How Neil Gillman taught me Judaism 101

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Neil Gillman (1933-2017)

It really is very simple.

Judaism is the three Hs — head, heart, and hand.

  • Judaism is the head — the intellect, as activated by the study of Torah, and all Jewish texts and thought that flow from that sacred source.
  • Judaism is the heart — the inner life, as activated by prayer, worship, and ritual. 
  • Judaism is the hand — activism — through ethics, tikkun olam, etc.

This is roughly equivalent to the rabbinic saying (which verges on the cliche:) “The world stands upon three things: upon Torah, upon worship, and upon acts of goodness.”

This is what I teach Jews, of all ages: every Jew can major in one H; minor in a second H; and probably not get to the third H.

But, we live with the faith that the person sitting next to us in synagogue embodies our missing H. That is how we create Jewish community.

I first learned that simple and elegant idea from Professor Neil Gillman, who taught theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and who died before the beginning of this past Shabbat at the age of 84.

I had the immense privilege of knowing Neil personally. I always found him to be kind, compassionate, and immensely learned. I always appreciated how he taught students from every Jewish background, and was a staple at Reform adult study programs for many years.

I loved Neil Gillman — not only personally, but through his books. Two of those books made major impressions upon me.

His first, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, was perhaps the clearest exposition of modern Jewish thought that I had ever read. It is still my go-to book on various theological issues.

The book that moved me the most was The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought.

With that book, Neil single-handedly grabbed me by the intellectual lapels.

He told me, and all of his readers, that we had paid insufficient attention to the central Jewish idea of immortality, that we had not been thinking about olam ha-ba (the world to come, a.k.a, heaven) or the possibility of bodily resurrection.

To this day, his words shake and inspire me. “If God is truly God,” he said, “then God must be more powerful than death. There will come a time when death itself will be defeated.”

But, as much as I love those books, and his other writings which sit next to them on my shelf, I will tell you the moment with Neil Gillman that touched me and shaped me the most.

It was at a CAJE conference for Jewish educators.

It was at his session on Jewish spirituality and religion. That was where I heard him expound on the above-cited “Three H” theory of Judaism.

Right after Neil mentioned that everyone majors in one, minors in a second, and can’t really get the third one together, it got me thinking.

What was my H? It has always been head; with a minor in heart, and with the hand often lacking.

But, now, I have come to realize, that those Hs are dynamic within each individual. They change, as we change.

But, it gets better.

Someone raised her hand and asked: “Is there anyone in Jewish history who has embodied all three Hs?”

To which Neil replied: “Excellent question. Can anyone name a ‘three H’ person?”

And, then he added: “Please: don’t name anyone who is living.”

A puzzling request.

Still, nominations for “three H” Jews came rolling in — Joseph Karo, the author of the classic medieval law code, the Shulchan Aruch, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, the theologian and activist (of course!)

After class, I asked Neil: “Why didn’t you want people to nominate living people for the ‘three H’ Jews?”

He turned to me, and with a twinkle in his eye, said: “Because I didn’t want to give anyone an opening to say, ‘Oh, I know that person; he/she is not that great!”

Neil Gillman probably forgot that encounter.

I will always remember it. Even and especially in the midst of his teaching, he was quick to avoid giving anyone the temptation to engage in lashon ha-ra, gossip about another human being.

To this day, I remain agnostic (in its true sense — not knowing) about whether God will resurrect the dead at the end of history.

I am much more firmly convinced that immortality of the soul is real.

But, as I think of what I, and so many others, learned over the decades from that gentle man with the impish smile, I can say this with full-throated faith.

If there is to be a “death of death,” let it be that nothing we say or teaches ever really dies.

May the memory of Neil Gillman be a blessing.