Neil Gillman “On Knowing God”

One of the preeminent Jewish theologians of the 20th century is Rabbi Neil Gillman

Rabbi Neil Gillman On Knowing God

“What does it mean to experience God?  It would seem that we do not see/experience God as we see/experience an apple…. But is the difference between seeing God and seeing an apple an intrinsic difference?  That is, do we require a dual epistemology, one for knowing natural objects and another for knowing God?  Or is there one basic way for humans to experience, and hence, to acquire knowledge of everything?”

“I claim that a single epistemology is sufficient.  To substantiate that claim, I begin by suggesting three possible analogies for the epistemological process involved in knowing God: seeing the New York Knick’s passing game, seeing an ego, and seeing a quark [a sub-atomic particle, which all protons and neutrons are made of].”

“In each of these instances, what we see is a patterned activity.  in the first, seeing a passing game is different from seeing Patrick Ewing.  We clearly see Ewing as we see an apple; we know what he looks like or we identify him by the name and number on his shirt.  But seeing the passing game involves seeing an in-between activity, a patterned relationship in which the ball is moved back and forth between five players.  A passing game is never static, never immobile; it is intrinsically dynamic….But it is perfectly clear that we do see a passing game, and then pass judgements on its quality: sharp, ragged, sloppy, etc….(all, it should be noted, metaphors)…there is a passing game out there; it is not an invention of basketball coaches and players.”

“Similarly, to see an ego is not see an apple.  An ego is not an entity which we can see if we dig deep enough into a human being…To see an ego is to see one specific, complex, pattern of human behavior, that dimension of the person’s behavior which reveals stability and balance.  Here too the frame is limited: the individual human being and his/her life experience.  Here again the experience is interactional: the psychologist and I see the same behavior, but the former brings forth a wealth of professional training and experience…that enables him to see what I can’t see.”

“To the question “Did Freud discover the ego or invent it?” the answer is clearly both.  Freud discovered the pattern, at least partially because he was looking for it and knew what to look for.  But then he identified it, gave it a name, and fitted it into his broader psychodynamic theory (or myth).  But Freud discovered the ego because it was out there to be discovered.  The ego itself is not a fiction….”

“Finally, seeing a quark.  Again, seeing a quark is not like seeing an apple.  But a trained nuclear physicist brings his interpretive structure (theory or myth) to look at the computer print out of the activity that took place in his super-collider and then claims to see a quark.  I look at the same print-out and see a chaotic mass of numbers; he sees a quark.  Or, what he interprets what he sees as a quark, or he sees through the print-out to the “invisible” quark.  Again, the experience is interactional;  without the theoretical structure, the physicist would be like me, seeing nothing of significance….Does the physicist invent the quark or discover it?  Again the answer is both:  he discovers the pattern, but because his theory provides him with a name and a way to identify it when it is there, he can then see the quark.  But the quark pattern is out there to be discovered; it is not a fictitious creation of the physicist.”

“Seeing God is like seeing any of these patterns, probably most like seeing an ego, in the sense that God is a pattern of activity that is “in” history and nature, as an ego is “in” a person…Again the experience is interactional: the believer brings his interpretive structure (the Torah’s religious myth) to his seeing, and see the pattern that we call God.  Do we discover God or do we invent God?  Both.  We discover the patterns and then identify them, name them, and the names our are inventions, just as we invent the names ‘ego’ and ‘quark’.  But if the patterns are discoverable, they are out there to be discovered.”

-> from “On Knowing God”, Conservative Judaism, Volume LI, No.2, Winter 1999.

Gillman writes :

My Seminary education had successfully subverted any literalist understanding of the central Jewish revelational event as described in Exodus 19-20. I was taught that the Torah was a composite document, edited around the 5th century C.E., borrowing from the literature of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. That “critical” approach to the study of the Bible also questioned the historicity of the biblical narratives, including the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. The evidence for these conclusions struck me as persuasive.

In addition, I had begun to question the very possibility of any human attempt to capture God’s nature or activity in literal terms. I could no longer believe that God literally “descends” on Sinai or “speaks” the words of Torah. If God were truly God, then God could not literally “speak.”

But then what was Torah? Whence its sanctity? Its authority? More broadly, what was the epistemological status of any theological claim? Finally, as a rabbi, how could I justify teaching and advocating the bulk of Jewish practice which, I continued to believe, remained central to any authentic understanding of Judaism? It was in this context that I reverted to the notion of myth.

To this day, my use of the term troubles many of my students. The main problem is that, in American parlance, a myth is synonymous with a fiction, a fairy tale, or worse, a lie – as in the common practice of contrasting “the myth” with “the facts” or “the reality.” That conventional use of the term haunts me whenever I use it.

When I teach “revelation,” I provide my students with a wide range of options, including the traditionalist literal understanding of the issue, along with the more liberal positions from the writings of Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, and Rosensweig. I also teach my own position – that the biblical account of the event at Sinai should be understood as myth. This is what I mean by the term….

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (Sh’ma website)

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (BJPA website)


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