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Gillman was born in Quebec City, Canada. He graduated from McGill University in 1954. He was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1960. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1975.
In Conservative Judaism
He is a member of the Conservative movement's rabbinical body, the Rabbinical Assembly, and is a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in Manhattan, New York City, USA.
Gillman was one of the members of the Conservative movement's commission which produced Emet Ve-Emunah ("Truth and Faith"), the first official statement of beliefs of Conservative Judaism.
Within the New York Jewish community, he is well known as the friend and intellectual sparring partner of fellow Conservative rabbi Joel Roth; the two have held many friendly debates.
Teachings about Jewish theology
Gillman's primary field of interest is Jewish philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions such as: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "How do we know what we know?" In addressing this subject the first issue to note is that the terms "knowledge" and "belief" are often used interchangeably by religious believers, but technically these are very distinct terms.
As a philosopher, Gillman asks about the difference between belief and knowledge. Given the philosophical definition that knowledge differs from belief (knowledge is often defined as a justified, true belief), Gillman's works explicitly analyze epistemological questions.
In the 20th century, religious existentialists proposed that revelation held no content in of itself; rather, they hold that God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them. In this view the Bible is a human response that records how we responded to God. One of the major trends in modern Jewish philosophy was the attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism. One of the primary players in this field was Franz Rosenzweig. His major work, Star of Redemption, gives a philosophy in which he portrays the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are connected by creation, revelation and redemption. Gillman takes the existentialist philosophy as Rosensweig as one of his starting points for understanding Jewish philosophy. Another influential philosopher in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, also bases his views on existentialism, and the works of Franz Rosenzweig. (Dorff and Gillman come to somewhat different conclusions, as is normal in philosophy, and religion in general.)
Viewing God as a "myth"
Among Gillman's more controversial teachings are his statements that essential elements of Jewish theology should be thought of as "myths". His use of this term in both lectures, and in his book on theology, Sacred Fragments, led to discussion and controversy.
In Sacred Gillman writes that the traditional Jewish view of the Torah being orally dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai, and passed down to us today in an unbroken chain of transmission, is erroneous, and one that cannot be maintained in the light of modern Jewish theology and higher criticism of the Bible, such as the documentary hypothesis. In regard to these changes he writes:
- "Myths can be 'living,' 'broken,' or 'dead'. A living myth is one that works for us, that we embrace as "true," that makes sense of the world as we perceive it. A broken myth is one that has been exposed as our subjective, human construct. Sometimes broken myths die, dead myth; the contrary data have become overwhelming." So what is the Jewish myth? The Jewish Myth of the Torah as the word of God only works if we accept that it is the word of God. Once we realize that it was just some collection of stories, myths and history that was edited in the 5th century then it becomes a 'broken myth"....broken myths don't have to die. It is possible to embrace a broken myth as still living.
Gillman holds that the text of the Torah that we have today is not the original text that existed in the time of Moses, but rather has been edited together from an array of earlier sources. Further, he teaches that it is a cardinal error to hold that God literally speaks like a human, and that many traditional understandings of Revelation are thus inadvertently idolatry.
Gillman responded to the controversy with a clarification of his teachings; he holds that his views were widely misinterpreted.
Gillman uses the word "myth" in the anthropological sense of this term, and not in the colloquial fashion. In the academic and anthropological sense, a myth is an organizing group of thoughts that ties together a people's understanding of how the world works. In this sense, myth does not mean "fable" or "fairy tale". In an essay published in the monthly journal Shma, entitled "The Problematics of Myth", Gillman writes:
- To this day, my use of the term troubles many of my students. The main problem is that, in American parlance, a myth is synonymous with a fiction, a fairy tale, or worse, a lie - as in the common practice of contrasting "the myth" with "the facts" or "the reality." That conventional use of the term haunts me whenever I use it....[I teach that] that the biblical account of the event at Sinai should be understood as myth. This is what I mean by the term.
- There is no totally objective, human experience of the world. We construct reality from our simple perception of an apple to our most complex scientific theories....We perceive the world not through our eyes but through our brain, which applies interpretive structures to what is transmitted to us through our senses. Those structures are analogous to myths. Structural myths are often accompanied by narrative myths; the former describes the structure, while the latter tells how it came to be. Freudian psychoanalytic theory combines both, as does astronomy; Genesis 1 and Exodus 19 are classical narrative myths.
- Myths, then, are not to be contrasted with facts. Instead, myths are the means by which we identify the significant facts. The more elusive the facts, the more the data elude direct human perception, the more inevitable and indispensable the myth (as in string theory, psychoanalytic theory, the biblical account of the Exodus, creation, and eschatology). In all of these cases, the myth posits an invisible world to account for what it is that we do see. Myths then inform the work of scientists, historians, and theologians.
- Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah and Israel in Modern Judaism, Jewish Lights, 2008.
- Traces of God: Seeing God in Torah, History and Everyday Life, Jewish Lights, 2006.
- The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians, Jewish Lights, 2003.
- The Way into Encountering God in Judaism, Jewish Lights, 2000.
- The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, Jewish Lights, 1997.
- Conservative Judaism: The New Century, Behrman House, 1993.
- Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, Jewish Publication Society, 1992.
- Gabriel Marcel on Religious Knowledge, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1980.
- The Problematics of Myth
- Torah From Terror (Edited with Rabbi Jason Miller)
- Neil Gillman at the Jewish Theological Seminary.