When, late this spring, 16 distinguished-looking silver-gray and white-haired gentlemen stood side by side on a stage at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) to pose for their half-century reunion photograph, you could almost see them blinking through their smiles, reflecting in their minds’ eyes on the younger selves that appeared in a similar photo of the rabbinic class of 1960.
Many of them served as pulpit rabbis, some became scholars and teachers, others pursued different careers altogether or found ways to combine all those aspects in one. Standing unassumingly among them were two of today’s most acclaimed and best-known theologians: Rabbis Harold Kushner and Neil Gillman.
Call it Kushner and Gillman: the first hundred years. But in terms of their influence, a better calculation would be in generations.
A brief exercise in compare and contrast reveals that as the author of the international bestseller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” along with a dozen other popular books that frequently focus on coping with tragedy or disappointment, Kushner is the better known of the two. But Gillman, a prolific author in his own right, is the author of the modern-day theological classic, “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew,” a must-read for anyone interested in Judaism today. (Readers of The Jewish Week also will recall the many weekly Torah portion columns Gillman wrote for more than 25 years.)
Each one’s presence today in the Conservative movement (and Judaism in general) is inescapable. Enter a Shabbat service at any given Conservative synagogue, for instance, and the volume you open to follow the Torah readings will no doubt be “Etz Hayim,” for which Kushner was one of the chief editors. Oh, and that sermon you’re listening to? More likely than not, the rabbi delivering it studied with, or was mentored by Gillman at JTS — and the congregants themselves may have learned from Gillman at a Shabbaton or scholar-in-residence weekend.
Today, additional similarities between Rabbis Kushner and Gillman include a deeply shared interest in trying to understand — and explain — what philosophers call the problem of evil, and what lay people generally call suffering.
“We deal with very similar issues but from different perspectives and in different ways,” Gillman explains. They maintain a warm friendship, and correspond regularly about their work.
Over the last half-century, each has been witness to changes in the Conservative movement, the rabbinate and in the Jewish world as a whole from a rather different perch — one from the rabbi’s pulpit, the other from the seminary lectern. Yet their observations and opinions seem akin to one another, both agreeing that today’s congregants are less passive and more active, and that their expression of religion tends to be more emotional and experiential, and less intellectual. In an era when synagogue membership rates seem to be trending downward, finding the balance between tradition and change remains a challenge — an issue much discussed at the recent Rabbinical Assembly convention at which the 50-year rabbis were honored.
While they were both students at JTS, sitting in class together with such theological giants as Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan and Louis Finkelstein, they were cordial classmates, as opposed to the intellectual chums they over time became. And immediately after receiving their ordination as rabbis, the career paths of the two diverged.
After a two-year stint as a U.S. Army chaplain, Kushner went on to serve as a pulpit rabbi for most of his career, first in Great Neck, L.I., and then, starting in 1966, at Temple Israel in Natick, Mass., where he is now rabbi emeritus. By contrast, Gillman has spent his entire professional life at JTS, in a variety of teaching and administrative posts, only recently retiring with the title of professor of philosophy emeritus.
Still, ask each of them to look back at how they became — well — who they are, and each one will tell you that no one could be as surprised as they at the trajectory their professional lives took.
“When I was a rabbinic student,” says Kushner, “my vision was to be the senior rabbi of a large, 1,200-family congregation. That didn’t happen.”
What did happen was that shortly after Kushner became rabbi of the 450-family congregation Temple Israel in Natick, his then 3-year-old son Aaron was diagnosed with progeria — a rare, fatal ailment (its shorthand description, the rabbi explains, is “rapid aging syndrome”) from which he died the day after he turned 14. Kushner comments in an even voice, “Everything that I’ve written and taught comes out of that experience.”
On a practical level, Rabbi Kushner set aside the goal of seeking a larger congregation, instead deciding to remain for the long term in Natick, a place where Aaron had begun to make friends — and also close by to Boston and its hub of medical expertise. (Kushner and his wife Suzette still live there today.) On a deeper level, Kushner felt compelled to rethink his understanding of God’s role in the world. Rather than view God as an omnipotent being responsible for all that is good and all that is bad (like his son’s suffering), Kushner began to think of God as a moral force that is separate from nature, which is “blind” to what is just or unjust.
Kushner also began to search for meaningful words that he, as a rabbi and pastoral counselor, could say to congregants in the midst of personal crises of their own.
“I was taught that when people are going through a hard time, you should tell them that this is part of God’s plan,” he says.
But after seeing his son’s illness and death, he realized, “That’s a terrible theology. A terrible thing to say.”
A better and far more comforting message, the rabbi believes, is that God sends us people who care and gives us strength to cope. Indeed, Kushner’s personal slogan, he says, is that “Religion is not about who God is, but about what God helps you do.”
Everything he has written, he says, “is in a way a commentary on that thought.”
The first and best known of those books, written after his son’s death, is, of course, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And, keeping to the theme that will not let him go, Kushner is currently working on a book titled, “Job and the Riddle of Human Suffering.”
Reflecting on his distinguished career of 50 years and counting, Gillman says, “It was a product of happenstance.” Specifically, the circumstance was JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein asking him to remain and help advise rabbinic students. Then, as Gillman took on other administrative responsibilities and began teaching, another circumstance arose: after the departure of several long-time scholars, JTS needed someone to teach Jewish philosophy — and that someone, once again, was Gillman.
And that is where serendipity comes in, for as a teacher and mentor, Gillman has excelled. Indeed, he transformed the very way in which theology itself is taught. In his time as a rabbinical student, Gillman recalls, while he was expected to know what every rabbinic scholar of the past believed, “No one ever asked me, what do I believe.”
But leaving the question unasked — and unanswered — also leaves a gap in the training of a rabbi who will be called upon to help congregants make sense of their beliefs. Because how can a rabbi expect to do that without understanding his or her own views?
And so, rather than present theology as a purely academic subject focused solely on historical examples, Gillman challenges his students to think through their own answers to questions such as: What do we mean by God? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happened at Sinai? What do you believe? Engaging students in these issues not only through the intellect but also on a personal and existential level is crucial, Gillman says.
“My conviction is that congregants want to find out from their rabbi not what Maimonides believed but what they believe.” His class gives them the tools to do that — and talk about Maimonides, too.
And so, too, do Gillman’s books provide his readers with those tools. Of his eight books, the rabbi’s personal favorites are “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew” and The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought.” Both also received National Jewish Book Awards.
As author and theologian (as well as teacher), the four issues that have most intensely engaged Gillman through the decades are revelation, God, theodicy and the afterlife, he says. When pressed to provide his work’s major themes in a capsule, Gillman replies: “How do we deal with ambiguity? ... There are no absolutes.”
Perhaps not. Which is all the more reason to feel fortunate to have Rabbis Gillman and Kushner as guides as we wrestle with uncertainty.
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