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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul

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"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.

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