Rabbi Neil Gillman, the celebrated Canadian-born author and professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, died on Nov. 24. The following is a series of tributes from some of his students who are currently serving as rabbis in Canada:
Rabbi Gillman expected our theologies to develop as our lives changed and our studies deepened. When I learned of his death, I re-read a paper I wrote for a course he taught and was troubled to learn that my personal theology on the topics I covered – suffering, eschatology and revelation – had not changed. Would Rabbi Gillman be disappointed in my stunted growth?
Upon further reflection, I realize that what has changed is the theological issues which interest me. Back then, I thought theodicy was the theological question. Now, I ask how God expects me to relate to my fellow human beings and how God relates to the whole of God’s Creation. I am grateful to Rabbi Gillman for the tools and inspiration he gave me to explore these issues.
Rabbi Catharine Clark, Congregation Or Shalom, London, Ont.
I took several classes with Rabbi Gillman over the course of my five years at JTS. He loved to provoke and to engage us in his own theological struggles. He spoke always with a depth of honesty that you just didn’t find in an institution that preferred sticking to academia. He has truly left his imprint on hundreds of students, and I feel privileged to be one of them.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover, Beth Tikvah
At the beginning of his Introduction to Jewish Philosophy class, Rabbi Gillman would ask students to write their personal philosophy about God, Torah and Israel. At the end of the course, we had to write another statement. He encouraged those who wished to continue writing statements and to submit them to him. Very few students took him up on the offer, but I did and wrote a statement to him after every semester for nine years (I think I was the longest-lasting student who did that). After ordination, I continued to write him annually.
When my son was diagnosed with autism, I didn’t write for 10 years. I felt angry and betrayed by God, my faith shattered and my spirit broken. At a Rabbinical Assembly convention, he challenged me on my assumptions about God. Taking up his challenge, I poured my heart out into the paper and wrote 82 pages about my beliefs. It helped heal my relationship with God and overcome the mourning of my son’s autism and enabled me to reconstruct my faith that gave me the ability to continue on in my rabbinate.
He will forever be my teacher and rebbe.
Rabbi Geoffrey Haber, director of spiritual care, Baycrest Health Sciences, Toronto
Rabbi Gillman was not only one of the wisest people I met; he was also one of the kindest. I cherish the memories of sitting with him in an Upper West Side diner each fall to talk sermons. He cared deeply about Judaism and the next generation. May his Torah live on through his students and his writings. I’ll miss him.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal
Though he taught what other theologians, philosophers and writers had to say, Rabbi Gillman’s true pedagogical purpose was to teach us what we had to say. Critiquing an overemphasis on texts and an under-emphasis on spirituality and beliefs, he often quipped that the Jewish Theological Seminary’s curriculum rarely took theology seriously. But Rabbi Gillman championed that “T” in JTS; he dedicated his life to making sure we would each be honest to God.
Rabbi Jonah Rank, Shaar Shalom Synagogue, Halifax
Rabbi Gillman believed that Jewish educational leaders needed to be able to articulate their own theology to be able to nurture a religious community. He was a teacher of teachers and rabbis who treated us with dignity and respect.
Rabbi Mark Smiley, Toronto
When I came to JTS, I was shocked by the chasm between senior faculty and students. Thanks to Rabbi Gillman and other younger faculty, we as students began to see possibility for ourselves. I am grateful for his encouragement. May his memory be for a blessing.
Michael Brown, York University, Toronto
Rabbi Gillman was the first committed Jewish intellectual with whom I could share my questions and my doubts. More importantly, he was extremely welcoming of both! During my years at the seminary, Neil was my personal “guardian angel.”
For many years the power structure at JTS seemed to sideline him, undervaluing the need for philosophical and theological reflection as vital components to the development of modern rabbinic leadership. Ironically, his publications have become a significant force in Conservative Judaism today. I will always be grateful for his curiosity, honesty and vision, which helped bring about a more relevant training for Conservative rabbis.
Rabbi Neal Rose, Winnipeg
In Believing and Its Tensions, Rabbi Gillman noted that lectures on his naturalistic theology were often received with the same question. His students would ask, “So, Professor Gillman, do we discover God or invent God?” Rabbi Gillman would inevitably reply that we discover God, but invent the images of God. His ability to cut to the core of a theological issue was what made him so attractive to generations of students, myself included (that and his affable nature, cigar smoke- filled office, and stories of seminary lore).
Rabbi Adam Cutler, Beth Tzedec, Toronto.