Author Archives: Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Goldstein

About Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy. She has written five novels, a number of short stories and essays, and biographical studies of mathematician Kurt Gödel and philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Jewish Atheism vs Atheism

In her last post, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wrote about the inspiration behind Azarya Sheiner, the heart of her new novel. She has been guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

rabbi niles goldsteinThe last book I published, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, introduced me to a community I hadn’t known much about before: organized non-religion. Spinoza is a hero to that community, and I began to get invitations from various pro-reason and secular humanist groups. I was invited to speak at congregations of freethinkers who gather each week, on Saturday or Sunday, in order to, you know, not pray. I was even elected a Humanist Laureate.

But the more I spoke with people with whom I basically agree the more dissatisfied I became when they spoke about people with whom I don’t agree. Atheists have excellent arguments, yet there was something that many of them weren’t getting. They weren’t getting what it’s like to be a believer, what the world feels like when God seems a presence.

Perhaps even more importantly—and I think this tends to loom larger for Jews than for Christians—they weren’t getting what it feels like to be part of a religiously identified community, the sense of communal bonding that overrides metaphysics. Religion is about far more than the belief in God, which is, again, something that might be less surprising to you if you happen to be Jewish. (I had a thoroughly Orthodox education but never once, at least as I can recall, did we concern ourselves with arguments for the existence of God.)
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How does a Jewish atheist differ from, say, a Dennett or a Dawkins? Take the story I’ve heard, in multiple versions, of two Jews arguing on a park bench, one a believer the other an atheist. They’re going at it heatedly, when suddenly the atheist breaks it off with an urgent, “Come on, we’re going to be late for ma’ariv.”

The protagonist of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is Cass Seltzer, who has become an international celebrity with the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion. He’s no stranger to religious experience, and he has been dubbed the atheist with a soul. But there’s another atheist in the book, less prone than Cass to onslaughts of religious emotion. This character is the soul of the book.

The Case for (a Fictional) God

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

jewish author blogAt the heart of my new novel, there’s a child. His name is Azarya Sheiner, and he’s the son of the rebbe of a small Hasidic sect living in an enclave a few miles up the Hudson from Manhattan. Azarya is six years old, and he is a mathematical prodigy of a rare and wonderful sort. I knew that once the story about him began to unfold, he’d be in danger of a tragic fate, and so I resisted bringing him into existence.

Azarya was born for me a long time ago, spawned out of a story by Aldous Huxley called “The Young Archimedes.†I’d read the story when I was an adolescent, and I never forgot it. An Englishman, who has rented a villa in the Italian countryside, discovers that a sweet peasant boy, Guido, is an untutored mathematical genius. The Englishman gives the boy some instruction from Euclid but then leaves, and the woman who owns the land that the boy’s family works takes Guido away. She’s seen the Englishman’s interest in the boy, and she thinks there’s money to be made. The boy has some musical talent, not unusual for the mathematically gifted, and her plan is to make a performing musician out of him, believing that this must have been the Englishman’s design The boy, dreadfully alone, missing his Euclid and his family, ends up leaping from a hotel window to his death.

An unbearably sad story, and for me it proved haunting. The thought of children in danger is an obsession, and mathematical genius is an abiding fascination. My imagination couldn’t let go of Huxley’s story, and at some point it began to transpose it into a Jewish story. I began to imagine another child of prodigious genius, born into circumstances inhospitable to its flowering. Azarya Sheiner, heir to the Valdener Hasidic dynasty, with his cherubic face and his uncertain fate, became painfully real to me.

Jewish Secularism

The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in an Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

My training is in analytic philosophy and when you have such training as I do you develop certain intellectual tics that have, as their basis, a phobia of saying anything vague, ambiguous, or (some might say) interesting. I’ve struggled hard to overcome my philosophical training, and I try to say at least one imprecise thing a day.menorah

Sometimes I even force myself to say something interesting. But I have to confess that when I’m assigned a topic like the one before me, contemporary Jewish secularism, I experience an acute outbreak of obscuriphobia (fear of obscurity) and have to restrain myself from collapsing into a neurotic bout of manically drawing one conceptual distinction after the next. But frankly I can’t proceed further without making a few preliminary distinctions.

Jewish Secularism vs. Secular Jewishness

So let’s distinguish, first of all, between Jewish secularism and what I’m going to call “secular Jewishness”, although it’s usually referred to, more sonorously if also more paradoxically, as “secular Judaism” (or sometimes “cultural Judaism”).

Jewish secularism is a matter of sociology, of garnering and expounding upon such statistics as the following: Research shows (according to Wikipedia’s entry on “Jewish Secularism”) that more than half of all Jews worldwide define themselves as secular. The American Jewish Identification Survey, published by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2001, reported that 49% of American Jews describe themselves as secular or somewhat secular. One-half of American Jews are completely unaffiliated, belonging to no Jewish organization.

Granted, these statistics in themselves say little without further elaboration. How, for example, is “secular” being used by half of worldwide Jews when they describe themselves as such? Univocally? I doubt it.