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Gillman was born in Quebec City, Canada. He graduated from McGill University in 1954. He was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1960. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1975.
He is a member of the Conservative movement's rabbinical body, the Rabbinical Assembly, and is a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in Manhattan, New York City, USA.
Gillman was one of the members of the Conservative movement's commission which produced Emet Ve-Emunah ("Truth and Faith"), the first official statement of beliefs of Conservative Judaism.
Within the New York Jewish community, he is well known as the friend and intellectual sparring partner of fellow Conservative rabbi Joel Roth; the two have held many friendly debates.
Gillman's primary field of interest is Jewish philosophy. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions such as: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "How do we know what we know?" In addressing this subject the first issue to note is that the terms "knowledge" and "belief" are often used interchangeably by religious believers, but technically these are very distinct terms.
As a philosopher, Gillman asks about the difference between belief and knowledge. Given the philosophical definition that knowledge differs from belief (knowledge is often defined as a justified, true belief), Gillman's works explicitly analyze epistemological questions.
In the 20th century, religious existentialists proposed that revelation held no content in of itself; rather, they hold that God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them. In this view the Bible is a human response that records how we responded to God. One of the major trends in modern Jewish philosophy was the attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism. One of the primary players in this field was Franz Rosenzweig. His major work, Star of Redemption, gives a philosophy in which he portrays the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are connected by creation, revelation and redemption. Gillman takes the existentialist philosophy as Rosensweig as one of his starting points for understanding Jewish philosophy. Another influential philosopher in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, also bases his views on existentialism, and the works of Franz Rosenzweig. (Dorff and Gillman come to somewhat different conclusions, as is normal in philosophy, and religion in general.)
Among Gillman's more controversial teachings are his statements that essential elements of Jewish theology should be thought of as "myths". His use of this term in both lectures, and in his book on theology, Sacred Fragments, led to discussion and controversy.
In Sacred Gillman writes that the traditional Jewish view of the Torah being orally dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai, and passed down to us today in an unbroken chain of transmission, is erroneous, and one that cannot be maintained in the light of modern Jewish theology and higher criticism of the Bible, such as the documentary hypothesis. In regard to these changes he writes:
Gillman holds that the text of the Torah that we have today is not the original text that existed in the time of Moses, but rather has been edited together from an array of earlier sources. Further, he teaches that it is a cardinal error to hold that God literally speaks like a human, and that many traditional understandings of Revelation are thus inadvertently idolatry.
Gillman responded to the controversy with a clarification of his teachings; he holds that his views were widely misinterpreted.
Gillman uses the word "myth" in the anthropological sense of this term, and not in the colloquial fashion. In the academic and anthropological sense, a myth is an organizing group of thoughts that ties together a people's understanding of how the world works. In this sense, myth does not mean "fable" or "fairy tale". In an essay published in the monthly journal Shma, entitled "The Problematics of Myth", Gillman writes:
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