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.