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August 17, 2017 by

Emotions & Math: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on Orthodoxy, Reason, and Love

math shellWhen Rebecca Newberger Goldstein speaks and writes, her words are often undercut by a slight but unmistakable sense of humor. It’s as if she is perpetually half-smiling at the impossibly contradictory paths that her life has taken.

It’s a humor that belies a deep, malleable understanding. I was able to experience this firsthand when I heard her speak at a reunion for Barnard College alumnae this June. I am just about to enter my junior year at Barnard, but I was at the reunion with my grandmother, who graduated in 1962. We had just emerged from a long and lively discussion with some members of her graduating class, and we made our way to a familiar lecture hall to hear this self-professed “wayward philosopher” discuss her career.

Before I heard her speak that day, I actually hadn’t heard of her at all, something that seems incomprehensible to me now; since that day, it seems I see her books displayed front and center in every bookstore I enter.

And for good reason. She has a way of converting her effortless understanding of nuanced concepts into clear, often surprisingly relatable colloquialisms. This method of communication has won her a great deal of acclaim, starting from her time as a philosophy student Barnard College when she received the Montague Prize for Excellence in Philosophy. Since then, she has earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton in philosophy, has taught at a multitude of universities, and has published ten 10 books, many of which interrogate the line between philosophy and fiction. In 2014, she received the National Medal of Humanities from President Obama for “bringing philosophy into conversation with culture.”

Her work has garnered her a MacArthur Genius Grant and the National Jewish Book Award. And her theory of the “mattering map,” which argues that the essential desire to matter is the powerhouse for many aspects of human experience, has been adopted by many psychologists and economists alike. Her work weaves philosophy, religion, fiction, science, and emotion together into a tapestry that transcends genre and boundaries.

But before all of this, she was a high-school student growing up Orthodox in White Plains, New York. 

Early Seeds of Rebellion

“I stopped believing in just about every tenet of Orthodoxy when I was still in high school,” Goldstein wrote me in an email, to start off a characteristically eloquent response to a series of questions about how her Jewishness has influenced her life.

She attended an all-girls, ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov yeshiva. “Actually, when the first Bais Yaakov school was established, back in Krakow in 1917, by a seamstress named Esther Schenirer, it was a radical idea to give girls a Jewish education,” Goldstein noted. “Schenirer was prompted more by piety than progressiveness. Since there were no yeshivas for them, Jewish girls were attending Polish schools and becoming too cosmopolitan to want to marry the unworldly yeshiva boys their parents chose for them. Schenirer had to obtain a rabbinical responsum decreeing that, in the circumstances, the traditional prohibition against teaching girls holy texts could be suspended. But no Talmud!”

Goldstein’s high school experience was cloistered in its own right. There were two tracks offered—the non-academic track available to girls planning to marry right after high school and the academic track. Goldstein chose the latter.

Still, even the academic track had its hang-ups, and on the first day of tenth grade biology class, the principal came to inform the students that although New York State law required them to learn about evolution to pass the necessary state’s Regents exams, it contradicted the Torah’s teachings and should be forgotten immediately after the test.

“I detested that high school and became an inveterate hooky player,” she wrote. “I mostly spent my stolen hours in various branches of the New York public library, desperately trying to get myself a real education.” Books, as is so often the case, were her portals into trying to understand the world beyond the secluded universe she was born into. “I think I’m still trying to compensate for my woefully inadequate education up until college,” she said.

Throughout much of her life, her internal beliefs (“doxis” in the philosopher’s terminology) contradicted her external actions (“praxis”). She transferred into Barnard already married to an Orthodox man to whom she’d become engaged in high school. “And the man I married was—in fact, still is—Orthodox, I never lived in a dorm or engaged in college life other than going to my classes. But that was okay. Being able to study anything I wanted was all the freedom I wanted,” she wrote. From an outsider’s perspective, she was living the life that had been planned for her, though she had already abandoned many of her Orthodox beliefs.

“I remained Orthodox until after both my parents had died and my two daughters, who—again, according to the non-negotiable framework of the marriage, had been raised Orthodox—had themselves split from Orthodoxy,” she wrote. “Only at that point did I leave the non-negotiable framework of my marriage, which meant leaving my marriage. How old was I then? Fifty-five. I’d been a professor for 30 years, a writer for 25 years. I won’t say it wasn’t difficult, trying to live poised on the distinction between doxis and praxis.”

For the Love of Ants

Goldstein has often incorporated Judaism into her writing, frequently contrasting tradition with philosophy, math, and reason. When asked whether she feels that religion and philosophy have been more opposing or complementary forces in her life and work, she acknowledged that “there are forms of Judaism that are quite compatible with a wide swath of philosophical positions, even atheism.” However, she added, “The kind of Judaism in which I was raised and to which most of the people that I loved adhered—which love gave me the incentive to remain outwardly loyal to it—wasn’t of this liberal kind. It didn’t tolerate the questioning of certain presumptions, presumptions which I could not will myself to believe, not for all the love in the world. They flew in the face of my deepest intuitions about reality and about knowledge and about the grounding of morality. To be a philosopher is to be scrupulously deliberate in regard to views about reality and knowledge and the grounding of morality.”

It would be easy, then, to view Goldstein’s career in analytic philosophy as her way of cementing her staunch divergence from faith. But then there’s the fact that she also writes fiction.

Her first book, “The Mind-Body Problem,” was written during a summer she had intended to spend writing academic theory. Instead, she found herself tormented by the phrase, “People always ask me what it’s like to be married to a genius,” spoken in the voice of a character who seemed ready to spring fully formed from her skull. This character, unlike Goldstein, was irrational, emotional, and held different philosophical beliefs from her own. The book became the first in a long line of philosophy-influenced fiction that ostracized her from the crux of the academic community for a time.

Still, she was drawn to fiction. Philosophy had provided an escape from religion, but fiction found a way to marry these two opposing forces. It allowed her to “indulge in all kinds of transgressions—even against philosophical rigor—that were otherwise unthinkable in my circumstances,” she wrote.

One thing that’s so striking about Goldstein’s fiction is the way it engages with deeply human emotions and behaviors as exhaustively as it does with philosophical tenets. Her writing is cut through by a current of heart, a natural sensitivity expressed with profound clarity.

Some of this heart, perhaps, comes from her father, the Orthodox man who raised her. “I happen to feel a deep tenderness toward the Judaism of my father,” she wrote. “He was born in a Polish shtetl in which his father had been the rabbi, as was his grandfather and great-grandfather before him. My father was a cantor. He not only had perfect musical pitch, but something even rarer, which was perfect moral pitch. This perfection had less to do with his obeying the letter of the Law than with his unbounded compassion toward every sentient creature.

“I remember once, as a small child, when we were outside in the yard and I, with a child’s cruelty, was about to stamp on an ant, my father gently stopped me, telling me a wondrous tale of how a spider had once saved the life of the biblical David by weaving a thick web over the mouth of a cave where he had hidden himself from his enemies. He was full of wondrous tales, my father, always pointing toward the great attention we ought to be paying the lowliest among us—even an ant. How could I not feel a lifelong tenderness toward a tradition that, with all of its limitations, both external and internal, had produced a person with so refined a moral sensibility as that? I’m outside of that tradition, and I wouldn’t wish myself inside of it, even if that were possible, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t love it, sometimes against my better judgment. And whatever tension this love has generated in me sometimes finds its way into my fiction.”

This tension features prominently in her most recent novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010). In it, a young genius born into an Orthodox community is discovered by the book’s philosopher protagonist, creating one of the book’s central conflicts—should the child fulfill his childhood imperative to become the rebbe and devote his life to studying Talmud, or should he pursue his love of math at MIT? The answer is not what you’d necessarily expect.

Much of Goldstein’s fiction mentions the Orthodox world. “A book critic, writing about that novel, expressed arch puzzlement as to why, when my fiction deals with religion, it’s always in the context of Orthodox Judaism,” she said of this. “And I wondered: Is she similarly baffled as to why Dostoevsky’s fictional discussions of religion take place in the context of Russian Orthodoxy?” 

A Woman’s Work

Underlying all of Goldstein’s achievements is the fact that she has managed to do all of this while female, in a field that she describes as “still vastly male-dominated.”

“When I got my Ph.D., and became a professor, back in 1976, it was really unconscionably—and unconsciously—sexist,” she wrote. “I won’t begin to catalogue the indignities. And I was doing philosophy of science, which meant that I was guaranteed to almost always be the only woman in the room.

“Even to have entered that room was to buck tradition. It wasn’t bravery so much as ignorance that gave me the audacity to think I could just waltz in and be treated like everybody else. I glorified the intellectual world and never dreamed that it, too, presumed the intellectual limitations of women, at least when it comes to the really hard stuff, the secular analogues to the Talmud they wouldn’t teach us girls in Bais Yaakov. And having bucked tradition just to become a philosopher, I was perhaps more prepared to buck tradition even as a philosopher. Because, believe me, publishing novels, when you’re supposed to be convincing your peers that you’re a serious philosopher, was definitely bucking tradition. It shocked my colleagues and lost me many points. But writing fiction that would weave philosophical questions into the plot so as to reveal the profound emotional underside of these questions and their centrality to the ways we choose to live just seemed so exciting and challenging to me that I didn’t pause a moment to consider how it might hurt my academic career.”

She has slowly worked her way back into the inner circles of academia, though, starting with a book on the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Like Goldstein, Spinoza was a Jewish philosopher, and his work is often cited as instrumental to the onset of the Enlightenment. But he is not a pure rationalist, as his work contains a great deal of other influences and contradictions.

Spinoza believed in a final “theory of everything,” explains Goldstein in a conversation on the Mattering Instinct. He believed that the universe is rational, which means that there is an ultimate theory that unifies science and God. Still, he also believed that whatever this theory is, it can’t be understood by the human mind, as this theory is infinite while human understanding is finite. For his ideas, Spinoza was put into herem by his own Jewish community and his most controversial work, Ethics, was not published until after he died.

Goldstein’s unconventional career is a triumph for women in philosophy and for the field itself. By undoing traditional binaries that separate genres and genders, her work makes strides towards undoing these damaging polarizations that limit growth and change. Like Spinoza, her work does not exist within conventional boundaries, but this outsider’s viewpoint might be the very thing that is allowing her to make her mark.

“I wonder whether, in general, women who enter into male-dominated domains are somewhat more likely to behave unconventionally once inside, ready again to buck time-honored traditions as they did simply to enter the room in the first place,” she wrote. “And so, even without setting out to do so, they subtly effect transformations, showing up the hollowness of the conventions to which the men had so desperately clung.”

She does it all without losing that inner spark of wit that makes her fiction so accessible despite its depth. “I was cast into philosophical purgatory for having written fiction,” she said. “And nowadays, when some male colleague confesses to me how he wishes that he, too, could write fiction, well I’m in heaven.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.   


  • http://www.evelynkrieger.net/ EvelynKrieger

    Fascinating interview. My summer reading list just got longer.

  • Miriam Davis

    Fascinating. The description of the book “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010)” reminds me of “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok, which I loved. Except that his candidate for rebbe ends up becoming a psychologist. I’ll have to read this one and compare and contrast. Is the 36 a hint about lamed-vavniks?