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.

Goldstein's career has taken some unusual zig-zags between philosophy and fiction.

"There's a Hassidic legend, that in any point of history, there are 36 pure souls for the sake of whom God doesn't destroy the world. And they don't know who they are," Rebecca Newberger Goldstein tells me. It's early Saturday morning, and we're having breakfast in New York's Washington Square Hotel. The dining room is small, put in almost as an afterthought, and barely has room for the guests waiting anxiously for a fresh batch of coffee. Goldstein is dressed in a simple long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans, not completely awake – the consequence of constant travel and an inability to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings.

As a young girl, Goldstein suspected that her father, a cantor in White Plains, New York, was one of those 36 pure souls. In her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, the figure of Azarya, a boy genius who has to choose between science and his orthodox Jewish community, is another one. Secular saints, Goldstein calls them both, comparable to Spinoza.

Goldstein, 61, has a powerful presence and a mind that seem too large for her petite figure. She is a philosopher, novelist ( "36 Arguments" is her seventh work of fiction), and author of two nonfiction books. Goldstein has received numerous awards and grants, including a MacArthur fellowship, or "Genius Award." In 2011, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. She and her second husband Steven Pinker, professor of Psychology at Harvard, are considered one of Cambridge's true power couples.

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"36 Arguments," which came out in paperback recently, is Goldstein's first novel in a decade, after she thought she had done with fiction. Last February, she told the Monitor that she had "sworn off writing another novel" when the idea of Cass Seltzer, the protagonist of "36 Arguments" came into her head. Seltzer is a psychologist of religion whose book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion," is an instant bestseller. It discusses people's need for spiritual experience, but dismisses the role of religion or God in that experience. Seltzer becomes famous overnight, and the media playfully refer to him as "the atheist with a soul." As much attention as the text receives, the book's most famous feature is actually its appendix. In it, he lists 36 arguments for the existence of God, along with their refutations – a list that's also tacked onto Goldstein's novel as an appendix.

The story about Seltzer is interweaved with that of Azarya. The young Jewish prodigy lives in the orthodox village Seltzer's mother grew up in and is destined to be the next rebbe. Both Azarya and Jonas Elijah Klapper, a megalomaniac scholar who used to be Seltzer's mentor, have deeply influenced Seltzer's life and thoughts.

"36 Arguments" not only marks Goldstein's return to fiction, but also means a renewed focus on the religion that shaped her life.

Goldstein's books have received wide acclaim in the world of fiction – The New York Times listed several of her novels among the most notable books of the year – though many in the philosophical world were less enamored of her initial choice to write literature. "The Mind-Body Problem," which came out in 1983, was set in Princeton and not only told the story of a young female philosophy student, married to a mathematical genius, but also deeply satirized the world of philosophical academia. Having apparently chosen fiction over academics, for a long time Goldstein felt that the field of philosophy no longer regarded her as one of their own. Her recent work on Spinoza, however, has put her back on the map of philosophy.

SPINOZA'S ROLE IN GOLDSTEIN'S LIFE goes further. She was raised in an orthodox Jewish family, the daughter of the town's cantor and a mother deeply frustrated by unfulfilled dreams of personal success. Goldstein even taught at Hebrew school as a teenager, but doubts about her community's religion seeped in at an early age. When a teacher at the all-girl yeshiva she attended spoke of the rebellious Jewish philosopher as "a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom," the usually silent Rebecca raised her hand and spoke up. She was intrigued by this man who, according to her favorite teacher, equated God with nature. She demanded to know what he had meant by that. Was it flowers he referred to, or the laws of nature? Her love of philosophy was triggered there and then, and would finally take her to college and a community that she could truly call her own.

Goldstein always loved writing. She started to write as a child, stories at first, poetry later – most of it very religious. The first story she remembers writing was in second grade, about a mischievous little girl who tricks her mean principal. "I don't know if it's the first thing I wrote, but I remember it because my mother liked it. Everything my mother liked, I remember." Her mother was a child of the Depression and felt thwarted in her own literary ambitions. Goldstein thinks that, while writing first pleased her mother, it later became a painful reminder of her own unpursued dreams.

GOLDSTEIN MET HER FIRST LOVE when she was 15. She was with her older sister, Mynda, at a singles' weekend at a Jewish hotel in the Catskills. It was a Jewish holiday, and the hotel had designated one dining room for families, and one for singles. Taking one look at the meat market otherwise known as the singles room, the Newberger girls turned around and hid out with the families instead. They sat down with a Jewish family from Atlanta, the Goldsteins. Sheldon and Rebecca married four years later.

Marrying at a young age allowed Goldstein to pursue the education she longed for. She could now enjoy the freedoms a married woman was allowed within the orthodox community of White Plains. Her husband, himself a mathematician, encouraged her philosophical pursuits, and she went through college and graduate school before having children.

Having graduated summa cum laude in philosophy from Barnard College, Goldstein went on to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where she wrote her dissertation "Reduction, Realism and the Mind" under the guidance of Thomas Nagel. Currently a professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, Nagel remembers her as "highly intelligent, with a clear, logical mind, and intuitively sensitive to the profound difficulty of philosophical problems." Her first job was as an assistant professor of Philosophy at Barnard, where she taught for 10 years starting in 1976.

Two years into her job her eldest daughter was born. At the end of the 1980s, by that time a mother of two, Goldstein went on to be a visiting professor at Rutgers in the philosophy deparment before taking a stab at teaching creative writing in Columbia's MFA program. All the while, Goldstein continued to rush home from classes on Fridays to be able to cook the Sabbath meal for her family.

A CRAZY AND SCHIZOPHRENIC LIFE, that's how she remembers it. Though her husband and family knew of her atheism, Goldstein kept her beliefs from everyone else, determined to keep a harmonious environment for her daughters, not wanting to confuse their worlds. Home and philosophy were strictly separated, as rigorously as the kosher kitchen she kept. The perfection of her kitchen was much to the pride of her mother, who was not pleased with Goldstein's profession or literary ambitions. Goldstein's outward religious performance – the one thing her mother was proud of – was the only thing Goldstein ever did to satisfy duty instead of passion.

Goldstein's two daughters, Yael and Danielle, followed in their mother's footsteps: studying philosophy, and eventually becoming writers. Both attended yeshiva for grade school and high school in New Jersey's Highland Park, an orthodox Jewish community. Her eldest daughter was shocked when she finally learned of her mother's life-long atheism. "You cannot imagine how strange it is to have gone through the yeshiva only to emerge into an adulthood in which your mother is the Humanist of the Year," writes Yael, 33, and a novelist, living in San Francisco. Danielle, 26, a graduate student in philosophy at New York University, was less surprised. Unable to remember a time that she didn't question religion, Danielle even calls herself a "born heathen" and thinks she might have always known about her mother's atheism.

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.

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.

But Goldstein's return to the official domain of philosophy might easily not have happened: she initially hesitated to write the book on Spinoza. She was invited to write for "Jewish Encounters," a book series that looks at Jewish thinkers through the prism of Judaism. "The only philosopher who came from a Jewish background who I would want to write about was Spinoza. But I couldn't write about Spinoza in a Jewish series." If she did, it would feel like betraying Spinoza. After all, wasn't this the philosopher whose religious skepticism she had connected to as a child? He was the one person who had ever been banished for life from the Jewish community in Amsterdam: to include him in a Jewish series ridiculous to her.

Goldstein initially declined the offer, although the series' editor allowed her to write about the thinker as a heretic. Unable to put Spinoza out of her mind, she started to read about his life and was reminded of the kinship she had once felt with the philosopher – both of them atheists who kept up appearances for the sake of family. She changed her mind, and did write the book, but paid tribute to her original hesitation in the title of the book.

WHEN GOLDSTEIN AND PINKER arrive at Cambridge's Hyatt Regency Hotel for the annual American Humanist Association's conference, the hosts of the event rush over to greet them, as do several students in attendance, asking for pictures. Pinker, known not only for his psychology, but for his abundant grey curls, stands close to his tiny wife, blessed herself with long, golden locks, and they both smile for the cameras. Richard Dawkins is signing his books at one of the tables to the right, and after briefly shaking hands with him, attention turns to Greg Epstein. Epstein is not only Harvard's humanist chaplain, he is also the one who married Goldstein and Pinker.

Pinker and Goldstein had known about each other for a long time before they met. He had admired her writing and cited one of her works, "A Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," in a discussion of the beauty of irregular verbs. When Goldstein came across her own name in his writing, she felt both honored and emboldened to ask her editor to approach him to blurb her book. They met for coffee several times in Cambridge, but Goldstein moved back to New York with Danielle, and the time wasn't right. "The first time I met her, she was going through a hard time in her life. I was surprised that she seemed much more subdued [than] the voice that I heard in all of the novels," Pinker remembers. They finally got together about three years later, after having done an interview for Seed magazine in 2004. "After a couple of years had passed, I saw such a lively and cheerful, exuberant person," Pinker says. He finally saw the person that the novels had promised him.

The conference room of the hotel slowly fills with people, passing by the stands positioned just outside, selling bumper stickers, T-shirts, and buttons depicting an Ichthus fish with legs or some other atheist pun. They are mostly white, from the middle and upper classes of America, and look as if this is one of the only places they can truly let go of their usual awkwardness. They sit down to eat at two dozen tables, lined up in a traditional conference setting. While the remains of dessert are being cleared, David Niose, the chair of the American Humanist Association opens the evening's events before making room for Steven Pinker, a man who, Niose now realizes, "has married up." Having received the award himself five years ago – though he remembers it being smaller – Pinker was asked to introduce his wife. He does so with unmasked pride. Goldstein accepts her award from her "only alive hero" – the rest all being dead white males – and speaks of the community she has found in secular humanism, and talking at length about Spinoza – her inspiration in life.

THE MORNING AFTER the awards banquet, I find myself alone in a loft that's still asleep. Located just around the corner from Boston's South Station, Goldstein and Pinker live in a former industrial area, where warehouses have been turned into offices and lofts – home to businessmen and hipsters. The entrance to their building is tucked away in a quiet street, where an elevator gives access to cramped hallways that carefully conceal the spacious apartments beyond. I quietly open my laptop and start working on my notes – what better place to get writing inspiration than in the home of America's "brainiest couple"? The space is impressive – wooden beams support the ceiling, with the help of the massive bookcases that line the wall. One of them, under the smaller windows to the side of the loft, is filled with the couple's own books. The number of books they have each written is considerable, and placing them side by side, in a haphazard mix of his and hers, makes it slightly overwhelming. Add to that a collection of all foreign editions, and you've truly intimidated your visitors.

Apart from dozens of photographs taken by Pinker, framed pictures of Goldstein's ancestors adorn the walls and her office. Her ancestors in 1930s Hungary is next to an image of her parents on their wedding day. Her mother in an elaborate satin gown, her father in a top hat, both looking young and happy. Goldstein's office is located in the spot formerly occupied by the elevator shaft of the building – a roomy freight elevator, it must have been – and now holds a large desk and a collection of photographs and knick-knacks. Beside the stuffed dolls depicting the greatest minds sitting on one shelf – from Socrates to Virginia Woolf, the only woman in the mix – there's a small stack of photos of Goldstein and Pinker. Despite the fact that Spinoza believed that romantic love would always end badly, Goldstein is of another mind. "I expect to die enamored," she says.

Merel van Beeren is a graduate student of Journalism at New York University.

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