Remembering Rabbi Neil Gillman, A JTS Giant


He stood at the intersection of the ancient and the modern, a kind of theological crossing guard gently guiding several generations of Jews through the crosswalk, a foot on both sides of the divide.

In his modern-day classic, “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew,” first published in 1990, Rabbi Neil Gillman, one of the premier thinkers in the Conservative movement, described the dilemma of the contemporary believer in a time of shifting religious and societal currents. To keep Jewish tradition fresh yet authentic for future generations meant re-examining the foundations of belief, starting with what happened at Sinai and the nature of God. Jews, he wrote, “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. To do so would be to lose our link with our community — and without a community, where and who would we be?”

Rabbi Gillman, who died last Friday at age 84 after a long illness, was remembered this week as a distinguished theologian, philosopher, author and teacher. The scene Sunday at his funeral at Congregation Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side attested to his reach. The pews were crammed with men and women of all ages and generations, and included more rabbis, scholars, professors and students of Judaism of note than perhaps any room I had ever entered. We were all linked by grief at the passing of one of the most respected and beloved figures in contemporary American Judaism.

To call Rabbi Gillman a distinguished theologian, philosopher and author (all of which he certainly was) is actually an understatement. Those labels don’t begin to address his larger influence as an educator and thinker. He trained generations of rabbis during his 50 years as a dean and professor of philosophy at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America — whole brigades of rabbis who in turn carried his ideas forward to their congregations and their students. “It may be grandiose,” he once told me, “but I think I have a congregation of 200,000 people out there” who read his books or whom he taught, or both.

That may be an undercount.

He laid out his ideas in “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew,” which won the 1991 National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought, and continued to help guide contemporary Jews to remain connected to their religion and their heritage in several additional volumes, including his moving final book, “Believing and Its Tensions: A Personal Conversation About God, Torah, Suffering and Death in Jewish Thought.”

As a writer, he also had a following for his weekly Torah portion commentaries, which appeared for more than 25 years in The Jewish Week, a number of which were collected in his book, “Traces of God: Seeing God in Torah, History and Everyday Life.” Rabbi Gillman was a member of the advisory committee of Sh’ma, an influential newsletter on new trends in Jewish thought and practice, and he served on the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, which produced Emet Ve’Emunah, released in 1988 and considered the first common statement of principles in the Conservative movement’s then-143-year history.

Conservative Judaism magazine dedicated its Fall/Winter 2008–2009 issue to him in honor of his retirement.

The speakers at Sunday’s funeral service, presided over by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmonofsky of Ansche Chesed, provided a cumulative portrait of a scholar and educator of the highest caliber, who was equally gifted with personal qualities of outsized warmth and generosity.

JTS Professor Rabbi Joel Roth introduced himself as Rabbi Gillman’s regular intellectual sparring partner on matters of Jewish law and tradition — and also close friend; no matter how vigorously each defended his own position in a debate, their mutual respect was never affected. Rabbi Mychal Springer, the director of the JTS Center for Pastoral Education, described Rabbi Gillman’s capacity for empathy and caring, his office door always open to students and colleagues alike, his home a lively and inviting gathering place for Shabbat dinners and Jewish holidays.

Sarah, Rabbi Gillman’s wife of 59 years, recalled anecdotes from their early years together and called him her best friend. Daughters Deborah and Abigail and grandson Jacob Kass each spoke of the shared love of books and of Judaism that was woven into their family fabric, and movingly portrayed Rabbi Gillman’s ability to share his buoyant spirit and delight in the world.

Of all his books, Rabbi Gillman thought that “The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought” contained his best writing, especially in its last chapter, in which he asks of himself, and answers, the question, “What do I believe?”

That was also the question Rabbi Gillman routinely assigned his students to ask themselves, by composing a personal theological statement. The questions with which he insisted they grapple were not academic but existential: What do you believe? What do you mean by God? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happened at Sinai? What metaphor do you use for God?

The assignment was essential, he said, because “when they enter a congregation, what their congregants will want to find out is not what Maimonides believed but what they believe.” The fact that no one had ever asked him to confront such questions during his years as a rabbinic student, he said, “was terrible preparation for my career.”

But in his own telling, he had started asking such questions of himself while growing up in Quebec City, a die-hard hockey fan (which he remained his entire life) of the Montreal Canadiens. “My earliest religious experience was saying the Shema” during a crucial game between the Canadiens and their long-time rivals, the Boston Bruins, he liked to recall. “And I had to suffer when it occurred to me that some kid in Boston was doing the same thing and that God has to decide who to listen to.”

Rabbi Gillman’s enthusiasms ranged so widely, and his intellect was so inquiring, that juxtaposing unalike things in the service of discovering something new about both came naturally to him. His conversational mix of sports and theology was just one example, and it was a gambit that both instructed and entertained. Witness a lively classroom discussion a few years ago about the ritualistic nature of the annual Super Bowl trophy award ceremony.

That conversation took place not at JTS but at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball (now renamed Streicker) Center for ongoing education. Rabbi Gillman’s dedication to teaching was such that after being named a professor emeritus and retiring from his long-time professional home at JTS, he simply found a new gig — teaching at Skirball, where in January 2010 I enrolled in one of his classes.

What immediately struck me when I first entered his classroom — for a course titled, “Who Is a Jewish Heretic and Who Decides?” featuring readings and discussions about the beliefs of Maimonides, Spinoza and Mordecai Kaplan, among others — was his complete lack of pretension. Rabbi Gillman immediately engaged with each of us as individuals, not just teaching us but also asking what and how we could teach him. It made no difference how much or how little Jewish learning we had; what mattered was the give-and-take of our conversation as a community of learners.

The rabbi’s enthusiasm for engaging with ideas was infectious. At once serious-minded and convivial, he seemed to invite everyone in the room to become part of his extended family of learners, and I happily accepted the invitation. I routinely enrolled in his subsequent classes, and we began an ongoing conversation about literature and theology, especially authors (think Tolstoy and Graham Greene), whose works often centered on themes of faith and doubt.

I took avid notes in his classes, interviewed him for more than one article, was more than flattered when he asked if he could include passages from my own writing in his forthcoming class on illness and suffering. That class roughly coincided with the start of his own health challenges. He nonetheless continued to teach as long as he could.

As his student and as a fellow writer, I saved all my notes, which is why I am able to quote him here. In reviewing these notes, I came across this comment: “I don’t see myself as being a great pastor,” he said, but “more as a mentor to many students.”

That he certainly was to me — and also a colleague and a friend, as he was to so many who came to pay tribute to him last Sunday. It was the end of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and we were grateful to have had him in our lives.

JTA contributed to this report.