Association of Jewish Libraries - Fred Isaac
For the past twenty years Rabbi Neil Gillman has been one of the leading American thinkers on Jewish theological issues. This volume can be seen as a summing-up of his thought over the past decades, as he prepares to retire from the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The essays come from a variety of sources, including Sh'ma, Conservative Judaism, and other journals and books from the mid-1980s up to 2006.
The book is divided into sections on God, Torah and Israel, but is not rigorous in differentiating the topics. The first section contains a wonderful article on prophecy in the works of Heschel, and another on renewed interest in resurrection over the past half-century. In the second section Gilman discusses the role of the Jewish philosopher; this portion also includes an analysis of rabbinic education written in 1990. The third section focuses on the Conservative movement as it approaches its official centennial. It includes suggestions for establishing theological principles and "A New Aggadah" for the movement.
Rabbi Gillman's work is always worth reading. His essays give the serious reader food for thought. This book is recommended for academic libraries and Conservative synagogues, and also suggested for synagogues whose rabbis and members are interested in the ongoing flow of theological discussion.
On a recent Rosh Hashanah, one of our preschoolers stopped me in the hallway of the synagogue and asked me, point blank, "Is God real or pretend?" Adults often ask the same question, though rarely as directly or even aloud. And when they do ask, it is very much an adult question, born of the heartache of difficult faith. Two books, both published in 2008, deal in different ways and in different styles with many of the aspects of this modern predicament.
Doing Jewish Theology is a collection of essays by Neil Gillman, former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Rabbinical School. He is also a longtime professor of Jewish philosophy at the JTS. Gillman is a prolific and influential teacher who has come, over the years, to delight more and more in being a gadflya challenger of many comfortable shibboleths in Jewish thought, and especially within Conservative Judaism. The essays here range back to 1985, and their topics cover a broad spectrum: personal, historical, institutional and the big questions of creation and the end of days.
From engaging material on Gillman's personal theological journey, fascinating insights into JTS and Conservative Judaism, musings on Abraham Joshua Heschel, reflections on the paradoxical functioning of liturgy and ritual and on the "embrace of tension" in Jewish theology, Gillman’s presentation is, as always, lucid and thoroughly accessible to the nonprofessional reader.
Reviews of anthologies should draw out the leitmotifs implied by the selections, so it’s important to note that in this anthology, we see the words “metaphors,” “midrash” and “myth” repeated again and again throughout Gillman’s lectures and papers. These have been vital words in his teaching for decades now, and they are about reminding us that, as he puts it, “we never capture 'reality’ as it is. Rather, we construct reality.” Not that Gillman is a solipsisthe believes in a world outside his own thoughtsbut, not unlike Kant, he wants us to be sure not to miss the crucial distinction between things as they are and things as we experience them. All our depictions of realitythat is, our metaphors, midrashim and myths (large frameworks of meaning)are at least a step removed from reality itself.
For Jewish theology, this can make those people who are comfortable with the status quo squirm. It means that Torah never speaks with just God’s words; it means that holiness is framed through human convention, and it means that prayer and ritual are complex acts of imagination. Gillman, a Jew whose life includes a practice of prayer and of ritual, grapples with the question he reports being asked repeatedly: “How can you pray to a metaphor?”
These are not necessarily new formulations. Gillman follows Kaplan, whose “reconstruction” of Judaism put community at the center of its constellation. And in saying that there is no “pristine formulation of Torah that embodies the very words of God,” he echoes the way in which Heschel harmonized historical scholarship on Scripture with traditional views of Scripture’s sanctity. In fact, Gillman is a traditionalist in a most fundamental way, inasmuch as he follows the principle that Maimonides understood to be of the very essence of all Jewish teaching: that we are to learn to avoid every form of idolatry. In this case, to mistake human depictions for realityeven to mistake the words of Torah (“heard,” recorded and transmitted by human beings) for the very thoughts of Godis to commit that cardinal sin….
To read “Sacred Attunement” as a discourse is, I think, to risk getting bogged down and miss the book’s power. I did that at first. Then I focused on my own perplexities and my own still unfulfilled quests, and began to read it again. Suddenly, with the very same words, I was deeply engaged in what is a nuanced, personal and very adult guide to the experience of faith. And as for my preschooler’s question? “Sacred Attunement” provides an answer that is often lyrical, one of which I believe Neil Gillman would also approve: Yes, God is real. But we truly learn this not in the same way that we do science, nor by merely accepting authority, but rather by awakening our souls. Or, to echo the words of Paul Tillich: We find God not as we meet a stranger, but rather by attuning ourselves to overcome estrangement.
Jewish Media Review - Dov Peretz Elkins
Prof. Gillman presents another intellectually rich and challenging exploration of modern Jewish theology. In the Introduction he writes: "How we deal with revelation determines how we handle the issue of authority in belief and practice. How we understand authority determines how we deal with the claims of the tradition on us; how we deal with those claims determines how we shape our own Judaism. That conclusion opens the gate to a reconsideration of all of Judaism's theology, in particular how we understand God, for God is at the heart of Torah."
With clarity and passion, award-winning teacher, author and theologian Neil Gillman captures the power of Jewish theological claims and reveals extraordinary insights into Jewish identity, the purpose of religion, and our relationship with God.
Drawing from Judaism's sacred texts as well as great thinkers such as Mordecai Kaplan, decades of study, beginning with his own understanding of revelation. He explores the role of symbol and myth in our understanding of the nature of God and covenant. He examines the importance of community in both determining authority and sanctifying sacred space. By charting the development of his own personal theology, Gillman explores the evolution of Jewish thought and its implications for modern Jewish religious identity today and in the future.
Rabbi Gillman, as in his previous works, has cut new ground, by creatively and boldly saying things that we all know and believe, but no one else has the courage to proclaim. Reading the thoughts and conclusions of one of America's leading Jewish theologians is exciting, inspiring and stimulating.
The MidWest Book Review
The religion of Judaism has evolved constantly throughout history. Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah, & Israel in Modern Judaism is a wide scope look at modern Judaism, and what the religion means to its millions of followers around the world. Diving into ancient and sacred texts to probe for answers, author Neil Gillman looks into the evolution of modern Judaism, the impact of Israel and much more. Acting as both a study of the religion and an inspiration to it, Doing Jewish Theology is an enthusiastically recommended read for anyone interested in Judaism, regardless if they follow it or not.
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh - Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
Neil Gillman has the stamp of the Jewish Theological Seminary running through him just like a stick of Blackpool rock; he started there as a student in 1954, obtained semikhah in 1960, and has been a teacher there ever since. During his student days he was privileged to study with some giants, Will Herberg, Louis Finkelstein, Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, to name but three.
What suffuses all of Gillman's writing is an enthusiasm and eagerness for knowledge that is remarkably fresh, considering his years and experience, and he notes in the introduction that he has started an engagement with neuroscience in an attempt to understand how the brain’s processes can/may lead to an appreciation of God.
Doing Jewish Theology, as its title implies, is divided into three sections: God, in which Gillman engages with a range of related issues, including faith in God, the dynamics of prophecy as expressed in the writings of Heschel, and the concept of the afterlife and bodily resurrection. In Torah, the latter two of the four subsections are especially interesting, dealing with the religious education of American rabbis (an essay that has multiple applications on this side of the Atlantic too) and the teaching of that iconic bible story, the Binding of Isaac. In Israel, Gillman considers the creation of a conservative theology for the 21st century and Judaism’s theological and ritual resources for coping with chaos, not just in individual life but also in the life of a nation.
Unsurprisingly for a teacher of his experience, Neil Gillman has a knack of expressing complex ideas with clarity, eloquence and encouragement to the reader to engage further, and this combines to make Doing Jewish Theology into a perfect book for lay person and rabbi, scholar and student alike.