Rabbi Dr Neil Gillman – a Hesped
By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
Without Rabbi Dr Neil Gillman I’m not sure I would have been a rabbi. Certainly, I owe my decision to go to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to him, and also the sheer fact that the Seminary accepted me. I had an awful interview in Jerusalem and knew it had gone terribly. A third-year student gave me his home number and I called him in a panic – waking him up at what turned out to be 6am. I was too flustered to realise the time difference. He understood immediately and smoothed a path to JTS for me.
I have sat at at his feet, literally: it was in a packed Limmud seminar, and there were no chairs left. It was from him I first encountered the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. His was the first voice I encountered on a sophisticated understanding of myth as a bearer of truth – again at that Limmud in Manchester now over 20 years ago. I knew I loved Judaism at that point, but felt I couldn’t be a rabbi since I didn’t believe in God. Neil opened that path for me, allowed me to feel I neither needed to lobotomise myself to pretend a theology, nor take God out of Judaism.
I went to chat with him sat in the hallway outside his room, and admitted I was thinking about becoming a rabbi. “You should come to JTS,” he told me. I stuttered something about it being too far away. “Nonsense, come for a couple of days, have a look around, meet some people.” I did, he met me as I arrived, chaperoned me through my first few days and ensured I was bitten. He was right. It was the best decision I could have possibly made.
Neil did more than anyone to draw out from me theological reflection. More than that, he modelled how it would be possible for me to help people go on theological journeys – journeys that are important not for their own sake, but because a life lived richly engages with big questions. And it wasn’t just me; nor was it just rabbinical students or people whose engagement with Judaism could already be vouchsafed. He would go anywhere, and teach anyone; hundreds of scholar-in-residence gigs, school and campus visits, and he was a perfect Limmudnik.
When, while I was working as a hospital chaplain, I was struggling with questions of suffering, he invited me out for a vegetarian curry at that strange Ayurvedic restaurant a mile away from JTS, and listened and rubbed his head over his pate and empathised. Ah, how he could empathise with someone struggling theologically. Watching Neil and Joel Roth go at the relationship between law and theology was where I found myself most clearly located as a Masorti Jew, loving both, needing both and engaging with both with a critical method they both knew and loved so well.
I love three of his books deeply; Sacred Fragments gave me the confidence in the theology that was crystalising in my heart at the time I read it. The Way Into Understanding God is massively under-valued. It’s a masterwork distillation which lays out decades of investigations in the simplest and accessible of terms. In it, Neil unpacks the nature of myth and its application to Jewish ways of encountering the Divine. The Death of Death is the book I find myself recommending to congregants more than any other; it’s masterful in taking a person, perhaps particularly a person who has just experienced loss, through the maze of Jewish thoughts about what happens after death – with a stunning afterword in which he does the thing he prodded me and thousands of others to do: to articulate our own theological reflection on this issue. Can I only have three books? Maybe I’ll squeeze his Conservative Judaism onto my desert island bookshelf also. It’s great.
Oh I could go on. I remember warmly the Seder I celebrated with him and his wonderful family – my thoughts are with you all. At one point, someone said something and he looked across the table at me and rolled his eyes. Some professors needed to write a book to make a point. Neil could just roll his eyes, or slap his palm to his forehead. You knew.
In various places the Rabbis equate one’s teacher with one’s parent. It has never really resonated with me as an idea – and I know how blessed I am to have both my true parents still such sources of love and support – but I feel a little orphaned today.
I’ll let The Death of Death have the last word. The epigram to the book seems to drive so much of it, even if un-discussed in the book itself. It’s the famous last line of the Haggadah’s last great song – ‘And then the Holy Blessed One came and slaughtered the Angel of Death’. Death, taught Neil, doesn’t get the last word. Holiness gets the last word. I’ll leave the resurrecting to God. But I’ll keep teaching Gillman Torah and ensuring holiness gets that last word, even after the Angel of Death has collected Mori u’Rebbi.
Your memory, dearest Neil, will always be a blessing. Thank you for everything.
Rabbi Dr Neil Gillman was Professor Emertius of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). An expert in modern Jewish thought and one of the most inspirational Jewish teachers of our times, he wrote many notable books including Sacred Fragments, Conservative Judaism and The Death of Death.
Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of New London Synagogue.