Joel Roth Remembers Neil Gillman (z”l)

Posted on Nov 29, 2017

I first met Neil Gillman at Ramah Wisconsin. He was a staff member—advisor to the Jews on the kitchen staff, I believe—and I was a camper in one of the older divisions. But even then he was already known as a philosopher and thinker. During that time period I was first being introduced at camp to elements of critical Judaic scholarship, including biblical criticism, and found some of it, especially biblical scholarship, theologically difficult, since I then took direct verbal revelation not only as a given of Jewish tradition, but as the only acceptable view. I went to Neil to talk about it. You won’t believe what he told me! He said: “It is great that you are asking these questions, but don’t talk to me about it; talk to Yohanan Muffs.”

This exchange took place years before I applied to the Seminary to begin my rabbinical studies. When that year finally arrived and I was coming for my preliminary interview, I was assigned a personal meeting with Rabbi Gillman, who was already running The Rabbinical School. I was sure he had no recollection of me or of that discussion. I arrived at his office, and Florence, his faithful secretary, and years later my faithful secretary, informed him that I was there. He came bounding out of his office, gave me a hug, invited me into his office and began our meeting with the following discourse: “Joel, do you still believe in verbal revelation? If you do, how do you reconcile that view theologically with critical biblical scholarship? And if you have accepted biblical scholarly views, how do you reconcile those theologically with the halakhic contention of the divinity and infallibility of the Torah?”

I ask you, dear family and friends of Neil Gillman, isn’t that a classic Gillmanian opening sentence to a preliminary interview of a prospective student at JTS?

Yes, Neil was running The Rabbinical School. Yes, he was responsible for the details of its administration. Yes, he had to worry about our housing and food scholarships. But, those were ultimately but trivial details. What he really worried about was whether we, all of us, each and every one of us, were grappling with the theological issues with which rabbinic education at The Jewish Theological Seminary was confronting us. Of course he wanted us to master Hebrew, to learn how to read Gemara in the original and understand it, to study Jewish history, to read medieval and modern Hebrew literature, and to read medieval philosophy and theology. But if we did not confront the religious and theological implications of our education, that education would have been a complete failure in his opinion.  That was always absolutely clear to each and every one of us.

Many years have passed since those days. In one of those years, 1971 to be precise, Neil, as a kohen, redeemed my firstborn son, Akiva. Neil always enjoyed serving in this capacity. On several occasions in later years when he saw Akiva, he would break into a broad smile and say to him: “You know, Akiva, that I really own you!”  

After a while, I, too, had become a member of the faculty, and a member of the administration of The Rabbinical School. And, as almost everyone in this room who knew both Neil and me can attest, we always seemed to be at opposite ends of the theological and often times the halakhic spectrum of the Conservative Movement. When he was still well, we would often put on what students called The Roth and Gillman Show for the student body of the various schools of JTS. And although we sparred theologically and halakhically constantly, we never lost an ounce of the deep and personal affection and respect we had for each other.

Whenever we were together, no matter what may have been the initial impetus to our meeting, once the technical business on our agenda was over, we always spent some significant time discussing theology. When he would question my theology, I would remind him of the centrality in his theology of “myth,” not as a fairy tale or buba maisa, but as a means of bringing meaning and coherence to one’s theology. He may not have liked some of my myths, nor I some of his myths, but we never tired of discussing them and arguing about them with each other. And, in that process, each of us had to deepen his own thinking, and the process itself impacted tremendously on our own views.

I admit that for most of the years that we were both active on the faculty I gave little thought to how important our closeness to each other, despite the vast gaps in our theologies, really was. It was only as the years passed that both of us began to realize that our very friendship, as personal and meaningful as it was to each of us, was also a public reflection of our commitment to the legitimacy and centrality of pluralism to the ideology of the Conservative Movement, to which each of us had and was dedicating his life. Whether we consciously intended it or not, our relationship was the reflection of אלו ואלו  דברי אלקים חיים, and was so perceived, I believe, by most students and others.

After Neil retired and even after he became ill, every visit or call I made to him (often from Jerusalem) would begin with his question: “How are things at the Seminary? Who is pushing the students to address the theological issues with which our education confronts them?” Every year or two he would ask me to find a student who could come to his office or, later, to his home both to be an assistant to him in recording his new ideas and thoughts, but more importantly, to be a thoughtful helper who would react to what he had to say, who would challenge what he was saying, who would force him to think and rethink over and over again. That is who he was. That is what he did.  He never stopped confronting himself because he knew that one could never be absolutely certain that one had THE correct answer to any question of belief or theology.

In Neil’s book Believing and Its Tensions he wrote the following at the end of the chapter called “Death”:

Death remains the ultimate enigma. That is precisely why we need to invoke eschatological myths to deal with it . . . Ultimately, when I deal with death, I must resort to an eschatological myth . . . That is why the conclusion of this chapter leaves me with a sense of theological incompleteness. It is appropriately humbling. It provides a gentle reminder that all of theological speculation is ultimately tension filled. That is probably its greatest contribution.

My dear and beloved friend Neil, allow me to provide an eschatological myth or two motivated by your passing. In the sixth chapter of Avot, the Mishnah reads: בשעת פטירתו של אדם, אין מלוין אותו לא כסף ולא זהב ולא אבנים טובים ומרגליות, אלא תורה ומעשים טובים בלבד. At the time of a person’s passing, it is not silver, gold, or jewels that escort him, but only Torah and good deeds. 

Here is the myth intimated by that Mishnah: Death remains the enigma that all humans must consider it. What gives meaning to death is the knowledge that one’s acts and learning do not die, but continue to survive. It is they that convey the meaning of life that cannot be eradicated by death. Be assured, dear friend, and be assured, dear Sarah, Abby, Debby, Bets, and extended family, that the message of Neil’s life can never and will never be eradicated by his death. Generations of future students will be touched and moved by his messages no less than the generations of students who experienced them in his life.

And finally, quoting the verse in Ecclesiastes 9:5, כי החיים יודעים שימותו (for the living know that they will die), the Gemara in Berakhot18a comments: אלו צדיקים שבמיתתן נקראו חיים. The verse refers to those righteous ones who, even in their death, were called living. The eschatological myth of this passage is the promise that “life” is not restricted to the time that one is alive. For the righteous, “life” continues even after they are no longer on this earth. That is destined to be the eternal life of our dearly departed husband, father, grandfather, brother, teacher, and mentor, Rabbi Neil Gillman. יהי זכרו ברוך.