Monthly Archives: November 2017

Remembering our teacher, Neil Gillman z”l

Dr. Gillman was a giant presence at JTS for well over a half century, beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s. His ordination was from JTS and his doctorate from Columbia. Rabbi Gillman was a beloved professor of Jewish thought who played a significant role in mentoring generations of students into careers as Jewish clergy, educators and scholars. He served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School during a period of transition when women’s ordination was being debated. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model a more inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life. He was also a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a popular volume, and working with a committee to articulate the beliefs of our centrist movement in the volume Emet V’Emunah.

When I arrived at JTS in 1989 Dr. Gillman was already a senior figure—he enthralled us with stories about the towering figures of JTS history—Heschel and Kaplan, H.L. Ginsberg and many others. Sitting in his office surrounded by high piles of books, chomping on his pipe, he initiated us into the ancient conversation of Jewish belief. In his book Sacred Fragments he introduced many of us to the thought of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, specifically the concept of “second naivete,” which described the possibility and even need for a post-enlightenment return to mythic structures in religious faith. In other words, one might absorb the truths of historical development—of the earth, of human life, of culture and even of Torah—and yet also live fully within the mythic structures of revelation, redemption and even resurrection. That last theme became increasingly important to him and was the basis of another outstanding book, The Death of Death. In it, he showed how rabbinic Judaism expanded the concept of resurrection as a form of theodicy to justify God following the intolerable catastrophes of the destruction of the second temple, and then the Hadrianic persecutions. He even sat in on a class that I was taking with the visiting professor Peter Schafer—Dr. Gillman was eager to learn from everyone, whether a great scholar or a simple student, a learned Jew or a secular philosopher. In all of this he was a great model for us. Continue reading

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Toledot 5778b: Hear the Voice of Rebecca

My go-to expert for Parashat Toledot the past few years has been a student at JTS named Lauren Tuchman. She is a senior in the rabbinical school who teaches frequently on topics of disability and Judaism. This year she was selected to present an ELI talk, which has been recorded and will soon be released to the public.

As a person who is blind, Lauren relates to stories such as this week’s deception of Isaac by Rebecca and Jacob on a personal level. In an essay that she wrote last year for Dr. Joy Ladin, who was teaching at JTS, Lauren imagined herself as Isaac, reading his own story in the Torah and adding an insider’s midrash: Continue reading

Toledot 5778: A Family of Covenant

[Written for the JTS Torah Commentary]

The stories of Genesis are presented as family portraits, but simultaneously they describe the origins of a religious civilization. How did the people of Israel acquire and maintain its distinctive religious mission? Genesis offers not only a window into Israel’s past, but a blueprint for its future. Implicit is an invitation to contribute to this unfolding narrative, attaching the threads of our lives to the tapestry woven by our ancestors.

Viewing one’s story within the scope of Israel’s past and future has significant repercussions. Even the most personal decision—the choice of whom to marry—becomes framed in covenantal terms: Will this marriage maintain the family’s distinct religious identity, or instead lead it to blend into the surrounding culture? This question plays a tense and tragic role within the first families and drives the central drama of Toledot. Continue reading

Hayei Sarah 5778: Only Two Lives to Live

When people ask me what I miss most about being a congregational rabbi, the first thing that comes to mind is nihum aveilim, comforting the bereaved. Of course I enjoyed the simhas more, but when sitting with a family in their living room, or standing with them as they huddled together by the grave, I witnessed depths of emotion and kindness that are elusive in ordinary times. Estranged siblings worked together, and surviving spouses expressed the fullness of their love and loss without embarrassment. Parents modeled for children how to break down and rebuild, and all members of the family shared in narrating the love that they had known. I recall terrible moments when the opposite occurred—family rifts deepened and ancient angers erupted over foolish things. But those instances were far less common than the times when death swept away minor annoyances, and brought out the best in the bereaved family.

We see this type of death benefit in the family of Sarah and Abraham this week, as first she, and then he, draws a final breath and is gathered to the ancestors. Their estranged children come together for the burial of their father, and we hear no more of rivalry between them. Before Sarah’s death, Abraham seemed a bit erratic. But this week he shines, arranging for Sarah’s burial, Isaac’s marriage, and the needs of his extended family. When he dies, it is at a ripe age, old and content. Good for him. Continue reading

Vayera 5778: Eating with the Angels

Distinguished visitors, would you care for some milk and cheese curds with your steaks? This, apparently is what Abraham offers the three angels whose visit opens our Torah portion, VaYera. There are much meatier morsels in the portion this week—the announcement of Isaac’s birth, the demolition of Sodom and Gomorrah, the incident in Gerar, the near-death of both Ishmael and then Isaac. But let us feast on simpler fare for now—what’s for dinner?

The Sages were troubled by many aspects of this meal, starting with the very premise that angels can eat. In The Talmud (BM 86b) they claim that the angels only appeared to eat, but other rabbinic traditions say that they really did eat in honor of Abraham, just as Moses did not eat in honor of God on Mt. Sinai—a person should always respect the custom of the place (when in Rome, do as the Romans?). Apparently, people in heaven don’t need to eat, but angels on earth may have a steak.

But then there is the other problem—the verse says that Abraham, “took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.” How could Abraham serve them meat and milk together? I know, it was still centuries before Sinai, but the Rabbis did their best to reconcile such contradictions so that the ancestors could be shown to have anticipated and mostly observed the mitzvot. Abraham, how could you? Continue reading