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Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew

by Neil Gillman

Bibliographic information

TitleSacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew
AuthorNeil Gillman
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


Winner of the National Jewish Book Award!

Sacred Fragments is for the Jew who still cares enough to continue the struggle to hold on to his or her beliefs while living in our secular world. Rabbi Neil Gillman, a nationally known author and lecturer, offers a unique approach to building a personal theology. The perfect book for study groups or for personal reflection, Sacred Fragments presents ideas and exercises that renew the Jewish spirit.

In forthright, nontechnical language, Rabbi Gillman guides readers through a search for answers to the most difficult theological questions of our time, including the existence of God, the purpose of ritual, and the ability to believe in Judaism after the horrors of the Holocaust. For each issue, he presents a range of authentic Jewish perspectives, retaining the “sacred fragments” of traditional belief and rethinking them within the framework of the modern world.

This book will be a stimulating and rewarding step to exploring and restoring Jewish theology – and faith – at a time when belief is continually challenged and yet so very needed.

About the Author 

Neil Gillman ---

Rabbi Neil Gillman, an associate professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a noted theologian, has written many books of contemporary Jewish thought and religion. Rabbi Gillman is a popular speaker, guiding audiences to personal conclusions on difficult theological questions.













Afterword: Doing Your Own Theology



The central questions of theology pertain to the existence and nature of God. Etymologically, the very word “theology” means “thinking” or “talking about God” (from the Greek: theos, God; logos, reason or discourse). In fact, thinking and talking about God are part of one process. As we open this complex issue, two distinct questions separate themselves out: How do we know anything about God? And what is it that we know about God? the two questions are inextricably intertwined. The “how” question clearly implies a prior agreement on “what” it is we are talking about in the first place: An old man with a white beard sitting in the sky? A natural process? A distinct if immaterial being? But at the same time, each of these concepts of God forces us to ask: How do we know? How do we know anything about this God? How do we know that He exists in the first place?

But all issues can not be discussed simultaneously; certain ones have to be temporarily bracketed, even if somewhat arbitrarily. We begin, then, with the “how” question and turn to the “what” question below.

The Existence of God: A Persistent Issue

The most striking fact about the issue of the existence or nonexistence of God is its sheer persistence over centuries, not only as a technical philosophical problem but in the popular imagination as well. From the earliest records of humanity’s attempts to understand itself and its world to our own day, people have had recourse to the notion of an ultimate Being or Power, both as a way of explaining why things are the way they are and, more existentially, as a help in coping with the problems of living. There is hardly a human being who, at one point or another in the course of his or her lifetime, did not feel the need at least to struggle with the problem.

It is commonly held that the classic text of our tradition, the Bible, takes the existence of God for granted. This is not completely accurate. It may well be the official or editorial position of the Bible, the perspective from which the Author—or authors—of the biblical narratives wrote, but it is far from true of the biblical communities. In fact, what is most striking about the biblical record is the repeated refusal of Israel to accept the reality of the biblical God despite what would seem to be the very convincing displays of His presence and power. It is precisely the generation who personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai—of whom it is said “… when they saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, …they had faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:30-31)—who shortly thereafter persuaded Aaron to build a golden calf and danced about it while exclaiming “This is your God, O Israel, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4).

This is only one of a long series of rebellions against God that the Bible records with painful candor. Even the remarkable narrative of Elijah on the Carmel (1 Kings 18), which records what we might take to be a decisive experiment to prove the reality of God, proved to be utterly inadequate, even in the short run. In fact, believers among us today see equally dramatic or “miraculous” divine interventions everywhere—for example, the State of Israel’s military victory in the Six-Day War, the sudden reversal of a seemingly terminal illness, or the birth of a perfectly normal baby. But the skeptics among us remain unconvinced.

Is the issue, then, intrinsically unresolvable? Part of the problem, at least in the two biblical narratives referred to above, is not so much the existence of a supreme Being but, rather, the nature or the identification of that Being: the biblical God or a golden calf; God or Baal. The traditional theistic God—infinite, transcendent, disembodied, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, personal—is unique among beings. He does not enter into our normal or natural experience in the way that flowers, or even blood cells, atoms, or galaxies do. The Bible is extremely reticent about suggesting that He can be perceived by human beings, as in the cautious language of passages such as Exodus 24:17, Exodus 33:20-23, Deuteronomy 34:10, Isaiah 6:1, and Ezekiel 1:28 (though the Bible is considerably less reticent about claiming that human beings can hear His voice). The literature of the mystics, both Jewish and otherwise, who claim to experience God at the climax of their mystical quests, confirms the highly ambiguous nature of what in fact they do experience. There seems to be an intrinsic incompatibility between the content of the experience and our human powers to conceptualize or express it.

Typically, in the Bible at least, the revelation is not of God Himself but rather of a second-level manifestation of His presence; not His being, but events that He brought about. What the biblical community was asked to perceive was a complex pattern of events in nature and history—sunrise and sunset, the cycle of the seasons, the workings of the human body, the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the covenant at Sinai, mannah in the wilderness, the victory over Amalek. Later generations added the Maccabean victory, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the Six-Day War to this list. The editorial perspective of the Bible knits these events into a pattern that “reveals” God’s intervention into nature and history on behalf of His people. But a skeptic can always refuse to acknowledge the pattern, or choose to see a different pattern, or attribute the pattern to some other power—be it Baal, self-sufficient nature, intrinsic human resourcefulness, or even a series of coincidences. If anything, that kind of skepticism comes more easily to us than it did to the biblical community, for we have a far more sophisticated understanding of natural and historical processes than our ancestors did.

A closer look at the first of the biblical passages cited above provides a vivid example of our problem here. The two verses make five distinct claims:

  1. Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians

  2. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea

  3. When Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded

  4. The people feared the Lord

  5. They had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses


A wonderful way to begin taking Jewish theology seriously. The idea and the kinds of exercises he provides will enable Jewish parents to provide a coherent account of their beliefs for their children.

- Hadassah Magazine

The best single introduction to Jewish religious thought in print, Gillman's book covers all the bases, from God to Holocaust, from prayer to Torah.

- Theology Today

This is a book that should be read by all – it’s worth the time.

- Jewish Press

Gillman demonstrates in a very conclusive way that one can be … sophisticated, professionally successful, and a believing Jew whose faith based on understanding will add a vital dimension to his life.

- Jewish Week

Directed to questing lay readers, this brilliant exposition of Jewish theology should satisfy the needs of readers wanting to transcend the facile popular approach.

- Library Journal

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