36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Goldstein doesn't push the reader to accept or deny God’s existence; she allows readers to approach to the novel with their own beliefs, finishing it either changed or reaffirmed.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Publisher: Pantheon
Length: 402 pages
Author: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Price: $27.95
Format: hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-01

Cass Seltzer is a lucky man. A professor of the psychology of religion, he has penned a surprise bestseller, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. This text, with its nod to James, sets out logical premises denying God’s existence. Now dubbed “the atheist with a soul,” Cass is suddenly wealthy, being wooed from the lowly Frankfurter University by Harvard, and romantically involved with the tantalizing Professor Lucinda Mandelbaum, Goddess of Game Theory.

36 Arguments is Goldstein’s ninth book. A PhD in philosophy, she taught at Barnard for years, penning fiction on the side. All her novels incorporate knotty philosophical questions often verging on the mathematical; some of her characters, including Noam of The Mind Body Problem, and Mazel’s Phoebe, are mathematicians. Goldstein’s ability to range from physics to mathematics to logical proofs is prodigious, earning her countless awards, including a MacArthur genius grant. She couples her training in rigorous thought with an immense knowledge of Judaism.

Her father was an Orthodox Rabbi, as is her brother. Much of her work worries over the nature of God, Godliness, and the role of religion in modern life. 36 Arguments takes these concerns further than her previous works, into the depths of Orthodoxy, complete with Hebrew and much Yiddish. Despite her careful explanations and translations, some non-Jewish readers may find portions of the novel bewildering, or just plain strange. For those willing to take the leap, Goldstein offers great insight into an otherwise closed society. Though I am Jewish, our family is not observant. Much of the Orthodox ritual described in 36 Arguments is as foreign to me as it would be to any non-Jewish reader.

For those willing to stay the course, the rewards are many. Seltzer is a terminally kind man, a 41-year-old fellow seemingly incapable of ill will, oblivious to those taking advantage of him. This begins in graduate school, where Seltzer switches his major from pre-med to philosophy, studying under the great Jonas Elijah Klapper, aka Klepfish, a maniacal genius who has his own department at Frankfurter, his own special professorship, and seven graduate students who hang on his every utterance, even as they flail and fail to ever finish their theses. Seltzer initially falls hard for Klapper and his egocentric ramblings. When Klapper learns Seltzer is a descendant of the great Hasidic Rabbi Ba’al Shem Tov, their relationship, and the nature of Klapper’s ever-changing studies, is dramatically altered.

Mindful that most readers will be bewildered by the intricacies of Hasidic lineage and its impact on the Orthodox lifestyle, Goldstein carefully details Cass’s family tree. His mother, Devorah, now Deb, left the upstate Orthodox community of New Walden as a young woman in favor of modern life. Yet she remains tied to the village by her many relatives, particularly her mother. Thus Cass learns much of Orthodox Judaism even as his parents live secular lives. He finds Klapper’s delight in his extended family (and it is extended, as the Orthodox intermarry and bear large families) inexplicable, but agrees to drive Klapper to New Walden to meet the Rabbi, one of Cass’s countless cousins.

The pair drive to upstate New York accompanied by Cass’s then girlfriend, Roz Margolis. There they encounter not only the Rabbi, but his young son, Azaryah, a tremendously gifted child. The New Waldeners fuss and coddle Azaryah, next in line to be Rabbi. Roz and Cass are appalled, for the child exhibits a precocious mathematical genius meriting cultivation in an open society. Yet Cass keeps his counsel even as Klapper ignores Azaryah with the disdain only a childless, childishly selfish genius can exhibit.

Complicating matters are three women in Cass’s life: Roz, who remains a devoted friend though the years, a Mae West sort of Jewish dame, smart, gorgeous, and ready to tackle the world. Roz thinks Klapper a maniac and isn’t shy about saying so. Cass’s ex-wife, Pascale, a dour French poet, has a small role in the novel, though her contribution offers much both about Cass’s genial good will and his poor taste in wives.

Lucinda Mandelbaum is another matter. Despite her Semitic name, Judaism is meaningless to her. More important is her game theory, her groundbreaking Mandelbaum Equilibrium, her special down comforter, her expensive moisturizers and marathon running. She is fond of what she calls “fanging”: attending guest lectures, where she uses the question-and-answer period to completely derail the man’s (and it’s always a man) logic with a better argument.

Her fanging, coupled with her physical beauty, has the sadly common effect of making her fellow academics despise her. Women are jealous of her beauty, men, her mind. Despite her genius, her aggressive behavior, coupled with lingering misogynism, injures her career. When Frankfurter offers her a plum position, she uses it as leverage to gain salary at Princeton, but loses the gamble -- the Psychology Chair of Princeton is only too happy to see her go. Her wounded pride is as deep as it is hidden. And Cass is unwittingly oblivious to her silent suffering.

Goldstein does some fanging of her own at academia, with its continuing sexual inequalities, its removal from “normal” society, where much professorial behavior would be grounds for dismissal anywhere else. (Full disclosure: I am an administrator at a large public university in California. The faculty often get away with appalling behaviors.) For a woman of her intellectual powers, Lucinda is unquestionably treated badly. Then again, regularly fanging colleagues means fanging in return, something Lucinda chooses to overlook.

Then there is Klapper, whose ability to hold both students and the Dean in thrall fades as his fanatic interest in New Walden grows. Roz, who has despised him all along, is the only character to recognize the lunacy beneath his genius. Suffice to say nobody will get a PhD out of Klapper, and every University has least one Klapper, tenured, forever on the six-figure dole, taking up valuable lab space.

Interestingly, University life is akin to the lives of the New Walden villagers. Each group inhabits an idiosyncratic world delineated by complex, oft-unspoken rules. Each is unrepentantly sexist. Each manipulates the English language in ways outsiders find incomprehensible. But the University chooses to debate God’s existence, whereas the Orthodox cannot conceive of life without Him.

As the novel progresses, Azarya grows into a young man of undeniable genius. At age sixteen he poses himself the difficult question of whether to study at MIT, a magical palace of worldly knowledge, or to return to his village, forever closing the door on his abilities. He is terribly torn between his intellect and the New Waldeners, who view him as a Messianic figure. No teenager should have to make such a choice, and his observations to Cass are precocious and saddening.

At no point does Goldstein push the reader to accept or deny God’s existence; she is talented enough to step back, allowing readers to approach to the novel with their own beliefs, finishing it either changed or reaffirmed. Even as gentle Cass is buffeted by angry colleagues, confusing females, and lucrative job offers, he remains his abstemious, professorial self, certain that God neither exists nor is necessary, that inner morality directs humanity toward goodness. His is an enviable certainty.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.