By William Plevan
Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman died on November 23, 2017, having been ill for several years after cancer treatment. Gillman spent his entire career at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, as the dean of the Rabbinical School and as a Professor of Jewish Philosophy.
This essay is one student’s attempt to articulate an appreciation for Gillman, his contribution to contemporary Jewish theology, and how his work might shed light on the value of the terminology of postmodernism for our own time. In this sense, it contributes to and broadens, I hope, The Lehrhaus’s recent series of articles on Rav Shagar and postmodern Jewish theology.
Gillman’s most significant work of Jewish theology is his 1990 book, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. Only a year later, Eugene Borowitz, professor of Jewish theology at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, originally published Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. A leading thinker of Reform Judaism, Borowitz drew on the discourse of postmodernism in the service of calling for a retrieval of tradition.
Gillman, a Conservative Jew and certainly more of a traditionalist thinker than Borowitz, categorized his own work as modern, yet his approach to theology touches on elements of the rhetoric of postmodernism and religion that was taking shape at that time, even as he did not embrace that particular label. To understand and appreciate Gillman’s contribution, I will discuss some of Gillman’s early philosophical influences, which also point to some commonalities with Borowitz, who himself died under two years ago.