Remembering My Teacher – Rabbi Neil Gillman z”l

The very first course I took at JTS was Neil Gillman’s ‘Philosophy of Conservative Judaism’. I began at the Seminary as a ‘non-matriculated’ student but had already applied to the rabbinical school. Neil’s ‘CJ’ course was a rabbinical school requirement and seemed a good complement to Hebrew and ‘Humash with Rashi’. I didn’t know it then, but my entire JTS education is perhaps best described as ‘CJ With Gillman.’

As a newbie I was stunned by some of the reaction to Rabbi Gillman’s lectures. ‘CJ’ featured regular debates about how to understand the history, ideology, philosophy, and especially theology of Conservative Judaism. Neil was anything but a dispassionate observer. By the spring of 1984 he had already spent 30 years at JTS as a student, instructor, administrator, and professor. He had a significant vested interest and his point of view had clearly evolved over the decades. The mid-80’s was his breakout moment and as a 23 year old at the opening end of rabbinic training, I had a front row seat. It would be difficult in the extreme to overstate the impact of that first encounter, let alone all the encounters and experiences that followed.


The paper I wrote for ‘CJ with Gillman’ explored the evolving curriculum of the Seminary’s rabbinical school. My research took me into JTS’s archives and into the writings and thinking of a number of Conservative Judaism’s leading lights. Neil guided my work at every turn, gently pushing me to go deeper, to think harder, to question my assumptions, and then to question them again. It was vintage Gillman – nurturing, encouraging, challenging, inspiring – in one concentrated dose. A later version of that essay earned me a graduation award and, again with Neil’s constant encouragement, became my very first published piece. It’s one of my many debts to my most important and influential teacher.

Over my six years at JTS I grabbed every available opportunity, formal and not, to study with Rabbi Gillman. The pinnacle was a yearlong course with the deeply unpoetic name ‘Methodologies in Jewish Philosophy.’ Neil was working through the material that would a few years later become his groundbreaking volume ‘Sacred Fragments’. Our class was the laboratory. Watching and hearing Neil struggle out loud with the big questions of Jewish belief and ideas was incredibly moving and exhilarating. His elegance of expression and his unrelenting honesty marked every hour of those two semesters.

And there was more. ‘Methodologies’ wasn’t a spectator sport. We were expected to show up on the playing field each week, crafting and sharing our own position papers and personal statements on the very same themes that kept our teacher up at night. I still have my essays from that course; because of Neil’s lovingly handwritten comments they are among my most cherished possessions. The cluster of concepts and frameworks that Professor Gillman shared that year, and in all of his writing and teaching over the ensuing thirty years – metaphor, symbols, signs, ritual as theater, second (or willed) naivete, paradigm, and especially myth – continue to shape my thinking about and understanding of Judaism and Jewish tradition.  His classroom is where it all came together for me. And for many, many others.

Nomi and I invited Neil to participate in our wedding. We spent a few beautiful evenings together in the months before our huppah, planning, talking, getting to know one another better.  His words to, and about, us that day continue to fill my heart and soul. He gifted our day with his humanity and wisdom and joy, an expression of his deepest commitments as teacher, mentor, thinker, and rabbi. The Jewish world will miss him terribly. I already do. May Rabbi Neil Gillman’s memory be only, exclusively, and forever for a blessing.

Jacob? Harmony? Integration? Really? – Shabbat Toldot 5778 (2017)

Kabbalah associates our ancestor Jacob with the sefirah (aspect/emanation of Divinity) called tiferet which bespeaks balance and harmony. Jacob, suggests the mystical tradition, synthesizes Abraham’s hesed – love/kindness – and Isaac’s din – judgment/rigor and embodies full and complete integration. Encountering the Jacob of Parashat Toldot, one can only scratch one’s head at the kabbalistic claim. Jacob? Harmony? Integration? Really? We are, after all, talking about the character who wangles the birthright from his brother Esau and then deceives his way into receiving his father Isaac’s primary blessing.

So how do we get from the Torah’s deceiver to the Kabbalah’s paragon of balance? I ask not as a matter of intellectual history, though that is a pretty interesting story, but rather with an eye toward the flow of our lives as flawed and imperfect human beings. The journey from the Jacob of Genesis to the Jacob of the Zohar is also, I wish to suggest, the trajectory of a thoughtful life, undertaken with mindfulness and awareness.

The essential verse contains Jacob’s words directed to his mother Rebekah who is plotting and engineering the deception which will yield up Isaac’s blessing. “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster (k’metateia) and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” Notice the focus of Jacob’s concern; he doesn’t want his father to see him as a trickster. It’s a long way from here to integrity and transparency! The key word in our verse – metateia – is an unusual one. It appears only two or three times in the Hebrew Bible and not much more frequently in rabbinic writing. What exactly is a metateia?


[Rembrandt, Isaac Blessing Jacob, pen and ink, 1652]

One Midrash (Midrash Mishlei 10:17) quotes R. Alexandri: “Any disciple of the sages who abandons the words of Torah is considered as though he were mocking/trifling (metateia) with the One who spoke and the world came into being.” Aviva Zornberg offers up a powerful commentary on the claim made by the Midrash.

“To neglect that which is most essential to one’s authentic being – in this case, the responsibility of the scholar to his text – is a criminal act of not taking God seriously. The notion of metateia, therefore, is implicated in the question of gravity, of the ‘heaviness,’ the seriousness of being. To jest with this, to play with one’s voice, is to disrupt one’s access to God-in-the-world. It is to be guilt of a kind of frivolity that dissociates one from others, from continuities and larger purposes. ‘To thine own self be true,’ pontificates Polonius, ‘…Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ To abandon one’s individuated selfhood, to trifle with the voices of others, is ultimately to undermine not only the differences, but the connections, between people.” [Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, p 150]

Jacob’s search, then, is the quest for authenticity and individuation. It is, for him, and for each of us, the journey of a lifetime. Integrity isn’t achieved overnight or in one fell swoop. Rather balance and harmony are the result of constant effort and continual growth. Kabbalah shows us the endpoint of that process while the Torah describes the beginning. With mindful hard work and commitment, Jacob the trickster can grow to become Tiferet Israel – the fully integrated and whole Beauty of Israel, the aspect of God through which all Divine energy and blessing flows. Jacob to Israel; deceit to integrity; dissociation to wholeness – that’s the quest. Happy travels! And Shabbat Shalom. 

Water of Love – Shabbat Hayyei Sarah 5778 (2017)

In a narrative rich with detail, one moment in the story of Abraham’s servant’s search for a spouse for Isaac stands out for me. Abraham’s servant has just finished articulating a word of prayer expressing the hope that God will exhibit hesed – steadfast love and kindness – toward Abraham when he encounters Rebekah at the well.


[from the “Vienna Genesis” 6th century, likely Syria]

The Torah’s wording is precise and instructive. “She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, ‘Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.’ ‘Drink, my lord,’ she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink.” Missing from the description is Rebekah actually drawing the water from the well. An early Midrash notices the gap and fills it with an intriguing story of its own. “All of the women go down to fill (their jars) from the well; this one, when the water saw her, it immediately rose up (to meet her).” (Bereshit Rabbah 60:5) 

What is it about Rebekah that prompts this magical response from the well’s water? And perhaps even more perplexing, why in the very next moment, when she decides to provide water to the servant’s camels, does the water not rise up to meet her as it just had? Again, with great precision, the Torah narrates it this way: “When she had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.” Notice “draw”, “to draw”, and “she drew” in rapid succession. No magic this time; Rebekah draws the water needed to give drink to the servant’s camels. 


[from the Monreale Cathedral, Monreale, Sicily, likely 12th century]

R Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, as presented by my teacher Rabbi Jonathan Slater, resolves the apparent contradiction in a most beautiful way. The water rises the first time because Rebekah, a completely righteous individual, is fulfilling her own personal needs. The water is helping her out! When she seeks water in order to bring it to the camels, she is engaged in a mitzvah, an act of hesed meant to serve another. The water stays down making it possible for Rebekah to perform this mitzvah in full, from the beginning, with a whole heart, and with full intention (kavanah). A mitzvah performed in full, writes, Levi Yitzhak, is considered even more of a mitzvah!

The Torah’s next line makes clear the impact of Rebekah’s great expression of hesed. The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not.” The servant’s astonishment serves to underscore just how remarkable Rebekah is, and by extension, just how remarkable Abraham and Sarah have been. The story’s key word is hesed. Rebekah is the right one because she gets and practices it and can therefore extend the legacy begun by Isaac’s parents. First the water of love rises up to meet her; then she shares it and serves it to Abraham’s servant and to his camels.


[Washington Allston, American, Rebekah at the Well, 1816]

Embracing that legacy of hesed is at the core of what it means to be a child of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. If we serve up water of love to others, the water will rise up to meet our needs as well. The servant succeeds, Abraham succeeds, Rebekah succeeds, we succeed. 

Shabbat Shalom.

‘Must Have Been a Bad Thing’ – Shabbat Vayera 5778 (2017)

An old Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia song has been running around my brain this week. “Just a song of Gomorrah – I wonder what they did there. Must have been a bad thing to get shot down for. I wonder how they blew it up or if they tore it down. Get out, get out, Mr Lot and don’t you look around.”

The Torah’s narrative focuses on Gomorrah’s sister city Sodom, but the ‘cry’ and ‘sin’ of both towns opens the story, and both suffer the same fate of destruction by ‘fire and brimstone.’ Indeed, both cities symbolize evil in the Biblical mindset. So here’s my slight re-write of Hunter and Garcia’s opening line: ‘Just a song of Sodom and Gomorrah – I wonder what they did there. Must have been a bad thing to get shot down for…’



[Lucas van Leyden, ‘Lot and His Daughters’ circa 1520]

Two ‘bad things’ stand out, both described by generations of interpreters traditional and modern, both seemingly ripped from the headlines in the fall of 2017.

‘Bad thing’ #1 – antipathy toward outsiders.

An early rabbinic tradition details the arrogance and overweening pride of a number of early civilizations – the generation of the Flood, the people of the Tower of Babel, ancient Egypt, and, finally, anshei S’dom, the people of Sodom.

“The people of Sodom became prideful only on account of the good which God showered upon them, as it is said, ‘Earth, out of which food grows…Its rocks are a source of sapphires; it contains gold dust too. No bird of prey knows the path to it; the falcon’s eye has not gazed upon it. The proud beasts have not reached it; the lion has not crossed it.’ (Job 28:5-8) The people of Sodom said: Since food comes forth from our land, silver and gold come forth from our land, precious stones and pearls come forth from our land, we do not need anyone to come to us; they come only to deplete our wealth, so let us abolish traveling among us. God said to them: ‘With the goodness that I have showered upon you, you abolish traveling among you; I will abolish you from the world.’” [Tosefta Sotah 3:11-12]

Outsiders ‘come only to deplete our wealth!’ So, let’s keep ‘them’ out at all cost. ‘We do not need anyone to come to us!’ That’s the ethos of Sodom (and presumably Gomorrah). The antithesis of empathy and kindness, hesed v’rahamim, the Sodomite posture and voice can be detected and heard in our time and place as well. We need to name it, call it out, talk it down, and proclaim the righteous alternative. The Talmud refers to the people of Israel as rahmanim b’nei rahmanin – people of compassion who descend from people of compassion. That’s the answer to Sodom and Gomorrah.

‘Bad thing’ #2 – sexual abuse and harassment.

Inappropriate sexual behavior is at the heart of the Torah’s story of Sodom and it plays out in (at least) two ways. Both sides of the dialogue between Lot and the people of the town give expression to Sodomite iniquity. First the people who make the following demand of Lot upon their discovery that he has welcomed guests into his home. “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.” Traditionally, the sin is understood to be homosexuality, hence the term ‘sodomy.’ I suggest that the misdeed, or anticipated misdeed to be precise, is more generalized. The people of Sodom propose to harass and abuse Lot’s guests simply because they are new to town. Lot’s response suggests the same. His offer of his daughters to the crowd may simply be because they are not his guests. The value he defends is that of hospitality. But consider the cost!

R David Kimhi (Radak, 13th century Provence) spells it out for us. “Now restrain your urge to kill these people. I will now hand over to you my two daughters and you can satisfy your urges with them. You can rape them, seeing that they are still virgins. Alternatively, you may even kill them. This is what he meant when he added the words ‘do not do something evil.!’ Seeing they have come to spend the night under my roof, leave them be, in my honor, I would rather have you abuse my daughters or even kill them, than to do any harm to these men.” The ‘urge’ is to abuse; the victim’s gender isn’t relevant. In Radak’s telling the people of Sodom are equal opportunity harassers and rapists.

R Moshe ben Nahman (Ramban, 13th century Spain) goes further, expressing outrage at Lot’s offer. “For he worked very hard on his hospitality to save them since they came under his roof; but to appease the town’s people by abandoning his daughters is simply wicked-heartedness (roa’ lev)! For improper sexual relations with women were not a distant thing from his mind, and he did not think that he was doing a great evil to his daughters.” Echoing an earlier Midrash, Ramban paints Lot as one of the people of Sodom. He has fully absorbed, and now exhibits, their ethos of sexual abuse. That’s ‘bad thing’ #2; Ramban’s outrage is the right response both to Lot and to Sodom’s mob.

To borrow Nahmanides’s language, ‘improper sexual relations’ need to become ‘a distant thing’ from our hearts and minds. That’s the challenge of this moment in the culture and society in which we live. Tolerance of sexual harassment, silencing reports of abuse, looking the other way, let alone engaging in it ourselves, are ‘simply wicked-heartedness.’ Calling it out is certainly the order of the day. So is the deep, and frankly harder, work of introspection and self-reflection needed to root out the urge to harass and abuse from our own hearts. Possession of lev tov – a good heart – say the rabbis is the key to a life well lived. ‘Wicked-heartedness’ is its opposite number. Striving for ‘good-heartedness’ is the answer to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Hunter and Garcia’s line about the story’s hero/anti-hero/villain lingers in my mind. “Get out, get out, Mr Lot and don’t you look around.” It’s time, finally, to get out of Sodom and Gomorrah; and to not look back!

Shabbat Shalom.