If you have been to our service before you know that it is our custom to end with what we refer to as a World Yizkor List, mentioning people famous and not so famous who made an impact on our world. And we will get to that tonight. But sometimes there is someone worthy of that list for whom a brief mention is not sufficient, and tonight for a few moments I want to tell you more about just such a person, a teacher of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Neil Gillman grew up in Quebec City where there were 120 Jewish families – for context less than one-tenth of the number of families represented here at B’nai Torah. His own family was non-observant, but his grandmother’s Jewish influence was lasting – never underestimate the power of a grandparent’s example. He enrolled at McGill University to study philosophy and French literature, and he happened on a lecture by theologian and activist Will Herberg, and as he would often tell the story, it changed his life. He transitioned to the study of Jewish theology, got rabbinic ordination and a doctorate, landed a teaching gig at JTS, and stayed there for more than fifty years. There is not a rabbi who trained there over the last two and a half generations who was not in some way influenced by Professor Gillman. And after a long and influential career he retired but kept teaching and writing, and he passed away last November 24th at the age of 84.
I can’t teach you much about Gillman’s theology in this time and space. But I want to share three lessons based on the unlikely arc of his public life as a rabbi. If we take them to heart, I think we will also have touched on some of the central themes and goals of this holy day.
My first sighting of Gillman took place well before I was consciously entertaining the thought of attending his alma mater. I was on staff at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires where I had the chance to study with its long-time scholar in residence Rabbi Joel Roth who would become an early influence – he would also later officiate at our wedding. He is a Talmud professor and a halakhist, meaning he works from the law forward to live as a committed Jew. Gillman was a theologian and philosopher and worked from God backward to live as a committed Jew. Practically speaking, they shared a lot in common when it came to their patterns of Jewish observance – it is continually important to emphasize commonalities even as we are ever more prone to first see differences.
At some point Gillman and Roth took their private conversations, steeped in friendship, on the road – I think it might have been at a convention of rabbis that they first debated. And it was such a success that they repeated the effort around the country. I got to see what one of them laughingly called their “dog and pony show” at Ramah during a staff training week. Gillman argued for more theology and creativity in Jewish life and especially in Jewish prayer, Roth for the continued centrality of Jewish law and study of it, counseling to not too quickly replace that which has worked for many Jews for many generations with what may be a passing or fleeting sentiment.
Other than Roth suggesting we not swap out the saying of the Sh’ma with an interpretive dance, I can’t recall any exact quote from the debate. But I do remember very well the mutual respect they showed for each other even as they argued about some of the most important and foundational aspects of the tradition they both taught and to which they were each deeply committed. Maybe it is an oversimplification, maybe it is countercultural, maybe it is not the best political strategy in a divisive age, and maybe we will be shouted down by louder and more bombastic voices. But the first lesson based on his example is that we have to model disagreeing without being disagreeable. We have to be knowledgeable enough to explain what we think about that which is important in our world, so we don’t simply fall back on slogans or vilification of some enemy real or imagined. We have to recognize our common humanity. Toxic, inflamed, paranoid rhetoric is in use daily on screens and from podiums, yet we can choose a different tone and vocabulary and we should. And if the favor is not returned, we should double down. It is the only way forward.
Gillman would have hated the political overtones of that statement. I remember very well before the High Holy Days one year a student asking him if he thought it was a good idea for rabbis to preach about politics. He was not averse to raising his voice to get his point across as he slapped his own bald pate and probably wished they would still let him smoke his beloved pipe in the classroom – he was a passionate and engaged teacher. Without missing a beat, he shouted “Politics? Politics? You don’t know anything about Politics!” I’ve had that exhortation in the back of my mind every time I have written a sermon, though I have come to understand that if I don’t sometimes speak of the issues of the day from my best understanding of what our Jewish tradition has to say about them, then this preaching and teaching would be incomplete.
I’m also not sure it is true anymore that we “don’t know anything about politics.” I’m pretty well informed – as well as some, and I readily admit not as well as others. But it would be ridiculous on the surface for me to spend these moments endorsing one candidate over another, or even one specific law, policy, or legal decision that is pending passage or resolution. But it would be equally ridiculous for me to pretend that we are not called on to live out our Jewish values and commitments in this world. And if people see or hear in that a critique or not-so-oblique reference to what you are probably talking about, reading about, and watching on your favorite news channel or feed, I can live with that. Gillman, I think, was encouraging us to make sure we didn’t do too much “today” when we were also the only conduits that many listeners would have to three or four millennia of Jewish teaching, inspiring conversations that are continuations of discussions that go back to the Talmud, back to the Bible.
So his second lesson not just for aspiring rabbis but for everyone: if our conversations, reading, and waking hours are dominated by headlines, if we are ensconced in the issues of the day to the exclusion of the expressions of the soul, then we will not grow to our fullest capacities. As his teacher and later his colleague Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: We will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.
By far the biggest impact of his professional life, though, was based on a decision he made when he hit a crossroads in his career. He was going along nicely, a tenured professor, he could easily have continued delving ever deeper into classical and contemporary Jewish theology, which is read by a small number of fellow theologians and a handful of theology groupies, impacting very few Jews in the pews. But instead, he took a brave and challenging turn – he made it his life’s work to teach people how to talk about God. And he did it through a medium that is attributed to something he experimented with through years of rabbinical school classes and eventually brought to a much broader audience called the Personal Theology Statement.
Gillman was a committed Conservative Jew – in fact, he wrote a history of the movement for student use – but there was something distinctly Reform about this project in its conceptualization. It’s my contention that the hardest Jewish label to inhabit is to be a committed Reform Jew – why? Because Reform Judaism teaches personal autonomy. You take on the rituals and practices that make sense to you, but first, you have to learn all about them and then decide to adopt them or not. That is a lot of responsibility! But that in a way is what Gillman was challenging his students, and by extension the many thousands of students they would teach, to do with their faith in God – he was asking them to learn at least something about what others had written about God and then to write their own statement of faith which was meant to evolve over time. We would workshop this in class, and everyone wrote, got critiqued by their peers and by Professor Gillman, who could be prosecutorial but only toward helping us to refine our thinking. Our tradition teaches that it is very difficult to give criticism but even harder to take it – but he constantly modeled how to do both. At the same time, he was working on his own theology statements – of course, his were in book form – and helping generations of Jews to not outsource their thinking about God to others.
So when I got here and started teaching our conversion class, we incorporated some theology study into the curriculum. And soon after that, I started having students write personal theology statements. Since I did not want to drive them away from Judaism before they actually started being Jewish, I established two rules for the class review of everyone’s essays. In the first round, we all had to say something we liked about an individual student’s effort. And second they could ask any questions they wanted to, and the writer could choose to answer or not. The project still induces some sweat, but not as much as a face-to-face interrogation with the professor and your rabbinical school peers, who you may or may not have recently beat in ping pong and who now want some revenge.
Guiding this year’s excellent group of students was made more poignant as Professor Gillman passed away just weeks before they prepared and presented their essays. I got to tell them about him and his initiative, why he thought it was important, how most Jews and really most people never consider in this way their connection to God and what a gift it is to do so. And this group, like all the other groups of emerging Jews, did not disappoint. Some quotes that I consider to be gems:
The God I believe in is a God that I talk to every single day; he is my guidance, my advisor, my best friend, the one that wants all the best for my loved ones and me.
God is ever-flowing energy that is present in all non-living and living things…My greatest joy is knowing that I can continue to better myself, create a sense of fulfillment and happiness all through my relationship with God and prayer.
I believe that God is the creator of everything, God exists in everything. He lives in all of us, in nature and all the forces that keep the world in motion and life in existence.
I once had a neighbor who prayed exuberantly and sincerely for everything. If she made a lemon meringue pie, she did it in confidence that god (sic) would ensure the filling would set and the meringue would not weep. God as a household pet… We often hear people who escape an accident say, “God was looking out for me. “ That is a statement that bothers me deeply. I hardly think that those other people who die in accidents were victims of god’s inattention or spite.
And: For as long as I walk this earth, I hope to continue to honor God’s faith in my daily choices. God’s presence in all things provides me comfort to live on earth knowing there is a good and virtuous meaning to life that is greater than I will ever understand. I will forever wonder thoughts of God in hopes that I will meet with God one day. And if that day ever comes, I will ask if I have fulfilled God’s hopes and dreams.
Me again: Survey after survey shows that among organized religions Jews score the lowest when it comes to agreeing with the simple statement “I believe in God.” A third lesson that Neil Gillman taught over a career of what he called “doing Jewish theology” is that “I believe in God” is not a simple statement but it is one that is worth considering, thinking and even writing about. Because when you do you learn not just about God – who knows what we can really know about God was a question Gillman was fond of asking – you learn about what you believe to be the purpose of life in general and the purpose of your life specifically. You pose questions to God and imagine possible answers. Perhaps we also hear the questions God may be asking us. In my theology statement these include how are we living up to the potential God has placed within each of us to exercise generosity and compassion, how have we sought to grow in intellect and in spirit, and how do we develop and express gratitude for our many blessings, one of which is the opportunity to learn from and to be inspired by great teachers.
Though he would probably slap his head, puff his pipe, and yell at me for being overly simplistic, I hope, pray and trust that Professor Gillman has had all of his questions answered. I know for sure that his legacy will reverberate for many generations through his family, his readers, and the many students who will hear about his important work ranks which now include all of you.