28 Nov 2017

Tuesday Morning Torah – November 28, 2017

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Remembering Rabbi Neil Gillman
This past week the Conservative movement and the Jewish world lost a giant of our generation, Rabbi Neil Gillman. My understanding is that some of you were privileged enough to hear from him many years ago when he was a Scholar in Residence at heritage Temple Beth Torah. An author of multiple books on theology, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and one of my teachers- Rabbi Gillman was responsible for making an entire generation of Rabbis comfortable speaking, teaching, and wrestling with notions of God.  This may seem like a trivial point, but think about your early synagogue experiences, and those experiences of your parents in Conservative Jewish settings. How often did you hear anything about God? My guess is- not very often.  Rabbi Gillman worked to change that. Our movement, and our Jewish world is stronger and richer due to his tireless efforts.
Many of you have heard me give sermons about God, our teach classes about God. The notion that there are multiple “metaphors” for God (king, shepherd, parent, master of the universe) and that we don’t have to put God into any one category other than “One,” is something that I first learned from Rabbi Gillman. He taught me that Judaism is a religion in which we are encouraged to struggle with God. He taught me that there can be more than one “authentic” way to imagine and understand God. For those who are interested in this type of learning, check out either Sacred Fragments, or Traces of God, both authored by Rabbi Gillman.  Rabbi Gillman taught generations of Rabbis, educators, cantors, and college students that it is okay to wrestle, and to struggle with our understandings of God’s presence in our world.  He encouraged us to share this struggle with our students, and reminded us that our youth are incredibly thoughtful when it comes to theology if we are willing to share with them. In general, he reminded us that if we do not spend time thinking about, talking about, and wrestling with that presence- we cannot possible hope to discover it in our lives. In this way he evoked the Hassidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk who used to teach: Where is God? Wherever you let God in?  Rabbi Gillman once remarked that it is often more appropriate to think about “when” God is instead of simply “where” God can be found. He reminded us that God’s presence can often be felt in moments of time such as weddings, births, deaths,  surgeries, or every day moments of blessing and struggle.
I remember finding Rabbi Gillman in the cafeteria one day during lunch because I had an existential theological problem dealing with why people suffer. It seemed urgent at the time, though I do not recall exactly why I was struggling! When I spoke with Rabbi Gillman about it, he looked at me and smiled. He said simply: “You students want answers. You want resolution. The resolution is the tension.”
That’s it?! I asked.
 That’s it- he responded.
Whenever I struggle, I think of my teacher and am reminded to “lean in” to the struggle After all, it is that very struggle that defines who we are meant to be as the children of Jacob/Israel- the God wrestler.
May Rabbi Gillman’s memory forever be a blessing.
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