Monday, February 08, 2010

On my recent trip to the alter heim I picked up a Kindle. It's one of those things that once you've got them you can't imagine how you lived without them. It's especially useful if you live on a continent without Barnes and Noble. And it's actually better than advertised: although Amazon claims that the cellular feature doesn't work in Israel, the fact is that it does. So I'm a happy camper.

The first book I downloaded was Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. It's actually a novel and the 36 arguments are scaffolding for refutations. If you liked her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, you'll love this one.

As background, RG grew up frum, went to Barnard and then did a doctorate in Princeton in philosophy, married her YU physics major boyfriend, Shelly Goldstein, and, by her own description, lived a nominally frum life. A few years ago she and Goldstein divorced and she now lives with the Harvard cognitive psychologist and popular author, Steven Pinker. She is no longer frum.

The Mind-Body Problem was her fantasy about a frum girl who does a doctorate in philosophy in Princeton, abandons her YU physics major boyfriend and marries the math genius, Noam Himmel, based rather transparently on the philosopher, Saul Kripke. It weaves ruminations on the philosophical mind-body problem with plot twists concerning the conflict between pleasures of the mind and pleasures of the body. It covered a lot of familiar territory.

Anyway, since then she wandered into a variety of styles that didn't speak to me as much as TMBP. But in this new novel she goes back to her strengths: academic spoofing, philosophical ruminations, conflicts about religion and lots of brilliant and beautiful yidden. The plot alternates between the life of its protagonist, Cass Seltzer, at 22 and at 42.

At 22, he has followed his incredibly erudite -- and no less incredibly pompous -- advisor, Jonas Elijah Klapper (a spoofy version of Harold Bloom) from Columbia to Brandeis and has hooked up with the brilliant and beautiful anthropology student, Roz Margolis. Klapper's self-indulgent sesquipedalian monologues are hysterical. When Klapper discovers that his student is a rebbishe einikel (Cass's mother is a lapsed Skverer), he suddenly waxes nostalgic for girsa deyankusa and insists they go visit the Skverer Rebbe, whom he regards as a "fellow charismatic". Here they meet the illuyishe 6-year-old yenuka, Azarya.

Meanwhile, at 42, Cass is a professor of psychology who has just written a wildly successful pop book refuting 36 arguments for the existence of God. He is now "the atheist with a soul". He has been involuntarily liberated from infatuations with Klapper and his (to me, at least) insufferable French wife and suffers from a new infatuation with his live-in, the (need I say it) brilliant and beautiful game-theorist, Lucinda Mandelbaum.

The point of all this, besides just being a fun read, is not (as some have claimed) to argue against religion or "family values" but rather to argue that proofs of God's existence are orthogonal to the issue of living a meaningful life or even a religious life. Cass, even as he is a champion of atheism, is emotionally drawn to the Skverer life his mother left and does not share his mother's hostility toward the community. The mismatch between an objective understanding of the limits of religion and the emotional connection to religion is even more jarring in the case of the illuy, Azarya.

The other characters each muddle through life wedded to one or another quasi-religious organizing principle: Klapper believes in literature and his own transcendence, but regards most of science as "scientism"; Cass's ex-wife, daughter of a famous French mathematician, is a poet who is convinced that the notion of probability is meaningless; Roz, Cass's first girlfriend, re-emerges in his life as a believer in immortality through biochemistry; Lucinda, the game theorist, lives to maximize her own utility (and other people's happiness does not figure into her utility function).

The frum angle is mostly handled quite well. The Skverers are slightly stereotyped and the xenophobia that often accompanies extreme insularity is played up for effect, but overall the portrayal is not unfair. The facts about Yiddishkeit are mostly accurate, though there are a few howlers, such as the claim that one makes a hagafen on grapes or that the Skverers wear taleisim at night. But this is minor stuff in the larger scheme.

If you're frum and not offended by refutations of arguments for the existence of God, you'll want to read this book.


Anonymous zalman said...

"If you're frum and not offended by refutations of arguments for the existence of God, you'll want to read this book."
...sounds like a runaway best seller.

1:02 AM  
Anonymous Daas Yochid said...

Does she deal at all with answers to the refutations by people like Platinga, Swinburne or Paul Davies?

4:42 AM  
Anonymous moshe zev said...

why would anybody want to read such kfeerah

5:16 AM  
Anonymous Terry said...

I enjoyed it immensely, also - (For 25 years, I've been looking for pens in my freezer).

But I found the Kindle to have a major "access" problem during my free time. Granted we're talking only dirabanans, so perhaps you've overcome this minor Shabbat halachik distraction. After all, we're only talking about "virtual ink".

On the other hand, this may be a lawyer's problem. After all, every day is a potential vacation day for professors.

Love the telescope screen saver.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

most frummer yidden (i.e. not professors) that have a wife and kids will do most of their reading on Shabbat and/or where the Gaon of Vilna is purported to have done most of his secular reading. Neither of which are reaaly conducive to electric devices.

3:26 PM  

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