather than abandoning his relationship with God altogether. My father taught me to believe in God by the way he davened, singing loudly and joyfully with abandon, even after surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau. Even more than that, he taught me that my understanding of God could shift over the course of my lifetime. He inspired me to become a rabbi and to study Jewish theology, and yet I suspect that my father didn’t even know what the word theology meant.

It was my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who gave me the language to describe my faith and struggles as well as the permission to do so. On the occasion of the publication of his most recent book, Believing and Its Tensions, I want to honor his legacy.

This new volume outlines Gillman’s personal views on God, Torah, suffering, and death, sharpening the convictions developed over five decades of writing and teaching with a rare clarity and depth that distill the essence of his thinking and even highlight the shifts and unanswered questions. Gillman navigates the modern questions of human authorship of the Torah, makes resurrection of the dead relevant to a modern sensibility, and dares to question whether or not anything exists beyond our metaphors for God.

Two of the primary elements of Gillman’s influence were celebrated at a panel discussion on the occasion of his retirement from JTS: first, that the biblical accounts of the creation and the Exodus from Egypt are “true in a very different sense of truth,” and second, that every Jew, regardless of age or education, can develop his or her own personal theology. A third contribution, the concession that theology cannot respond to all human needs or answer every question, is courageously evident in this new work.

Gillman challenges the assumption that “once a myth is broken – namely, exposed as myth and not fact – it doesn’t work any longer.” In other words, even if God did not literally intervene with miracles to redeem us from Egyptian slavery, the story of the Exodus, as recounted at the Passover seder, can still provide us with a “goosebump experience.” The power and the mythological truth stem not from historical fact, but from the values instilled by the narrative. For generations, our orientation as Jews in terms of caring for the stranger and the oppressed, originated from this myth. The truth, likewise, of the creation story is that God ordained a balance between work and rest, that the world is inherently good but not perfect, and that every human being contains a spark of the Divine. Gillman’s theology recaptures our myths as “valuable, important, and helpful” allowing modern Jews to embrace intellectual honesty while holding onto the sacredness of our inherited traditions.

In his teaching, Gillman invites his students – whether they are rabbinical students, congregants or in elementary school – to describe either the God they believe in or the God they don’t believe in. From either direction, he opens our hearts and minds to concepts and metaphors for God that move past the old man with the white beard in the sky. Believing and Its Tensions opens with the story of a fourth-grade Jewish day school class asked by Gillman to write down or draw “what they sense, feel, and visualize, whenever they use the term God.” On the top of the pile of papers was this statement: “When I visualize God, He looks like a blob. God can shift into everything, anything He wants.”

And indeed, Gillman asserts that God can be “whatever we envision God to be,” but ultimately, the community decides which images and metaphors endure.

I remember a question Gillman asked me during my independent study on the theology of healing. I was suffering from a debilitating and frightening hand injury and together we were wrestling with how I could integrate this painful condition and the accompanying physical limitations and dependence on others into my understanding of God. Gillman had just published The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought. Several people who were wheelchair bound or whose bodies had betrayed them in other ways, wrote him impassioned letters rejecting his theological claim that “we are our bodies.” He asked me whether or not I thought there was a way to answer their concerns.

At the time, he was looking for a theological answer that could satisfy their challenge. But now, after surviving two rounds of cancer treatment and enduring tremendous suffering himself, as he shares in the introduction to Believing and Its Tensions, he concedes, “I have long given up on the expectation that I can deal with the issue of suffering on theological grounds alone. At those moments I feel wonderful that religion is much more than theology.” Rather than leaving us with unsatisfactory answers, Gillman points us to the gifts of community and ritual as powerful resources to help in moments of illness, loss and death.

Perhaps Neil Gillman’s greatest contribution to the field of theology is his humility in acknowledging that, even after a lifetime devoted to inviting us to grow in our understanding of God and giving us the language to do so, ultimately religious expression includes silence and incompleteness. Read and discover for yourself Gillman’s capstone contribution to Jewish theology. His brilliance, honesty and probing questions will inspire readers for generations to come.

Rabbi Julie Roth is the Executive Director of the Princeton Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University. A recipient of a Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award, she was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005.