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.