More than likely there will be many readers intimidated by the title alone of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God; I wouldn't be surprised if it hadn't been purposely chosen with intimidation in mind. This is not a novel for a reader fearful of ideas. There are philosophical discussions; there are theological debates. There are pages devoted to what some might consider esoteric mathematical theory. There are discussions of Jewish mysticism. But if you are undaunted by such considerations, this is after all a novel not a philosophical tract, and it is a novel that will have you laughing, it is a novel that will move you, a novel that will give an emotional as well as an intellectual workout.
The central figure in the book is Cass Seltzer, a professor who specializes in the psychology of religion. He teaches at Frankfurter University, a school located near Boston, which seems to have been suspiciously cloned from Brandeis. He has recently published a bestselling study of religious belief called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion," and has become something of a poster boy for modern atheism, the popular press calling him, "the atheist with a soul." Divorced from his first wife, a French poetess, he is living with a highly aggressive colleague, a star in her own right, whose expertise is in game theory. Although a non-observant Jew himself, Cass comes from a family which has belonged to an orthodox Chassidic sect.
Goldstein takes the reader back and forth between Seltzer's successful present and his past. She shows how he became a disciple of a megalomaniacal literary scholar with an obsession with mystical religion, a bond from which he eventually has to break away, but not before — at his guru's instigation — he renews his Chassidic connections. In the Chassidic community he meets the Grand Rabbi's young six year old son, who he discovers is a mathematical prodigy, and who will eventually be forced to choose between his religious obligations — he is the inheritor of his father's mantle, and the outside world. While the literary scholar is treated as a ridiculous figure in his pompous pedantry, the young boy is treated with compassion and understanding. Interestingly, the young man's conflict, is similar to that described in Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, but with different results.