Rabbi Neil Gillman, z"l

January 06, 2018
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


It was with a heavy heart that I heard the news last month of the passing of Rabbi Neil Gillman at the age of 84. Rabbi Gillman was a profound thinker, prolific author, and preeminent theologian at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where I trained as a rabbi. He wrote a widely read column in The Jewish Week, oversaw the Ostow study group in which many Park Avenue Synagogue congregants participated over the years, and as a theological educator, he trained generations of rabbis how to think, believe, teach, and preach our faith. Neither his first, final, or finest student, I make no claim to being an intimate of any kind. Yet it is with deep appreciation that I recall the gift of sitting in his classroom being forced to articulate my own beliefs under his critical and loving guidance. Exciting as it was to watch him wrestle honestly with his own faith, it was a thrill like no other to receive an approving glance or smile from him after having voiced my own theological stirrings. In fact, if I had to distill my debt to Rabbi Gillman down to a sentence, it is not so much what he taught me about believing in God, but what he taught me about believing in myself, my own voice, and my own theology for which I will be forever grateful. Rabbi Gillman encouraged me to seek a doctoral degree after rabbinical school, encouraged me to write my dissertation on Louis Jacobs, and encouraged me to publish a collection of essays on Jewish theology in my first years here at Park Avenue Synagogue. I know I speak for all my rabbinic colleagues when I share the ongoing debt of gratitude we hold to this gadol ha-dor, this giant of his generation and giant of a mensch, of blessed memory.

In tribute to Rabbi Gillman and in connection with this week’s parashah, today I want to focus on one particular aspect of his legacy: Gillman’s concept of “myth.” In the opening pages of his award-winning book Sacred Fragments, Gillman addresses the question of revelation, or as the subtitle of the chapter signals, “What Really Happened?” Modern Judaism, and really all contemporary scripturally based religions, wrestle with the question of the historicity of the Bible and its authorship. What really happened? Do we believe that the stories of the Bible are literally true? The creation story, the flood story, the matriarchs and patriarchs? Do we believe that this week’s tale of the Exodus is a historical account or merely a fanciful fiction? These questions, of course, are tied into the question of revelation. Was the Torah authored by God, by Moses, or by schools of scribes who lived in different times and places until that editorial day when it was all spliced together into the Torah as we now know it? Ever since Spinoza and (perhaps even before), it has been these questions that sit at the foundation of all our other theological inquiries – which is why, I imagine, Gillman began his major work with this subject.

Ever the teacher, Gillman first articulates the range of possible responses, beginning with the Orthodox perspective as articulated by Rabbi Norman Lamm, past president of Yeshiva University. As an Orthodox thinker, Lamm is a textual literalist, holding that the Torah was indeed revealed by God, is true in every sense, and is binding on every Jew. The polar opposite of Lamm’s supernatural view is represented by the natural theology of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. For Kaplan and his followers, there is “no reality beyond nature”; the Torah is not divine revelation but an entirely human document. Jewish observances are not commanded by God but acts of discovery by which human beings can actualize the God-ly or God-like values within each of us. And while I don’t want to spend too much time on Lamm or Kaplan, the limitations of their positions are not too difficult to identify. How does Lamm reconcile his view with all the counterclaims – scientific, historical, and moral – that argue against the view that the Torah is the expressed will of God? As for Kaplan, we are left wondering where are the teeth in a God-less, revelation-less Judaism? To whom are we actually praying? Where is the commanding nature of Jewish observance? What is the binding nature of the Jewish people?

Having posited these two, in his mind, unacceptable positions, Gillman introduces a third option, his notion of “myth.” Now when I say “myth,” you may think of fiction, a story that is not true, and that is accurate, to the degree that myth and fact are opposites. The “myth” of the Loch Ness monster, or vampires or . . . voter fraud. But Gillman is using the word “myth” in an entirely different way. Influenced by the Protestant Theologian Paul Tillich, Gillman understands a “myth” as a structure by which “a community organizes and makes sense of its experience . . . the spectacles that enable us to see order in what would otherwise be confusion.” (Sacred Fragments, p. 26) Freudian psychoanalytic theory, for example, is a guiding myth about how the human psyche works; quantum mechanics does the same for the subatomic world. As Americans, we have many such shaping myths, like America as a new Promised Land or the American ideal of the self-made man. The power of these myths lies not so much in whether or not they are proven to be true. Rather, their power is that they provide a structure to shape our reality – as Clifford Geertz would say, a shared symbolic language by which our communities are formed. They are reinforced by rituals, by prayer, by customs, and most of all by repeated recitation. They provide us with the tools to ask the ultimate questions of our lives: Why are we here? Where do we come from . . . and what is our ultimate destiny?

For Jews, Gillman explains, our foundational myth is the Torah and the stories it contains. The story of creation – or apropos of this morning – the story of the Exodus. How God took note of the suffering of the Israelites, saved Moses in the bulrushes, primed him for leadership, forced the tyrannical hand of Pharaoh by means of the plagues, and then liberated us from servitude to Mount Sinai and eventually, the Promised Land. We read this myth in synagogue during these weeks, we ritually recite and reenact it at our Passover tables every spring, we recall it in every single prayer service and invoke it in countless rituals. It is the story that binds Jews across the world and across the generations and gives us hope in our darkest hours. Did the Exodus really happen? Maybe, maybe not. For Gillman, the question is not whether a story is historically true. Rather it is the pragmatic test of whether a myth continues to work or function for a community. Does it reflect our values? That is what makes it true. A myth can at times fall into disuse or be broken, and a broken myth can also be restored. One can step out of a myth, and one can be inducted into it, as is every born or converted Jew. In every generation it is what keeps us vital as individuals and as a community. It is our connective tissue; it shapes our patterns of thinking about our past, about our present, and about our future.

Gillman’s thinking is provocative and worthy of careful consideration. In a certain sense, his theology is an “I reject the question” sort of theology. Meaning, given the choice of Lamm and Kaplan, biblical literalist or natural humanist, true or false, Gillman offers a third way to phrase the question. Matters of faith or identity or community are not yes-or-no propositions; they must be approached differently than a math problem that has a single right answer. Just the other week, a mother of an elementary-school child came into my office, distraught over her son’s insistence that if the Torah is not true, then what is the point of this whole thing called Judaism and why go to Hebrew school or have a bar mitzvah at all? Now while I didn’t quote Gillman, I did think of him, because I knew in listening to my congregant that the response to her inquiry was not to be found in the discovery of archeological evidence proving the historicity of the Exodus. The answer to her question, to her son’s question, and frankly, to all our questions is whether we are successfully weaving ourselves into the master story of our people. This is a task accomplished not at any one moment but over a lifetime: at every Shabbat table, at every bris and baby naming, every seder table, every time we put on tallit or tefillin, every time we observe the laws of kashrut, every time we go to shul, every time we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. That is how a life of faith is or is not achieved, not by proving the historicity or factual status of this or that story.

There is much more to be said about Gillman. In my Tuesday morning Essential Essays class, we will read his book together over the coming weeks, and I invite you to come and to join the discussion. But even if you can’t, I urge you to consider the degree to which your life is or is not shaped by the mythic narrative that is the drama of our people. Is it in your bones, your kishkes, the rhythm of your life, and the inner recesses of your soul? Or are you, like the second child of the seder table, sitting on the sidelines looking to poke holes in a story that is not your own? One need look no further than the hero of this week’s parashah, Moses, to know that even a person raised in the house of Pharaoh can have a burning bush experience. We can empathize with the plight of the oppressed; we can be heirs to a promise that long preceded our arrival in this world; we can bring other members of the tribe towards the Promised Land; and we can draft the coming chapters of our people’s history. Be it our parashah or our lives, the act of being a believing Jew, of writing ourselves into our people’s story is dependent not on something out there, but in here, and that is a muscle group that we must work on every day. In this resolution-filled time of year, may we resolve to write ourselves into the guiding myth of our people and may the memory of my beloved teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, HaRav Nahum ben Yitzhak HaKohen v’Rivkah, be for an eternal blessing.