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A Dip into the Deistic

September 28, 2006 By:
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Neil Gillman is one of the great scholars and teachers of our time, a central presence at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who has written one undeniable classic, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, along with several minor ones, among them The Death of Death and The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism. Traces of God, his new book, subtitled Seeing God in Torah, History and Everyday Life, published by Jewish Lights, is not in either of those leagues. But Gillman could not write a negligible sentence if he tried, and Traces of God is filled with passages of true beauty and insight. It's that you have to go looking for them. But rest assured, it's worth the effort.

The problem as I see it is laid out by the author in his introduction. Twenty-five years ago, Gillman explains, he was asked by the seminary to serve as one of three regular contributors to "The Sabbath Week" column that runs in The Jewish Week. Gillman was to be the voice of Conservative Judaism, joining Rabbis Shlomo Riskin and Lawrence Hoffman, who were set to represent Orthodox and Reform Judaism respectively.

During that 25-year period, which continues to this day, every three weeks, he took to his desk and fashioned a column based on the week's Torah portion. The Jewish Week gave him and the others "total freedom" to choose the themes and express their opinions.

The fit was a good one, the author concedes. His field is theology, so even in these compact columns created for journalistic consumption, he got the chance to reflect "on some of the pervasive issues in the field, on questions that continue to trouble me or that engage my attention in my seminary classes, always trying to ground my thinking on the biblical text."

For this anthology, he's chosen about one-third of the columns he's written, with his selections based "first, on my personal judgment as to their relative merit, and second, on the extent to which theology was central to the discussion. In each selection, I have eliminated all explicit references to the Torah portion that originally prompted the reflection... . I have done little further editing. What you read now is more or less what I originally wrote. Also, I have ignored the original sequences in which these reflections originally appeared. Instead, I have arranged them according to four broad themes."

'More or Less'

Those themes are Seeing God; Images of God; Revelation and Law; and Suffering, Death and Redemption. In and of themselves, these categories are fine, and the columns Gillman has chosen for each section are unassailable. The problem is that phrase "more or less what I originally wrote." Having edited any number of these Torah commentaries for the Exponent over the years, you get used to the form. And like any other columnist, even the best of them, when you do this year after year, even at the rate of one every three weeks, the columns take on certain identifiable tics.

Length is part of the problem here. Each chapter is about the same size as any other, and so a rhythmic kind of repetition builds up. We know when we reach the penultimate paragraph that the columnist is winding up for the finish, and a major insight will be pulled out of his bag of tricks. (Or there might just be a quiet sigh of an ending.) But because these chapters were written as self-contained columns -- and even though they've been gathered now with others like them -- they never grow and send us on to the next chapter. In fact, the next chapter begins just like the one before it and heads toward its final insight; then we start over again.

And because these chapters have the shape of columns, but not the paraphernalia that made them so in the first place -- the information pertaining to what Torah portion they're explicating -- there always seems something missing from them. (Of course, you can refer to the Index of Torah Readings in the back of the book, but that seems like too much work to do for a text that presents itself as a unified piece of work). So, there's a certain ghostly absence that you always feel and keep looking for each time you begin a chapter.

Gillman seems happy that he didn't feel the need to tamper with his prose, and it's commendable that so much of it is striking, considering the exigencies of writing a column, even if you have three weeks between each one (only those who write on deadline will understand what's at stake here). But still, Gillman might have taken this material and shaped it into a book, where each passage builds to the next and each chapter leads us forward.

But enough about what Traces of God might have been. What it is, often, is dazzling. In fact, sometimes whole chapters seem to work better here than they could possibly have worked as columns. (You must accept the fact, going into any anthology of columns -- or collection of short stories, for that matter -- that some are simply going to work better in this almost forced context than others.)

As for moments of insight, take "Connecting the Dots," the first chapter in the book, under the theme Seeing God. The first 10 paragraphs are filled with so many ideas and sources that it could keep any general reader interested in theology busy for several months tracking down the references, and discovering all that's just glancingly referred to there.

Then Gillman writes: "If we were to ask the Bible how we may gain an awareness of God's presence in the world, the answer would be, 'Just look!' Look at nature. Look at your history. The Bible is a textbook on the dynamics of the religious experience.

"But problems abound, as the verses above suggest. First, we have to want to look. That explains why Moses spends so much effort urging his people to look and to see.

"Second, we must look at the right things -- not, for example, 'at the sun and the moon and the stars,' for we might conclude that we are to worship them in place of God (Deuteronomy, 4:19). Then there is always the danger that we might forget what we have seen. Communal memory is very fragile.

"Finally, no matter how hard we look, the God of Israel cannot be seen. Looking is not seeing, and seeing God is not like seeing an apple. It is much more like making a medical diagnosis on the basis of looking at a complex set of symptoms. Each of the symptoms is a dot. We look at each of the dots and still miss the pattern. Making a diagnosis requires us to decide which symptoms to ignore, which to include, and how to fit together those that we do include so that they form a coherent pattern. It's a matter of connecting the dots."

As for a chapter that works spectacularly well on its own, turn to "The Value of Atheism." (There are many others, like "Schoenberg's Midrash on the Golden Calf.") Gillman begins: "We know all too well that great piety can produce great evil. That sin can become the source of sanctification is not so obvious, however. Yet this seems to be one of the lessons in the biblical account of Korach's rebellion against Moses and Aaron."

Moses responds to Korach's challenge by asking each rebel to take a fire pan with incense on it "and assemble before the Lord at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting." Gillman's discussion is complex and closely textual, but at the end you read: "The reasons for plating the altar with the pans of the rebels is to remind us of the rebelliousness that is legitimately within ourselves. For it is never clear who is the authentic believer and who is the atheist; there is both believer and atheist within each of us. Even more, the life of faith at its most authentic necessarily includes both moments of belief and unbelief."

In the end, the best way to read Traces of God might be by dipping into it, here and there, like a postmodernist text, choosing your own pattern, rather than reading it as a continuous narrative, which it clearly isn't, no matter how strenuously Gillman and his editors have tried to make it so. Stopping here and there, when so moved, ends up being highly rewarding.

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