Rabbi Neil Gillman, professor emeritus of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and one of the leading theologians in the Conservative movement died Nov. 24. He was 84.
The author of numerous books, Gillman was associated for more than 50 years with JTS, the main seminary of the Conservative movement, as a student, administrator and member of the faculty, emphasizing the intersection of Jewish theology, Conservative Judaism and Jewish education.
“Gillman’s innovative thinking about how to construe Jewish faith and how to justify it, his use of anthropology as well as philosophy in approaching questions of God and life after death, and his ability to combine complete intellectual openness and honesty with a commitment to Jewish tradition mark his work as truly important, indeed, a real gift to Jews and non-Jews alike,” Elliot Dorff, the Sol & Anne Dorff distinguished service professor in philosophy at American Jewish University, said in introducing a collection of essays released in Gillman’s honor in 2013.
Rob Menes, executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom and a former student of Gillman’s, agreed. “His attitude towards Jewish theology really prepared me as a cantor to accept a wide range of possibilities for prayer and observance.”
A native of Quebec City, Canada, Gillman graduated from McGill University in 1954, was ordained at JTS in 1960 and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1975, according to JTS.
Gillman served on the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, which produced Emet Ve’Emunah, released in 1988 and considered the first common statement of principles in the Conservative movement’s then 143-year history.
His “Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew” won the 1991 National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought.
In his 2004 book, “The Way Into: Encountering God in Judaism,” he described Judaism’s notion of a personal God.
“The personal God lives in a dynamic, ever changing relationship with people; the impersonal god knows nothing of relationships,” he wrote. “Neil was both a dean and mentor to generations of students,” said Rabbi Stephen Steindel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom. “He became the voice for a wider theology that allows us to see … the Conservative movement as a living Judaism.” PJC
Adam Reinherz contributed reporting.