As a concluding act to the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, Rebecca Goldstein addressed Ron Charles of Washington Post Book World and a packed theater audience Wednesday night about her current, humorously titled novel, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.”
Melding philosophy and strong characters, the book deals with the protagonist, Cass Seltzer, who hits the big leagues with a best-selling book on religious delusion, an offer to teach for Harvard, a successful mathematician girlfriend, and more. But he is also haunted by two great mentors—his former religion and philosophy instructor Jonas Elijah Klapper, and a math prodigy and rebbe’s son from a Hassidic sect Azarya.
Like Cass, Goldstein might be described as “an atheist with a soul”—she was raised as an Orthodox Jew and kept the traditions until her parents died as part of shalom bayit, peace in the house. Although she explained she can’t believe in Gd for “moral reasons” (reconciling the extent of human suffering with a divine being,) she treats religious communities with sympathy and temperance, both in this book and her previous novel, “Mazel,” which again focuses in part on the Hassidim.
In comparing religious communities to atheists, Goldstein drew interesting parallels between cathedrals and universities, and the religious apostle/disciples relationship versus the secular professor/grad student one. Everyone looks at that elevated, idolized sense they get from religious conviction, she said, and if they can’t find it in Gd, they find it elsewhere. But Goldstein is cautious about the nature of belief. As a philosopher, she takes hers rather seriously.
Goldstein ended by expressing gratitude that recent events like 9/11 have taken the religious debate out of philosophy classrooms and into the public square. Perhaps this is why “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction” is attractive to philosophers and lay people, and religious and atheists alike. With thought-provoking books like these, we can bridge gaps and grow as people.
This program was co-sponsored with Moment Magazine, celebrating its 35th anniversary. The DCJCC literary fest is officially over, but stay tuned for upcoming events through the Authors Out Loud program. Check out the Facebook page for more.