Quaker Universalist Conversations

Myths are truths

The perspective of Rabbi Neil Gillman

I’ve just read Daniel Ross Goodman’s essay “God Talks: Neil Gillman Remembered,” in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin. What caught my attention was the account of Rabbi Gillman’s concept of myth:

Based on the ideas of Paul Tillich and Paul Ricoeur —his two foremost influences in the worlds of non-Jewish theology and philosophy—he came up with the idea of the “myth of Sinai….” By “myth” he did not mean something that was “false”: he crusaded against the misuse of the term “myth” as “falsehood….”

Instead, he used the term “myth” to mean an organizing principle into which we fit certain facts and experiences, a narrative structure that communicates a community’s master-narrative.

Rabbi Neil Gillman in the 1990s. Photo: The Jewish Theological Seminary Myths…are “sublime metaphors, poetic constructs that capture dimensions of reality beyond normal experience.” They “inspire us to act in certain ways and strive for certain goals, and most important, lend infinite meaning to our lives in the here and now.”

The idea that the Torah was given at Sinai, he asserted, is a myth that helps us conceptualize our lives as Jews; thinking about our sacred scriptures as all having originated in a certain place at a certain time lends coherence to our religious lives and creates an important sense of unity and order—a sacred framework—through which we can understand our voluminously diverse inherited traditions and our confusing, chaotic world.1

In a footnote about his own studies and conversations with Rabbi Gillman, author Goodman shares the following:

During my talks with him, it seemed fairly clear that Rabbi Gillman did not believe that the revelation at Sinai had actually happened, at least not in the way the Torah describes it as having happened. But his construal of Sinai as “myth” was a way of saying that its historicity is irrelevant; what matters is whether you accept the story as one which lends your life meaning.

This speaks to my condition with regard to the sacred function of myth.

It is not historicity but meaning that we lift up when we tell each other sacred stories.


Notes and Image Sources

Image: Rabbi Neil Gillman in the 1990s. Photo: The Jewish Theological Seminary.

1 Quotations are from Gillman’s Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 266, 271.