A Tribute to Rabbi Neil Gillman
05/13/2013 - 11:53
Jeff Yablonka
Neil Gillman. Photo courtesy JTS
Neil Gillman. Photo courtesy JTS

“Faith lasts for a moment and then you’re back in the desert again,” said Rabbi Neil Gillman, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

For more than half a century. the former dean of the Rabbinical School and current Professor Emeritus of Jewish Philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary has guided students of all ages and Jews of all denominations through the shifting sand of that theological Sinai.

As the author of the classic “Sacred Fragments,” and other works, including dozens of divrei Torah for The Jewish Week, Rabbi Gillman’s influence is broad. But perhaps his greatest legacy is the impact he had on his students and colleagues at the JTS.

Last Tuesday, the Library Book Talk series, hosted by chief librarian David Kraemer, honored that legacy and the publication of two volumes; the first edited by Rabbi William Plevan, titled “Personal Theology”, collects reflections and analysis of Rabbi Gillman’s theology and philosophy written by former students and colleagues and the second a follow up to “Sacred Fragments,” to be published in July, “Believing and Its Tensions.”

Many of the 60 or so souls of quite a certain age in attendance knew the guest of honor and each other. Rabbi Gillman, who when more robust resembled a professorial Burl Ives, approached the dais with a walker, nattily attired in a blue suit and kippah jauntily topping his head at a rakish angle.

Speaker after speaker offered panegyric. Rabbi Arthur Green praised Rabbi Gillman’s tackling of tough theological issues with the words of Reb Nachman, “I became strong because I saw all their disputes and that made me grow.”

After basking in the encomia, Rabbi Gillman spoke. What he cherished most was “a fabric of relationships. People that I met and exchanges that I had made this place so exciting.” More than scholarly debate, “encounters, many in my office with students, colleagues and many in adult education. These were transformative moments.”

Rabbi Gillman’s own early encounters were crucial and fortuitous. He spoke of meeting Will Herberg as a McGill undergraduate only because he was in hot pursuit of a coed who insisted they attend a lecture of the ex-Marxist theologian.

Herberg set Gillman on his course culminating in a meeting with the Seminary’s Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. “Don’t go into the congregational rabbinate,” Rabbi Gillman recalls Rabbi Finkelstein advising. “ ‘You’ll have 200 families. You’ll be great. Three years later, you’ll have 700, then 1500 a big success! But if you say at the Seminary, each student you affect will lead 3000 families. Think of the impact.’ Very clever.”

Another encounter proves even genius theologians can say the darndest things. Rabbi Gillman meets Rabbi Moredecai Kaplan who daffily proclaims, “Judaism is whatever the Jewish people say it is.”

What Rabbi Gillman says it is in his latest volume is less academic and more informal and conversational in tone partially because declining health constrains him to dictate his text. Still, he continues to teach his popular courses at Skirball fulfilling Rabbi Akiva’s commandment cited by Gillman’s old Talmudic sparring partner Rabbi Joel Roth, earlier in the evening, “if you raised up students in your youth, raise up more in your old age.”

Jeff Yablonka is a writer living and working on the Upper West Side.

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