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.

Dr. Gillman was as non-fundamentalist as they come, and yet he still felt bound by Jewish traditions. I remember a story he told in class one year about cleaning his refrigerator for Pesah. Apparently there was a crouton that had fallen into a crack and was inaccessible. He knew that he could simply “annul” that hametz in the morning, but he couldn’t sleep. So in the middle of the night he took a screwdriver and attacked the fridge until he had purged the hametz!

Dr. Gillman enjoyed being an interpreter of Judaism for non-Jews, and also for Jews of other denominations. He was much in demand as a scholar in residence in Reform congregations, and he loved to challenge and thus empower audiences to do their own thinking about important topics such as creation, revelation and theodicy. A typical exercise would be to tell students to take a fresh piece of paper and a pen and go write down their thoughts about what revelation could mean. Was it literal? Metaphorical? Fictitious? He would then get people to read their ideas and subject themselves to cross-examination. What about x? Y? He was not looking to convince them to his point of view, and he could be frustratingly vague about what those might be. Rather, he wanted us to deepen our thinking, to deal with the counter-evidence, and to consider the implications of our ideas.

I once annoyed Professor Gillman, but in the kind of way that teachers really enjoy and hold on to. I offered the view that Jewish philosophy is very interesting and surely worthy of study, but that it was also inherently subjective and unstable. Jewish identity and community, I suggested, depended on the stable structures of halakhah. As long as normative practice was assured, the flights of fancy of philosophy could be indulged. What we needed was to insulate halakhah from philosophy. He was scandalized by this suggestion, and loved to quote it in my name for years afterwards. And I must concede, that while the 20-something version of myself had a point, my 50-something version has come back closer to the views of my teacher. Halakhah and Mahshavah—law and philosophy—do need to be in conversation. Indeed, it is not possible to have a meaningful religious practice without a well-developed expression of faith. In my recent responsa I have tried to integrate moral reasoning and “meta-halakhic” discourse into the examination of precedent.

One more thing that is important to share. Dr. Gillman maintained deep friendships with many people—colleagues and students—across lines of ideology. Rabbi Bill Lebeau continued to visit with him even in his illness, as did other members of the faculty and administration. Many of us at JTS especially enjoyed observing the continuing friendship between Rabbi Gillman and Rabbi Joel Roth. They were as different from each other in intellectual interests and ideological convictions as you can imagine. Gillman favored Heschel’s “aggadah” over halakhah, whereas as Roth was a student of the great halakhists such as Saul Lieberman z”l. Gillman preferred the indeterminacy of mythic structures, whereas Roth taught about the systemic structures of halakhah. On gay rights, the two parted company, with Gillman as a fervent advocate, and Roth as a reluctant but nevertheless firm opponent of changes that he felt could not be justified within the law. And yet—their friendship remained, deep and true. They could be seen sitting together for lunch, sharing a half century and more of friendship and shared values.

This is how I wish to remember my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman—a person of sharp intellect, broad interests, and deep friendships. A model of critical and constructive faith, a sage and teacher and friend. May his memory be a blessing.