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On the Bookshelf

Believers and atheists

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(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

Secular an art form as the novel may be, its practitioners have never entirely shunned religion as a subject, and in recent decades American Jewish novelists have turned to Modern Orthodoxy and haredi Judaism with enthusiasm, if not always with perfect faith. Risa Miller’s first novel, Welcome to Heavenly Heights, focused a sympathetic eye on a community of Jewish settlers in the West Bank; her second, My Before and After Life (St. Martin’s, January), examines how two Boston sisters deal with their father’s being suddenly “born again” as a Jew in Jerusalem. But even describing what he’s experienced is tricky: as he says, “Born-again makes it sound like some white-hot hallelujah moment”; can’t his daughters “use the word ba’al teshuvah, ‘returnee’—or just the proper translation: ‘master of repentance’”?

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New works of fiction by Amy Bloom and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein namecheck deities in their titles, but they manifest no orthodoxies, Jewish or otherwise. Bloom follows up her bestseller Away, a critically acclaimed tale of immigration and continental exploration, with Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Random House, January). These stories, many of them first published in literary journals such as Ploughshares or Tin House, describe the twists and turns of romance, ranging from long-standing extramarital affairs to what might be called step-incest. Goldstein—a MacArthur Fellow, author of nonfiction books on Spinoza and Kurt Gödel, and, of course, one of Tablet’s own contributing editors—likewise attends to romantic missteps and ex-lovers’ reappearances in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, January). But she also populates her novel with major and minor geniuses, including a specialist in the psychology of religion and an “atheist with a soul,” who can debate, for the reader’s delectation, the weightiest of religious and philosophical conundrums.

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Steven Weinberg would work so perfectly as a Goldstein character that one can’t help but wonder whether he hasn’t made an appearance, à clef, in one of her books. Weinberg received his PhD from Princeton (as did Goldstein), and went on to share the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the theory of electroweak unification. Certain enough about the nonexistence of God as a young man that even the famed Will Herberg couldn’t induce him to believe—more recently, he was 2002’s Humanist of the Year—Weinberg nonetheless steadfastly supports the State of Israel and dismisses the kooks in England who boycotted Israeli academics. Lake Views: This World and the Universe (Harvard, January) presents a selection of his reviews and occasional essays on science, politics, and atheism.

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The dramatic rise of Orthodoxy in American Jewish life since World War II has its parallel in the increasing prominence, in those same decades, of Jewish neoconservatives in American politics. Len Colodny and Tom Schachtman’s The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama (Harper, December) devotes much of its energy to the argument that Nixon got set up for his Watergate fall by his own treasonous staffers and nefarious journalists, but it also offers a welcome reminder that not all of the architects of neoconservative foreign policy have been Jewish. Sure, Jewish neocons have advocated for Israel and for the release of Soviet refuseniks, but Colodny and Schachtman credit Fritz Kraemer, a Lutheran, with having inspired generations of American hawks, including Henry Kissinger.

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The wave of reinterpretation and revisionism of the apostle Paul, covered with aplomb recently on Tablet by Judith Shulevitz, shows no sign of breaking. Even before the arrival of Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Random House, February), Paul junkies can ponder Love L. Sechrest’s Former Jew: Paul and the Dialectics of Race (T&T Clark, January), which employs a model of racial identity to argue that while Paul “was born a Jew,” he “later saw himself as a member of a different race”—i.e., the Christian one. In developing her arguments, Sechrest—who, before turning to the academic study of ancient religion, worked as an executive in the aerospace industry—challenges the claims of one of the more influential and compelling Paul revisionists, the Talmudist and intellectual pot stirer Daniel Boyarin. Boyarin, for his part, has moved on to other counterintuitive projects: his latest book, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago, November) reads the Talmud through the lens of—nu, what else?—Plato’s dialogues and the genre of Menippean satire, and mentions Paul only briefly, in passing.

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Those who prefer Goldstein’s philosophical digressions to the romantic entanglements of her comic fiction may find grist for their mills in New Directions in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana, December), edited by Aaron W. Hughes and Elliot R. Wolfson. Recuperating a discipline “often regarded as too technical for Judaic studies and too religious for philosophy departments,” the book includes essays by dynamic scholars including Kalman Bland, Martin Kavka, and Dana Hollander, on a wide range of philosophical topics and thinkers. Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas all make appearances, as do their precursors Saadya Gaon, Moses Maimonides, and Moses Mendelssohn.

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On the Bookshelf

Believers and atheists

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