Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: Sacred Fragments, by Neil Gillman

Neil Gillman.  Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew.  Jewish Publication Society, 1990.

Neil Gillman teaches theology at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.  I audited a class of his when I was a student there.  His book, Sacred Fragments, overlaps a lot with what he discussed in that class: Gillman said that believers and unbelievers can look at the same reality and arrive at different (even legitimate) conclusions, and he talked about such thinkers as Mordechai Kaplan (who saw God as an impersonal force moving the world to a state of wholeness), Franz Rosenzweig (who emphasized personal experience of the divine), and Kabbalah (which posited that God’s Shekinah was exiled from God and that God could be repaired through observance of the commandments).  The book still has territory that was not covered in class, however.  For example, in the class, Professor Gillman told us that we should consult his book, Sacred Fragments, for his discussion about the classic arguments for the existence of God (i.e., the ontological argument, the cosmological argument that everything has a cause and thus the universe had a cause, and the argument that the cosmos manifests design).  He did not want to explore them in class because that was not a topic that particularly interested him.  The book also provided me with background information about philosophical topics, such as existentialism, and it covered the thoughts of Jewish thinkers whom Gillman did not talk about in the class, as far as I can remember (i.e., Buber, etc.).

Judaism has wrestled with many of the same issues that Christians have in the field of religion.  Is the Bible God’s revelation, when it arguably contains signs of being the product of human authors with their own ideologies and agendas?  Is the Bible authoritative, containing God’s commands?  Is there even a God, and, if so, how can we know?  If there is a good God, why is there suffering?  Is ritual consistent with a living, vibrant experience of God, or does it hinder that?  Judaism would relate some of these questions to other areas than Christians would: for example, Judaism would look at the Torah and its laws specifically.  Still, the questions are similar, and so Gillman’s class and book resonated with me, even though my religion is not Judaism.

Where exactly does Gillman land on these questions?  My impression is that he is usually presenting options rather than telling people what to think and to do.  Here are some things that Jewish thinkers have thought, and it is up to you to make up your own mind (along with your community).  You may feel that ritual hinders a lively experience of God, but perhaps it can create opportunities for such an experience to occur—-it’s something to think about.  You have to decide for yourself if you want to see life as a believer in God or as a non-believer.  You are the one who can determine whether or not you feel commanded by God to do something.  The classic rational arguments for God’s existence may not prove God’s existence, but perhaps you can still find in them a justification for belief, plus rationality is good because it can sift out the absurd.  Gillman’s approach looks like subjectivism and experientialism, but Gillman appears to be open to the possibility that there is a God in the world, that Israel experienced something on Mount Sinai, and that people now can experience the divine.

I’m the sort of person who looks for something authoritative, for solid ground to stand on.  The thing is, being an adult usually entails the sort of process that Gillman displays: looking at options, deciding what makes sense to me, and making a choice.

There is more that I can say: what I thought about Gillman’s approach to the arguments for the existence of God, the existentialist who posited a scenario in which Elijah asked God to send fire from heaven to undercut the prophets of Baal and God did not send the fire, etc.  But I’ll stop here.

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