Dangerous to Think?

by Dr. Morris A. Shamah

Remember when you were the young rationalist? Remember when every decision was subjected to your brilliant newfound intellectual self, the mind that had just completed one term of college?

Do you remember the pain of that adolescent doubter, the obsessive concern about each action, about each ritual, about each sin? Is it rational to believe in this, or silly to perform that?

And for some of us, the fear that if we study biology, or psychology, and certainly philosophy we will sinfully lose the religion of our fathers. Surely you have heard of that horrible course that was given in college — ”Comparative Religions” — that you would be tempted to sit through — and, well puff-there goes your Judaism!

In the novel, The Conversation by Joshua Golding, we meet a young man, David Goldstein, and we travel with him on his four years of a collegiate philosophical journey. The journey revolves about his relationship to his people, Jews, to his religion, Judaism, and even to his God, or rather his search for the answer to the eternal question “is there a God?”

The product of a rather assimilated Jewish home, David goes off to college and is intimately involved with a gentile, involved to the point of considering a permanent relationship. Marriage to a non-Jew is the one taboo that his parents would not allow. Slowly the book follows the young man’s philosophical quest, and his edging closer and closer to the traditions of his people. But this journey is painted in a very different panorama from the typical coming to religion story that we so often read. Here, emotion, guilt, love and all the other non-rational influences are minimized. No, here we
have the rationalist who is painted as someone who really will adhere to what he judges to be the correct rational conclusion. And to strengthen the case, and to allow this hero to be independent from parental and communal strains, the parents are removed from the scene, and the campus is a good distance from home. There is no real traditional background, and guilt does not occupy a large part of David’s consciousness.

So what is left? Well, of course, the study of philosophy.

The author, Joshua Golding, teaches philosophy at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been ordained as a Rabbi.

Significantly Golding has published an article on the permissibility of doubt in Orthodox tradition (“Faith and Doubt Reconsidered,” Tradition 26:3, 1992). Golding has also published on the issue of non-literal interpretation of Hebrew Scripture (Torah Umaddah Journal, 2001) and he has written an academic book in philosophy of religion, “Rationality and Religious Theism,” (Ashgate 2003).

The present book is written with little narrative but with much in the way of conversations, diary entries, emails, essays that he or others have written, phone calls and letters. It is an enchanting book, one which this traditional Jew had a hard time putting down.

David has many guides during his four years. His friends include a confirmed hedonist-atheist, a fellow student who practices Buddhism, and a Christian, all who present their views about the deeper problems of life, and all who have their views expressed quite clearly and succinctly by Golding.

David pays close attention to one and all. Later in the book he develops a relationship with a very Orthodox Jewish co-student who also presents her beliefs. He also meets and shares thoughts with a graduate student in philosophy at the University.

But the major portion of the philosophies and exposure to Judaism comes from four rabbis and a Jewish religiously observant philosophy teacher.

Rabbi Abraham is the resident Hillel Rabbi. He is a right wing type — what we might call “black hat”. David has long conversations with this resident Rabbi. My first reaction to Rabbi Abraham was disappointment. Could this be the big philosophy of this 527 page book? Is this poor guy going to fall into this really non-philosophic and unrealistic nearly fundamentalistic type of approach?

But soon, I am relieved as he comes in personal and regular E-Mail contact with Rabbi Low. Rabbi Low is an American ex philosophy teacher who made aliyah. He presents the more modern Orthodox view. I saw him as a hesder yeshivah type. Very smart, very informed in both secular and Jewish matters, and quite tolerant. David shares a great deal of exchanges with this man, and Golding does quite a good job of presenting that modern, intellectual, educated view.

But something still is missing.

That something is the radical philosophic view, one might even say the esoteric view (according to some) that Maimonides hides throughout his Guide to the Perplexed. This approach to Judaism would be regarded as clearly heretical by many of the narrowly Orthodox.

This approach is taken by a female professor of philosophy, an observant traditional Jew who becomes quite close with our hero. As an example, Prof. Maimon believes that God is not a something , an object, an item; rather God “ is being itself”, and” God’s character traits [consist] in certain principles which describe the way the universe operates, in as much as the universe is an expression of being itself”(p196). And this radical view is used to explain her belief in the divinity of Torah, in the afterlife, the Messianic age and the need to observe the precepts of the religion.

Along the way there is a deep involvement with a cousin, Chaim, who adheres to the Kabbalistic approach. David gets quite taken by this and writes an interesting paper based on it.

How does our central character finally appear to us as he graduates college? That I will not reveal. The book though is really about the journey. And it is a very interesting journey.

I certainly recommend this book to both the advanced student of Judaism, as well as to the novice who is just entering the world of Jewish thought. I especially urge the traditional Jew who is struggling with the many dialectics that one finds as one gets into the study of Torah to read this volume.

In Golding’s book, Rationality and Religious Theism, a short philosophic work, I found that some of the concepts discussed in The Conversation were worked out more completely, though more concisely. I especially refer to the more radical concepts of God — the ones expressed in the novel by Professor Maimon.

I found that it was difficult to put down The Conversation; it reads smoothly, is quite expansive, and, in general is an excellent read without much of the apologetics that we often see in books of this type.

I anxiously await a sequel!

This review was published on Jewishideas.org.


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