Theology book is one for the study, not the nightstand

Theology is a Greek term meaning “God study.” If it were only that simple.

Just as any academic discipline has many elements, theology includes creation, revelation, redemption, halachah (the body of Jewish religious law), authority (to make and interpret that law), God’s and man’s relation to the physical world, rituals, rabbinic education and even resurrection.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, a retired professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, deals with most of these topics in “Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah and Israel in Modern Judaism,” a book of essays reprinted from previously published articles in scholarly journals or other books.

Some of the essays are deep and abstract, others more straightforward. None are easy bedtime reading. The audience appears to be other scholars, not the general public, although his writing is usually clear enough for intelligent laypeople to follow. Gilman presents theology in three major parts:

1. Revelation: Was God invented or discovered? Was revelation an historical event or a literary book review?

2. Authority: Who has authority in Judaism to select the criteria for how to be an authentic, halachic Jew?

3. Halachah: When do Jews obey the law and when do they ignore it?

Gillman’s essays also cover other aspects of “God study.” He notes that Judaism can be authentic and religious without a theology or philosophy because that authenticity should be defined by adherence to mitzvahs. However, no satisfactory theology explains punishment as a consequence of sin; limits of God’s power; and suffering as a result of God’s love. On such matters, Gillman declares himself at a “theological impasse.”

As a professor at JTS, Gillman has much to say about education, especially the rabbinical curriculum.

Gillman points out that JTS’s traditional curriculum emphasized the academic at the expense of the professional. Study of Jewish texts was becoming increasingly inapplicable to real life as a rabbi.

While the professional is now part of rabbinic education, the theological still lags. To remedy this, Gillman required that his students write their personal theologies. This exercise helps students to reconcile the word of God in the bible and Talmud with academic study of those texts.

If there is a theme in this book, it is theological tension: between rabbis and laypeople; between observing halachah and ignoring it; the bible as history or as myth or stories; order vs. chaos; or what to teach at JTS.

One of his chapter titles may illustrate this state of tension in Conservative Judaism: “A Conservative Theology for the 21st Century.”

How ironic — this counting of centuries is based on birth of Jesus, codified by the Romans, and refined by the Church. Since this is the Jewish year 5770, shouldn’t the title read “A Conservative Theology for the 58th Century”?

“Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah and Israel in Modern Judaism” by Rabbi Neil Gillman (304 pages, Jewish Lights, $24.99)