Review by Israel Drazin
Believing and its Tensions
By Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013, 113 pages
After teaching religion at The Jewish Theological Seminary for some fifty years, and serving as chair of its Department of Jewish Philosophy, Dr. Gillman retired and summarized his views on God, Torah, suffering, and death in this short book. The book is significant because of Dr. Gillman’s past position, the fact that he was one of the teachers of a large number of rabbis at his conservative institution, and because his seemingly radical views are the views of many people.
Dr. Gillman is convinced that humans have no way of knowing what God is. We can only know God by viewing nature. “We discover God in our experience of the world – not though miracles, not through sudden revelations from mountaintops, but from everyday experience of God’s presence in our lives, in history, and in nature.” He quotes Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah: “God’s essence as it really is, the human mind does not understand and is incapable of grasping or investigating.”
Everyone has his and her own version of God
God is “very much the product of our own subjective needs.” If we want a loving father, a judge, a guardian, a lover, this is how we see God.
God is not involved with people. “I gradually learned that none of my teachers, and certainly none of my colleagues, believed that the story of the revelation of the Torah, as it is composed and recorded in chapters 19 and 20 of the book of Exodus, is an accurate historical, literal account of what happened some thousands of years ago in the Sinai desert.” There was no revelation by God: “the account in Exodus was a folktale – or as I later called it, a myth. It certainly was not history.” So, too: “I no longer believe that my ancestors were slaves in Egypt who were removed from slavery by God’s intervention.” Yet Gillman still finds much meaning in the Torah, in the holiday of Passover, and much else in Judaism because myths were composed to teach lessons, and these lessons are still relevant and important today.
He quotes Professor Max Kadushin: “if there is no Hebrew word for something, then it is not Jewish; it doesn’t belong in Judaism. There really is no specific Hebrew term for the English word revelation.” Thus, revelation, as understood today, as a divine dictation to humans, is not a Jewish concept. The story in Exodus should be understood as humans discovering the divine intention on their own by viewing the world. “I increasingly believe that when we say that God revealed the Torah we mean that this is the human attempt to understand God’s will through the act of human discovery, assigning the most active role possible to the human community.”
Elijah’s and Mendl’s view of revelation
I Kings 19 describes the prophet Elijah revisiting Mount Sinai, then called Horeb, for a revelation of God. Rather than God appearing to him in a fire, storm, and thunder, rather than a long or even short dictation by God, as told in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, “the Lord was not in the earthquake…or fire…but in a soft murmuring sound.”
The Hasidic master Rabbi Mendl of Rimanov explained: all that was revealed to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai was the letter aleph of the first word of the Ten Commandments, anochi. An aleph by itself has no sound; it is a silent letter. It becomes vocalized when a vowel of some kind is added to it, but Torah scrolls have no vowels. Vowels were added long after the Torah was written, by humans. “Rabbi Mendl suggested that that contains all of revelation.”
What is Judaism?
“Judaism as a religion (did not emerge from God, but) emerged from the communal experience of my ancestors.” The Torah “is a product of human experience.” Ritual “emerged from the life experience of (the Jewish) community.” Rituals, as everything else in Judaism, are not supernatural; they are the result of natural needs: “communities, out of similar needs, create various rituals to fill them.” Once the natural nature of Judaism is understood, that it developed to meet certain needs, we realize that Judaism must continue to change and develop to meet the new requirements.
Religion teaches that people should not be passive creatures depending on a heavenly father “revealing” how they should think and act. A true religion prompts people to be active, to respond to their environment and to what nature teaches them, and act to improve themselves and society.
Suffering and death
Despite years of study, Dr. Gillman found no “adequate theological answer to suffering. All the answers that are basically rooted in theology have not worked…. What religion can provide, however, is the resources to help us cope with the tragedies.”
While Dr. Gillman couldn’t solve why bad things happen to good people, Maimonides wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed that individuals have difficulty understanding the problem because (1) they think that God is involved constantly in every worldly occurrence and should be protecting them, and (2) they are convinced that the world was created for humans. Once people realize that both notions are false, there is no problem.
God created or formed a world that would function in the very best way for its survival. God then became transcendental, no longer involved in the world; the world functions as God willed according to the laws of nature, which are good for the world, although sometimes people are hurt. People suffer because: (1) They damage themselves, as when they cross the street into incoming traffic. (2) Other people seeking their own benefits injure them, as when a nation expands its borders by murdering people in its neighboring land. (3) The laws of nature, good for the world as a whole, harm and even kill people, as a hurricane that helps clean the climate destroys houses and people.