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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a humanist whose life and work have been shaped by religion.

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Goldstein finally decided to put an end to the facade when her own mother had passed on and Yael had gone off to college and chosen to give up her own orthodox life. At 45 years old, she left her husband and her job at Columbia. Goldstein moved to Cambridge with Danielle, taking a position at Brandeis University and leaving most of her belongings and all of her religious practices behind.

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KNOWN TO MOST as a novelist, Goldstein always thought of herself primarily as a philosopher. She lived and breathed philosophy – even raising her children according to Nagel's principles of altruism (from his book "The Possibility of Altruism") – and had always only allowed herself to indulge in reading novels after having read several works of non-fiction. Goldstein was an assistant professor at Barnard College when she started to write "The Mind-Body Problem." She had sailed through her Ph.D. program so quickly that she felt daunted by the expectation of wisdom that being a philosopher entailed. Having just lost the father she adored, and feeling overwhelmed with caring for the newborn Yael, she welcomed the distraction of thinking about writing fiction. At first, she thought of it as little more than a passing phase. But then, "I toyed with the ideas on my long commute to work, especially when I was coming home and was too tired to do what I considered my real work. When the summer rolled around, I wrote the novel," she recalls.

The field of analytic philosophy where Goldstein had made her home is one of the most rigorous fields in the humanities. It thinks of itself as closer to the precise disciplines of mathematics and physics than the wooly areas of literature and history. Writing in an accessible style is out of the question for an analytic philosopher. And for a philosopher to write a novel – and a well-received one at that – was unheard of. Goldstein couldn't deny the pull of writing fiction, however. "I'm not sure why, but she had much more difficulty writing philosophical work of the conventional kind for publication than she did writing fiction – which she told me came very easily to her," Nagel says.

Goldstein was ill prepared for the controversy that erupted when the book was finally published. Talking a great deal about sex as well as thoroughly satirizing the world of academic philosophy, Goldstein's novel raised more than a few eyebrows. She felt ousted and as though her name was tainted. Looking back, she admits that she was too naïve to realize what the consequences of her novel would be. Had she known, she might never have become a novelist. "Honestly, I should have known. Anybody with any kind of savviness would have known," says Goldstein.

After that first novel, Goldstein distanced herself from professional philosophy, feeling as if she no longer had a place in the philosophical community, and made no immediate attempt to get back in. While she continued her teaching, Goldstein refrained from publishing anything academic, and kept her distance from her peers. "I had left the Orthodox community, which was very painful, and then I didn't realize I was leaving the philosophical community by writing the novel. It was a sort of repetition of that whole exile," she says.

When she began to write "Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity" – after having spent almost two decades on the sidelines of philosophy – the invitations to events and to join in on panel discussions started to pour in again. The field of philosophy has changed, Goldstein feels, and she is tremendously grateful to be welcomed back. Though she had seldom sought anyone's approval in her life, the community she had chosen over her own was the one place she did long for recognition. The approval of her philosophical peers was what she was looking for, she admitted.

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