Book Review: The Conversation by Joshua Golding

From Life in Israel:The Conversation

The Conversation, by Joshua Golding, is a book on philosophy. Specifically, Jewish Philosophy.

The Conversation is listed as a book of fiction, because the philosophy is couched in a story, but do not doubt that philosophy in the book is far more dominant than the fictional story in which it is couched. The story makes it readable – to non-philosophers, but the story is clearly secondary to the philosophy.

The story is of a young Jewish college student who is not at all connected to his Jewish heritage, beyond having had a bar mitzvah. So much so, that he is even dating a non-Jewish fellow student and thinks nothing of it. As the story goes, David Goldstein is a student of Philosophy. As a freshman he starts to forge his way in his studies, delving into philosophy and developing his relationships with his friends and professors. An experience by a Holocaust Museum entices him to go in, and he gets touched by something that sparks a search about his Jewish roots and the philosophy of Judaism.

David breaks up with his girlfriend as his search about Judaism becomes more intense. Eventually he begins to focus almost completely on Jewish philosophy, develops a relationship with an Orthodox female student, and finds mentors to add to the professors he talks with. David eventually learns of an Orthodox cousin, and later in the book makes a connection with him as well, which greatly influences David and his studies.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so I will leave it at that.

The truth is, I found the story very interesting, despite some questions it raised and despite the fact that it felt a bit incomplete. For example, I wondered, about the fictional story aspect (in no particular order):

  • for a philosophy student, David seems kind of lacking. Almost all the philosophy in the book is presented by teachers and mentors, and very little by David. As the main character of the book, and a philosophy student, I would have expected him to discuss philosophy himself, and argue with others. Mostly he is listening to philosophy and asking the occasional questions. Not a big deal, but I would have expected more of his character.
  • I don’t get how the relationship with Esther, the Orthodox student, went from friends to an expectation of something more (from her side) that appears later in the book. it almost comes out of nowhere, and it seemed very abrupt.
  •  When David meets his cousin, Chaim, Chaim begins to teach him kabbala. I don’t  get that – Chaim is presented as extremely Orthodox – even learning in kollel and writing a mussar sefer – yet he meets this not frum kid studying philosophy and starts to teach him kabbala right away, even after realizing that David had barely even learned any gemara or most other standard Jewish texts? It seemed a little strange to me.
Despite these questions, the story of the book is actually pretty good. It definitely makes the book readable to a non-philosopher like me. And, some questions left open at the end of the book leave room for a sequel!
Regarding the philosophy aspect of the book, The Conversation is a powerhouse. David learns his philosophy mainly from Professor Maimon, Rabbi Low – a philosopher who is now a rosh yeshiva in Israel, Rabbi Abraham – a rabbi on campus, his cousin Chaim who takes on a central role in the last 30%  or so of the book, and some fellow students.
The philosophy discussed is very deep, which is actually why it took me a long time to read. The philosophy was so in depth that for the first about 60% of the book I could not read more than 2-3 pages at a time. I particularly liked David’s discussions with Professor Maimon and his correspondence with Rabbi Low. the role of Professor Maimon actually surprised me, as her character eventually becomes clearly that of a Conservative Jew (based on how she explains her belief of the Oral Torah, the Written Torah and even of God), or something close to it, but in her role she is very influential on David through their discussions. David regularly took thoughts from his discussions with Professor Maimon and shared them with Rabbi Low for clarification, and obviously we then got the more classical Orthodox explanations.
The philosophy was very deep, and not being a philosopher, I can offer no comment on how thorough it was, or argue with the content. I would add that having a yeshiva background, which means I never studied philosophy and even Jewish philosophy is barely broached, it was a fascinating read and caused me to think about many of the issues discussed.
I would not say I understood every point, but overall this book was not just a novel and a piece of fiction, but a book that makes one think. The story was good, and the philosophy was deep. I recommend this book to any thinking-Jew.

This review originally appeared on Life in Israel.

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