Book Review: Sacred Fragments

Allen: We started this blog to encourage an honest conversation about Jewish belief and ideas, but Neil Gillman beat us to the punch fifty years ago. As an assimilated frat boy at McGill in the 1950’s, Gillman never would have guessed he’d write one of the few influential books of Conservative theology this century. By his account, he first showed interest in Judaism when a girl he wanted to date invited him to a lecture by prominent theologian Will Herberg. He never did get that date, but he did strike up an intellectual friendship with Herberg that ultimately brought him to rabbinical school at JTS. He was frustrated by what he found there: a world-class faculty of Bible and Talmud scholars who almost never discussed questions of belief. For example, if the Bible wasn’t written by God, why should we listen to it? Is Conservative Judaism really a “halakhic movement”, whatever that may mean? So Gillman spent his career convincing liberal Jews to take theology seriously. He took his show on the road, asking his adult students to write their own personal belief statements. (I had the good luck of sitting in on one of these informal classes my first year at JTS.)

In 1988, Gillman decided to publish a belief statement of his own: Sacred Fragments. This represented the first prominent book of theology to come out of JTS since Heschel’s God in Search of Man. Lauded as offering an accessible introduction to the key issues of Jewish thought, it nonetheless took some heavy criticism for its redefinition of God in terms of “myth” and its hands-off approach to religious practice. Aron, since you’ve just finished the book, I’ll let you take it from here. Does Sacred Fragments rise to the challenge Gillman sets for himself? If not, what are some of his more glaring missteps?

Aron: First, let’s talk about what Gillman does well. Sacred Fragments is an excellent introduction to Jewish theology. In crisp, non-judgmental fashion, Gillman illuminates the differences between the theological approaches of key Jewish thinkers like Rosenzweig, Maimonides, Heschel, and Kaplan. He explains the history of the theological schools they represent — existentialism, rationalism, experientialism, and naturalism — and lays out their respective strengths and weaknesses. For someone who wants to an introduction into the intellectual history of Judaism, this book is an excellent companion to Eugene Borowitz’s Choices in Modern Jewish Thought.

One of the weakest parts of the book is Gillman’s articulation of his own theology. In the first chapter, he lays out his underlying theological claim: rather than see the Bible’s narratives as historical, we should understand them as mythological articulations of the Jewish people’s experience. This strikes me as an anthropological claim, not a theological one. It helps us understand how Jewish communities throughout history saw their place in the world, but not how Neil Gillman sees his. This pattern holds for the rest of the book. In each chapter, Gillman explores the underlying mythologies of various Jewish theologies , but doesn’t explain why we should find any of those mythologies compelling.

It’s only really on the last page of the last chapter that we find out what theological/ontological/moral claims Gillman is stirred by:

“Jewish eschatology is ‘true’ because it teaches me… that I am accountable for who I am and what I do; that my own fulfillment is inconceivable without the simultaneous fulfillment… of all humanity… Finally, it teaches me that history… strives for a realization of all the potentialities inherent in creation… Without these convictions, it would be impossible for me to live.”

These are powerful assertions (and fairly similar to your own). Had Gillman articulated them at the beginning, the book’s argument would have been much clearer.

This ties into the book’s second weakness: its purpose. At its outset, it appears that Gillman is planning on offering his readers a theological testimony. By the end, it’s clear that his intention is to provide a survey of theological options (each of which he largely eviscerates). While this is an important resource, we don’t lack for scholars who can describe theological options. What we often do lack, though, is leaders who are prepared to choose one and articulate it.

Allen: Well put. The concept of religion as “myth” is too fluffy for me. If you were to ask Professor Gillman whether he believed in God, he’d say that God acts as the lens through which his community understands its experiences. But that response doesn’t speak to the more basic question of whether there’s some basic underlying value to our lives and choices. His non-answer leaves me unsatisfied.

That being said, Professor Gillman’s been an eloquent spokesman for liberal Judaism in transition. He asked the right questions rather than surrendering to intellectual inertia; and for that, we owe him our real thanks.

Aron: I don’t think the problem is that “myth” is too nebulous — it’s just that if we’re going to justify Judaism as a mythic expression of something, we have to explain what that “something” is. It’s what stands behind the myth, and not the myth itself, that’s nebulous in Gillman’s theology. If I say that Judaism is valuable because it’s a mythic expression of some sort of truth or experience, I better be prepared to articulate what that truth or experience is.

Ultimately though, you’re right that we owe Gillman a general thank-you: he was the first to articulate a serious Conservative challenge to the halakhic framework offered by Rabbi Joel Roth in The Halakhic Process. Though both approaches have fallen somewhat out of vogue, it’s hard to deny that they helped start a new conversation in Conservative thought.

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