Author Archives: Dr. Neil Gillman

Dr. Neil Gillman

About Dr. Neil Gillman

Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The Afterlife in Judaism: Modern Liturgical Reforms

One way of tracing the progressive disenchantment from the doctrine of bodily resurrection is to study the changes that were progressively introduced into the closing words of the Gevurot benediction of the Amidah

Reform Judaism: Stress the Soul’s Afterlife

The earliest Reformers were loath to tamper with the traditional liturgy, but at a conference of Reform rabbis in Brunswick [Germany] in 1844, Abraham Geiger, the acknowledged ideological father of Classical Reform, suggested that his movement must deal with some liturgical doctrines that were foreign to the new age. One of these was the hope for an afterlife, which, he proposed, should now stress not the resurrection of the body but rather the immortality of the soul.

In the 1854 prayer book Geiger edited for his congregation in Breslau, he kept the original Hebrew of the benediction, but translated its concluding passage, “der Leben spendet hier und dort” (freely translated: “who bestows life in this world and the other”).

The champion of the radical wing of Classical Reform was David Einhorn (1809-1879). Einhorn was singularly responsible for transplanting Reform ideology from Ger­many to America. In his 1856 prayer book, Olat Tamid: Book of Prayers for Jewish Congregations, published for his congrega­tion in Baltimore, Einhorn replaced the tra­ditional Hebrew closing formula with a new version that praises God, “Who has planted immortal life within us.”

That formula was later used in the 1895 Union Prayer Book, which became standard in all American Re­form congregations until 1975, when it was replaced by The New Union Prayer Book, more commonly known as Gates of Prayer.

This latter prayer book, in turn, typically substitutes for the closing words of the bene­diction, the formula mehaye hakol (variously translated: “Source of life,” or “Creator of life.”)

These liturgical changes were echoed in the various platforms issued by American Reform rabbis as a way of giving their movement a measure of ideological coherence. An 1869 conference of Reform rabbis, held in Philadelphia, affirmed that “(t)he belief in the bodily resurrection has no religious foundation, and the doctrine of immortality refers to the after‑existence of souls alone.” This Philadelphia statement served as the basis for an even more influential statement of the principles of Reform, the Pittsburgh Platform, adopted in 1885.

Jewish Resurrection Gets New Life

Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

By some time in the early Talmudic period, the doctrine of an afterlife for the individual had become quasi‑canonical. This is established by two texts. 

The Mishnah Canonized Belief in Resurrection

Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, first, stipulates that only three sorts of Israelites do not have a share in the age to come: “the one who says that the resurrection of the dead is a teaching that does not derive from the Torah, [the one who says that] the Torah is not from heaven; and the Epicurean [Hebrew: apikores].”

sky with sun beams

Some (probably earlier) versions of this text read the first category to be simply one who denies the resurrection of the dead. The Talmudic phrase for the eschaton (last things, or afterlife), olam haba, is typically translated as either “world to come” or “age to come,” with olam having either a spatial or temporal reference. This author prefers the temporal designation: the eschaton can sometimes signify a new “world,” but it always signifies a new “age.”

The Amidah Already Proclaims Belief

The second text is the Gevurot (God’s “mighty acts” from Heb. gibbor, “mighty”) benediction of the Eighteen Benedictions, the second of the introductory three benedictions that are used in every single version of the Amidah, that, to this day is recited at least thrice daily by the worshipping Jew.

The benediction celebrates God’s mighty acts. In its current form, it reads:

       You are eternally mighty, O Lord.

       You revive the dead: great is your power to


       (You make the wind to blow and the rain to


       You sustain the living with compassion: you

         revive the dead with abundant mercy.

       You support the falling, heal the ailing, free

         the captive: and maintain the faith with those

         who sleep in the dust.

The Feminist Critique of God Language

Reprinted with permission from
The Way Into: Encountering God in Judaism
, published by Jewish Lights.

Many contemporary Jewish feminists have been sharply critical of the dominant masculine, hierarchical images of God in traditional Jewish texts. This attack has taken two complementary tracks: first, an aggressive program for replacing masculine pronouns for God with gender‑neutral or even explicitly feminine forms. God is now referred to as “She,” as “She/He,” as S/he,” by alternating “He” and “She” in different paragraphs, or by simply avoiding the use of any personal pronoun for God. Hebrew second‑person pronouns for God, which differ depending on whether one is addressing a male or a female (atah for a man, at for a woman), are also changed.girls reading bible 

The second, more radical strategy is to search for metaphors for God that are perceived to be more explicitly feminine. One of the more popular is Mekor HaChayim, God is “the fountain of life” or “the source of life.” Implicit in this image is the notion of God birthing the world. More radical metaphors reflect the sense of God as Goddess. Judith Plaskow captures the thrust of these new metaphors. They manifest “a sense of fluidity, movement, and multiplicity, [a] daring interweaving of women’s experiences with Jewish, Native American, and Goddess imagery that leaves the reader/hearer with an expanded sense of what is possible in speak­ing of/to God.” (Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai, pp. 141-142)

Plaskow acknowledges that God is neither male nor female, but insists that symbols of this kind must be taken seriously, though not literally. She defends the radical feminization of God metaphors.

“The Goddess is, of course, God/She, but in a clearer and more powerful way. Not simply a feminine reworking of the masculine deity but an ancient power in her own right, she gathers to her all the qualities and prerogatives of the god­desses of many names. She is Asherah, Ishtar, Isis, Afrekete, Oyo, Ezuli, Mary, and Shekhina. She is lover, creator, warrior, grantor of fertility, lawgiver, maiden, mother, and crone.” (Plaskow, p. 146)

God: A Great Personality

Reprinted with permission from The Way Into: Encountering God in Judaism, published by Jewish Lights.

At the very beginning of human history, God goes searching for Adam. Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and have hidden among the trees of the garden. God will not let them hide. God wanders through the garden, calling out, "Where are you?" Shortly thereafter, Cain kills Abel, and God calls out to Cain, "Where is your brother, Abel?"


When we read biblical narratives of this kind, we should always ask: Why are the stories written in this way? These same stories could have been narrated in many different ways, but the Bible records these particular versions. In both instances, God uses the second person: "Where are you?" and "Where is your brother?" In each case the question is directed to an individual human being. These mythic narratives are designed to teach us something about the nature of the human being. They also teach us about the biblical image of God. This God relates to, addresses, commands, and negotiates with individual human beings. More important, this God cares about the destiny of individual human beings, of all human beings. For Adam and Eve and Cain are us. God addresses each of us as well: "Where are you?" "Where is your brother?"

The image of God in these stories is a "personal" God. God is portrayed as acting with intent, purpose, and concern toward and about individual human beings. God enters into interpersonal relationships. The term interpersonal relationship implies the presence of two persons. The only kind of god who would not be a personal god is one who acts blindly, by rote, without focus or intentionality, who mechanically follows a set of laws, whose mind never changes, who does not have a mind to change in the first place, who knows nothing about feelings, who does not have an inner life.

The personal God lives in a dynamic, ever‑changing relationship with people; the impersonal god knows nothing of relationships. This metaphor of a personal God is concretized in the many more specific biblical metaphors for God: God is a shepherd, a parent, a teacher, a lover, a sovereign, a judge, a spouse. These are all relational qualities: a shepherd needs sheep, a sovereign needs subjects, a lover needs a beloved. They all capture the sense that God is personally and intensely involved in relationships with people.

Thinking and Speaking About God

Reprinted with permission from Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The two questions that we can ask about God are: how? and what?

How do we know or say anything about God? And what can we know or say about God? Jewish thinkers have answered the latter question in diverse ways. Jewish rationalists talk of God as pure thought and the efficient cause of the natural order. Experientialists, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, tell us of a God who is all pathos–a caring, reaching out, emotion‑ridden God who is omnipresent in nature and history. For existentialists, such as Martin Buber, He is the supreme and eternal Thou, the preeminently personal God who enters into relationship with those who seek to encounter Him. We also know that because God creates and reveals, He is not at all self‑sufficient. The biblical God needs a world, needs people–specifically a people–to help accomplish His purposes on earth.

thinking about godMore important, we [have] the problem of knowing, thinking, or saying anything about God. This is the ultimate paradox that pervades all of theological inquiry. Precisely because God is the supremely transcendent reality, neither the human mind nor human language is equipped to characterize Him in any objectively accurate way. We know how to describe those di­mensions of the world that are accessible through sensation–colors, chemical reactions, the anatomy of the human body. But the more reality escapes direct sense experience–the internal make‑up of the atom or of galaxies beyond ours, for example–the more we must mistrust the literalness of our thinking and speaking. If God is intrinsically other than anything human or natural, then how can we say anything that is literally true about Him, unless of course, we believe, as the traditionalist believes, that God Himself spoke at Sinai and instructed us regarding what to believe about Him.

The dilemma is that we want to say a great deal about God. At the same time, we want to preserve that transcendent quality that makes Him inaccessible to ordinary language. The alternatives are to remain silent or to reduce God to merely human or natural terms, which is idolatry, the cardinal theological sin.