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.
The last book I published, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, introduced me to a community I hadnâ€™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 donâ€™t agree. Atheists have excellent arguments, yet there was something that many of them werenâ€™t getting. They werenâ€™t getting what itâ€™s like to be a believer, what the world feels like when God seems a presence.
Perhaps even more importantlyâ€”and I think this tends to loom larger for Jews than for Christiansâ€”they werenâ€™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.)
How does a Jewish atheist differ from, say, a Dennett or a Dawkins? Take the story Iâ€™ve heard, in multiple versions, of two Jews arguing on a park bench, one a believer the other an atheist. Theyâ€™re going at it heatedly, when suddenly the atheist breaks it off with an urgent, “Come on, weâ€™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. Heâ€™s no stranger to religious experience, and he has been dubbed the atheist with a soul. But thereâ€™s another atheist in the book, less prone than Cass to onslaughts of religious emotion. This character is the soul of the book.
In Betraying Spinoza I argued that there was something indelibly Jewish about the seventeenth-century philosopher, despite the vehemence of those who denounced his heresy. Spinozaâ€™s extraordinary rethinking of personal identity was, in part, a response to Jewish history. This paradox was much in mind when I was writing the novel. The most ardent atheist in the book is someone who, like Spinoza, could only exist in Judaism.
Rebecca Newberger Goldsteinâ€™s newest book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is now available. Visit the official website for the book at http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/authors/goldstein/.
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.
At the heart of my new novel, thereâ€™s a child. His name is Azarya Sheiner, and heâ€™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, heâ€™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 â€œThe Young Archimedes.â€ Iâ€™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 boyâ€™s family works takes Guido away. Sheâ€™s seen the Englishmanâ€™s interest in the boy, and she thinks thereâ€™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 Englishmanâ€™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 couldnâ€™t let go of Huxleyâ€™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.
Azarya sees numbers, which he thinks of as angels, an infinity of angels who whisper their secrets to him. One night at his fatherâ€™s Shabbat table, where all the Hasidim are gathered, he delivers a dâ€™var Torah about the angels which is actually a spectacular proof about prime numbers. Entranced, he points so that all the Hassidim can see the wondrous thing heâ€™s showing them, unaware that none of them has understood a word he has spoken.
The book that contains Azarya, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, is big and sprawling, andâ€”though youâ€™d never guess it from what Iâ€™ve written hereâ€”often funny. Its overarching theme is the many ways in which the religious sensibility finds expression, often in contexts that are entirely secular, such as romantic love.
But at the heart of the book is a small mathematical genius, standing on a giant table and pointing to something that only he can see. For me the sight of that sweet boy, exuberantly happy, is so lonely that I wonder how I wrote it.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. Her most recent work on MyJewishLearning is Is Secularism Possible? She’ll be blogging here all week.