- The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism
As he did in Sacred Fragments, Neil Gillman has once again presented complex theological ideas in a very accessible manner with a clear organizational framework. Drawing upon biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, and contemporary sources, he explores the seemingly abstract incomprehensibility of God's nature, attributes, and actions in the world. Gillman utilizes theological metaphors in a more liberal, humanistic approach that brings God down to earth, as it were, while at the same time recovering the wonder of divine presence in the universe. He seems to have inherited the theological [End Page 162] pragmatism of Mordecai Kaplan while at the same time uncovering the divine pathos expressed so beautifully by Abraham Joshua Heschel. As a result, his book is as much a study of God as it is a study of human discovery and self-exploration.
Gillman demonstrates this dual approach to theology in the introduction by claiming that human beings don't "invent" God through metaphors, but rather ". . . discover God and then invent metaphors to characterize the God they experience" (p. 13). Throughout the book, he explores this theme of divine-human interdependence as it is evident in God's nature, attributes, and actions in the world. In the first two chapters, he questions God's nature as being unique and powerful by making these characteristics dependent to some extent upon human awareness of and allegiance to God. In other words, God's all-encompassing oneness and power over the universe is incomplete, because it is challenged or constrained by human freedom and the unbridled forces of nature.
In the next four chapters of the book, Gillman portrays God's attributes as a personal God who enters into relationships with humanity, expresses emotions, and appears to change and be affected by human supplication. In these chapters, he exposes the reader to biblical sources portraying God with the attributes of a spouse, parent and lover who can be nice and not so nice, accessible and inaccessible, particularly in the post-Holocaust era. Gillman explains that these proposed attributes of God are constituted out of metaphors derived from human emotions and the desire to relate to God, but are equally plausible as metaphors driven by human reason that describe God as the process and power behind the human search for self-fulfillment and knowledge of the universe. Here he invokes his teachers Kaplan and Heschel, asserting, "Mordecai Kaplan, the hard-headed rationalist imbued with a scientific, critical temper, seeks above all to understand God. Heschel, the Hasid, the mystic, the poet, needs the intimacy. We need both" (p. 70).
In the final three chapters of the book, Gillman associates God's actions in the world with the triad of creation, revelation, and redemption, yet concludes that even these actions are constituted out of a divine-human partnership. In terms of creation, God needs human beings to complete the task of constructing the material world as well as contributing to its ethical development. In terms of revelation, Gillman takes the liberal position that the Torah is really a human document constructed in an intercultural context that expresses an ongoing attempt to understand and interpret God's will. Finally when describing redemption, Gillman presents the image of a somewhat limited and fragmented God who is actually dependent upon humanity to reconstitute God and the world in an interactive process.
This book provides a very focused snapshot of contemporary Jewish theology and the questions that it engenders. By avoiding excessive theological jargon and occasionally providing personal anecdotes, Gillman succeeds in distilling some of the classic theological debates into an educational and at times even entertaining narrative. Yet, it is exactly this concise, simplistic style that precludes extensive discussion of important [End Page 163] theological trends such as medieval Kabbalah and post-Holocaust and feminist theologies. While discussing the redemptive myth of Lurianic Kabbalah, Gillman fails to describe the mystical theosophy of the Zohar that is integral to understanding the development of Jewish theology in history. To his credit, Gillman does address the all...