Yesterday at 1:15 PM, students, teachers and alumni from the Jewish Theological Seminary gathered in New York City and on Zoom to observe the 5th yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Rabbi Neil Gillman, may his memory be a blessing. I was teaching at The Weber School in Atlanta, and when class ended at 1:30 PM, I ducked into the faculty lounge and logged on from my phone.
Sitting on the couch with my earbuds in, I was able to spend a few private moments with my memories of my teacher. Earlier in the week, I mentioned to some colleagues that I planned to attend and remarked how impossible it seemed to me that five years had passed. My memories of the week of his shiva, which I shared in a post on the Rabbis Without Borders blog in 2017, were so vivid that it could have been last year. Still, I felt at least a decade older, so distorted is my sense of time after having lost many teachers and friends since the onset of the pandemic.
I scrolled to see the faces of former classmates, teachers and students, and briefly opened the chat to respond to a few greetings. Mostly, I tried to focus my attention on each of the speakers. Listening to their stories, I found myself conjuring a vision of Rabbi Gillman in the classroom, encouraging us to examine the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) from every possible perspective: God who called Abraham to take his son, Isaac, the two lads who accompanied them on the journey, Sarah who was left behind, the ram in the thicket, the angel who restrained Abraham.
Before he was my teacher, he was my mentor and role model in daily services in what was then called Schiff 2— it was later renovated and renamed the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue—and we used to sit next to one another in the front row on the left side, overlooking the courtyard. During the reader’s repetition of the Amidah, he would often point out something he’d noticed in the liturgy and we’d whisper about the meaning or formulation of the prayers. I remember our being shushed by the student overseeing the prayers and Neil laughing as I turned red. I visited him in his office occasionally to have more serious conversations about God.
The leader of the program introduced the final speaker, who began by describing a time when Neil was a visiting scholar at his synagogue, more than twenty years ago, after the publication of The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought. A member of the congregation asked him what happens after we die and Neil offered a philosophical answer, reading a passage from the book. The person thanked him and then asked for a more practical answer, saying “I need to know because I’m sick, and I’m going to die soon.” Without missing a beat, Neil replied, “Oh, that’s a very different question,” and proceeded to help this person construct a personal theology, visiting with them every week while they were dying. When faced with another human being who was suffering, the philosopher-professor-scholar was first and foremost a rabbi.
As I stood to recite Kaddish d’Rabbanan (kaddish of the rabbis), I wiped the tears from my face and exhaled slowly. But I choked up again during the blessing for “the teachers, their students, their students’ students, and all those who engage in the study of Torah.” It’s been thirty years since I was his student, learning to be the teacher who I am now. How I wish I could sit and whisper with him again.