Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review: Doing Jewish Theology by Rabbi Neil Gillman

Worth reading? Sure

Doing Jewish Theology is a contemplation of myth, ritual, and practice in liberal Judaism by Conservative Rabbi Neil Gillman. In it, he discusses the divinity of the Torah, halacha, the indefinable nature of God, rabbinical education, life after death, and chaos, all topics I was excited to read about.

Before I begin, I need to note that I will be using "liberal Judaism" in this post as Gillman uses it to denote non-Orthodox or non-literal branches of Judaism, specifically Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
My biggest problem with the book is the last chapter: "In Praise of Birkat Kohanim." The Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) has gone out of fashion in liberal branches of Judaism, mainly because of its hierarchical and un-egalitarian structure. Gillman argues that it should be reinstated because he finds it to be a powerful ritual and thinks that it adds "drama" and allows for more congregant participation in what is otherwise a fairly spectator-leader service. Egalitarianism and outdated hierarchies aside, he seems to be motivated mainly by the fact that he is a kohen. He wants to make the Birkat Kohanim more egalitarian so that he can share it with his daughters, since he has no sons (kohen/priestly status was passed down from Aaron, Moses' brother, through the male line only, so daughters cannot be kohanim).

The self-serving overtones of this chapter could have been subdued by better placement in the book. Even if it had been placed just a chapter before, between his third-to-last and second-to-last chapters on ritual and chaos, respectively, it would have made a significant difference in my overall impression of the book. For one thing, since the Birkat Kohanim is a prayer and ritual, it would have flowed better following the chapter on ritual. It felt tacked onto the end, almost forced. The Birkat Kohanim chapter is only five pages long, so I could have easily forgotten it if there had been another chapter before the book ended. Instead, I have to struggle to remember the earlier parts of the book that I felt were better argued or made more interesting points.

Rabbi Gillman spends a long time in the first few chapters discussing the various works of Abraham Joshua Heschel and other Jewish philosophers and theologians. While I think I might have gotten more out of those sections of the book if I had read more Heschel beforehand, overall, I enjoyed Heschel's philosophy and Rabbi Gillman has inspired me to read more of his work.

The other major point of this book that stood out to me was halacha and what constitutes an halachic movement. Gillman offers a very candid analysis of the Conservative movement's theology and views of halacha and the problems that arise in trying to explain their decisions to their congregants. Halacha in the liberal branches of Judaism is incredibly interesting. In Orthodox Judaism, halacha is believed to literally be God's laws. Gillman rejects this literalism. His argument rests on three liberal assumptions (found on pages 171-3 of Doing Jewish Theology):
  1. Human language is inadequate and all our characterizations of God are metaphors. 
  2. Liberal Jews accept a human component in Torah. Here he, again, quotes Heschel (among others): "Torah is a midrash on revelation." 
  3. Halacha is the Jewish community's understanding of God's will 
Basically, humans are incapable of capturing the essence of God in speech, thus the Torah was our best attempt at recording what God said, but ultimately halachic law is based on human understanding and when our community's understanding of God's will changes, we should be able to take steps to change the laws. In the Conservative Movement, this has led to the reversal of the halachic law that says a kohen (of the priestly class) cannot marry a divorcee. On the other hand, the Conservative movement maintains halacha on the issue of Jewish identity and does not recognize patrilineal descent. Traditionally, Jewishness is passed on through the mother, so by not recognizing patrilineal descent, the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother is not considered Jewish without undergoing a conversion. I'm not sure where I fall on issues of halacha at this point, but I appreciated Gillman's in depth look at halacha, the history of halacha in liberal Judaism, and the benefits and problems the Conservative movement faces with their particular brand of halacha.

Rabbi Gillman covers many other excellent topics in this book, including creation, eschatology, Rabbinical education, rituals and myths, and chaos.

Shabbat Shalom!