Book Review | The Search for God at Harvard

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Normal book reviews review books that have been recently published. This is not a normal book review. It is really a more of a reflection upon reading a wonderful book.

A friend suggested I read The Search for God at Harvard and gave me a copy of the book a little while ago. I finally got around to reading The Search for God at Harvard and really enjoyed it. There are some very important thing that I learned from the book and I recommend reading it if you have not yet read it yourself.

The Search for God at Harvard is supposed to be the story of New York Times journalist, Ari Goldman’s year at Harvard Divinity School. While much of the book focuses on his year there, the book is really about some of Goldman’s issues with religion, issues with his parents and his rise in through the ranks at the NY Times. In other words, the backdrop for the book is Goldman’s year at the Div School, but the bulk of the storytelling in the book has nothing to do with what he learned there. I would have liked more.

But that is my only criticism of the book; wanting more can hardly be a criticism.

Ari Goldman was raised as an orthodox Jew in the 60’s. As Goldman notices, much has changed in the orthodox Jewish community in the last 50 years. Goldman remains committed to orthodox Judaism, but like everyone, is not perfect. He takes some liberties with his observance. This is an attitude that has mostly been purged from orthodox Judaism. Many people think this is a good thing. I do not. Goldman’s story is a prime illustration why.

I cried two times while reading The Search for God at Harvard.

You can’t help but notice that Goldman feels cheated by his parents who divorced when he was 5 years old. He makes it clear that he still feels the pain of that 5 year old who lost his beloved friday night Shabbos dinners with his parents. So when he has a moment where he connects with his son and realizes how lucky he is to be a father it seems to give him a bit solace. You can feel him healing. The writing is that good and the point is so poignant that I could not help but to tear up. But this was a sidebar to the book. I think the second time I cried shows how the social changes in orthodox Judaism over the last 50 years may not be for the best.

The biggest tear-jerker for me was at the end of the book. Goldman struggles to remain observant throughout the book. He struggles as single male in the big city. He struggles as a journalist who may need to work on Shabbos. He even feels Divine Intervention when his first real journalism gig at the NY Times does not require he work on Shabbos. He feels connected to orthodox Judaism. It is his Judaism.

After the year at the Div School, Goldman and his wife and son move to Westchester County. They join a modern orthodox synagogue. The rabbi hears that Goldman has quite a talent as a cantor and asks him if he would lead one of the services on the high holidays. At first Goldman is honored but he declines. Eventually he acquiesces to pressure to take the job. He feels validation that he has been able to navigate the difficulties of balancing modernity with an ancient tradition. But some members of the shul are not happy. They find some of his activities are not in consonance with Jewish law. They said he worked on Shabbos, he ate (kosher food) in non-Kosher restaurants, he read the New Testament, his son was named for a non-Jew etc. In Goldman’s mind, these were struggles. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost. In Goldman’s eyes these were battles. To his coreligionists they were seen as compromises. And they threatened the sheltered world of orthodox Judaism. That year, Goldman did not lead the services. In fact he did not even go to the synagogue because he was so hurt.

That was when I cried.

The postscript to the high holidays story was that the other synagogue members eventually apologized. They told Goldman that they too participate in many of this “objectionable” activities. But they keep them quiet. They don’t discuss them. If had kept his mouth shut he would have been just fine.

Goldman concludes his book with what I feel to be the most significant point in The Search for God at Harvard. After the ethnic pride movements of the 70’s, religions began to shift to more fundamentalist views in the 80’s. This continued through the 90’s and brings us to where we are today. Intolerance for co-coreligionists and “other-religionists” became more pronounced in the 80’s than it was prior to the 80’s. President Reagan brought religion to fore of policy and discourse in America.

In orthodox Judaism a similar phenomena happened as well. Orthodox Judaism became more narrow. Many activities, positions, policies, beliefs, modes of dress, aspirations among other things that were previously accepted in the broad spectrum of orthodox Judaism were expunged. People and communities were told to move to the right, or move on. It has not let up since. In matters of theology, practice, social and religious, the orthodox Judaism of my grandparents is long gone.

Am I crazy for trying to bring it back? Maybe. But that won’t stop me from trying.

Pick up your own copy of The Search for God at Harvard by clicking on any of the links in the post. It is a great read.

  • Mord Maman

    “In matters of theology, practice, social and religious, the orthodox Judaism of my grandparents is long gone.”
    the problem is when people claim the judaism of yesteryear is what they are trying to bring back with the recent shift to the black

    • So true… But such a lie…

  • YC

    This was my reaction to Rabbi Marc Schneier. So he he is rich, eats out, touches women- sounds like many of his congregants
    and his colleagues congregants. And that is how many acting in the 70’s including his colleague.

    (Sorry for mixing him with Ari Goldman)

    So the move to the right or leaving the mimetic tradition to the book tradition as Dr Haym Soloveitchik put it.. does not mean people moved to the left. But the gap between those that “take some liberties with their observance” and those that follow (pick your book Shulchan Aruch or Mesorah Pub equivalent)

    And those that indeed move to right may be feed up what they see around them and they fear their kids wont turn out like their parents kids

    (GREAT post)

  • Ilanadavita

    I have just ordered the book; thanks for the review and you personal comments with which I’d tend to agree.

  • Battles are a personal issue.
    Being a cantor is a public service.

    I see no contradiction in respecting someone’s personal religious struggles, while simultaneously denying them a position in a public forum. An institution should have principles they won’t compromise.

    Especially today, where data is driving almost every facet of life, we should be ready to accept that our actions reveal us to others, not our intentions.

    • They didn’t respect him. Even though he was no different than the rest
      of them. But outward appearances began to matter more than truth so
      they disposed of him.

      Plus the whole episode caused him to feel excluded enough to skip
      going to shul that Yom Kippur. That is on the shul’s cheshbon. I am
      sure there would have been a way to avoid that.

  • Woodrow

    Personally I wouldn’t blame the Gipper. 

    • Woodrow

      Oops, accidentally sent comment before I finished my thought.  The wave of fundamentalism isn’t just in the USA- its also reflected in the world of Islam.  My sense is that there is a growing polarization in much of the monotheistic world between “much more religious than grandpa” and “much less religious” with fewer and fewer in their grandpa’s ballpark.   The difference is that (to use a different metaphor) is that in Islam its a category 5 ideological hurricane, while in the US its maybe a category 2- some feelings are hurt, but not a lot of fatalities!

  • Ari Goldman

    Hi. I wrote this book more than 20 years ago and I am thrilled to see that people are still debating it. Many thanks to Rabbi Fink for being the catalyst here (and maybe even making a sale). I continue to struggle with the issues I wrote about then. I like to think of myself as “50’s Orthodox,” that was the era of the Orthodox Big Tent. Everyone was welcomed. No one was judged. Ultimately, it is God who judges us.

    • I’m honored to hear from you Professor. Your book continues to inspire me and the direction of my community.