The Search for God at Harvard


I ordered this book after reading Rabbi Fink’s review on his blog. A New York Times journalist, Ari L. Goldman took a sabbatical to study religion at Harvard Divinity School. Being a Jew in a mostly non-Jewish environment I thought that Goldman’s account as an Orthodox Jew living at Harvard and learning about world religions would resonate with my own struggles; and it did.

Ari L. Goldman had been working as a religion writer for some years before he asked for a sabbatical to broaden his knowledge. The Search for God at Harvard recounts this very special year but also provides the background which enables the reader to understand the reasons for this unusual quest: his religious education in various Jewish schools (including a Crown Heights yeshiva and Yeshiva University), his secular education in high school, his parents’ divorce when he was 6 and his first years at the New York Times.

I respect people who steadfastly stick to their views but I deeply admire those who confront different people and beliefs. Ari L. Goldman is such a person. He knows that some of his former rabbis and teachers would disapprove but he sticks to his decision and studies Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, African religions and Christianity, or even of a course on Judaism by Louis Jacobs.

The Search for God at Harvard is not so much what these religions are but rather what they mean to him and how they help him strengthen his own beliefs.

Thus Ari L. Goldman contrasts Judaism – where God choses his own people – and Hinduism where believers choose a personal god among a pantheon of several million deities. He sees Buddhism’s attraction for many Jews who are alienated from judaism as a religious alternative that is not Christianity. “As disillusioned as many of these Jews were with their own faith, they had been conditioned by their upbringing to seeing Christianity not merely as a substitute for but as a repudiation of Judaism”.

A course on the different Protestant denominations sheds an interesting light on Fundamentalism.

“The White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant America the Fundamentalists say they are trying to get back to never really existed. From the beginning, this country had American Indians, Jews and catholics, as well as Protestants. They had red skin and black skin and white skin. To be sure, not all these groups were treated equally. It was most often the whites who were subjugated the others; maybe this is the America to which the Fundamentalists want to return. But, for most Americans, the thought of returning to slavery, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism or anti-American Indianism represents America gone awry and not “America Back to Our Roots. “”

They are poignant moments when Ari L. Goldman struggles between his desire to remain an observant Jew while aspiring to become a New York Times reporter. Surprisingly it is his mother – a religious Jew – who encourages him not to give up.

He also recalls painful episodes when choosing a community as a young couple not long after the Harvard experiece. His wife once tells guests at a Shabbat meal that she and her husband look forward to situations where not everyone around them is an Orthodox Jew because they consider them broadening and a challenge. Sadly they soon realize that they are not on the same wavelength as these people when they become the synagogue gossip.

The Search for God at Harvard is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.