'The Language God Talks': A search for the secrets of eternity

Posted: July 04, 2010

By Herman Wouk

Little, Brown. 192 pp. $23.99.

Reviewed by John Timpane

This hodge-podgey little book has at least two very moving high points.

The second is a closing coda: the fictional Aaron Jastrow's sermon, "Heroes of the Iliad," delivered at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. It appears in Wouk's massive World War II novels Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

Jastrow invokes the book of Job. He ponders cruelty, suffering, injustice in creation. He concludes that Job, "the stinking Jew" who upholds Almighty God in the face of an unavailing universe, who calls God to acknowledge that "injustice is on his side," performs an essential service, for he, in upholding God, upholds humanity.

But the first high point is just as gripping. It's an imagined walk-and-talk between Wouk and physicist/Nobelist Richard Feynman. An aggressive, jokey unbeliever, Feynman questions Wouk about Talmud. He's curious why Wouk is Orthodox. Wouk tries to explain, "Not to convince you of my view, but because you asked me."

Throughout his long writerly career, Wouk, who turned 95 on May 15, has often pondered belief. In The Language God Talks (a title derived from Feynman's nickname for calculus), Wouk embraces science, assents to the connection between the human mind and the big bang. In the laws science has discovered, he hears a language God talks, and he feels we should listen.

This modest and not terribly well-focused book has inherent drama, for it faces nothing less than a huge shift, among some Jews, away from God. The break was the Holocaust. The argument goes: In light of such unanswered injustice, six million unanswered injustices, to cling to the notion of a just God is an obscenity, a way to smooth over, to seek comfort when comfort is unjust. To forget. For some, it is wrong even to question this break.

The 20th century saw an exhaustive effort to backfill the tradition, an effort that remains the subject of vigorous disagreement throughout all branches of Judaism. The brilliant, indispensable Jewish insistence on questioning, on debate, on weighing and sifting all sides, was mined for an unbroken skeptical tradition without the God of the Psalms. Atheist Jews could now claim that atheism was always Jewish.

Wouk demurs. He doesn't deny the doubts and questions in the great tradition - but he does suggest they are being misread, and cannot serve the purpose for which they are now too often enlisted. Job and Ecclesiastes have moments of doubt, and they give good ammo to atheist arguments, but they themselves are not atheist books. They speak from a tradition much older than themselves, one that had long asked the question ("Where is God in this harsh cosmos?") the 20th century thought it discovered. Their answers are thoroughly - as their creators knew - perplexing and ironic. Job 23, for example, protests the injustice in the world even as it professes confidence in a God the speaker says he cannot find. Such a complex vision just further indicts the banal, misled floundering of much "God wars" sniping.

As he promises, Wouk presents Feynman with less of an argument than a general feeling: (1) religion and science are unified by the fact of human wonder; at least to this extent, they speak a common language. (2) Wonder implies that we do not and cannot know everything. (3) In light of the beautiful, mind-escaping cosmos around us, working in languages we can use but not understand fully, it is at least a reasonable stance to hear a unifying presence speaking, one deeply implicated in the good, the beautiful, and the just.

Wouk gently warns Feynman that egotism cannot stop all holes. Feynman may be persuaded, but, as he himself would agree, he lacks the whole story. (Wouk makes sure, out of love, we see the nonegotist Feynman, too, the man who knows he cannot know: "I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there.")

Thus Wouk quotes the unbearably lovely Ecclesiastes 3:11: "He has made all things beautiful in their time, and has put eternity in men's hearts, except that no man will find out the work of the Lord from beginning to end."

Feynman exclaims only this: "That is damned good."

Ecclesiastes makes Wouk's point better than Wouk does. We are tuned to want to know the secret of eternity; it is in our hearts. The thing is, we never will. Anyone - right-wing Bible-thumper or raging anti-theist - who declares "case closed" is a nut, a fool, or an everyday monomaniac. As the Preacher counsels elsewhere, it's better to enjoy life than to drive yourself crazy with what you can't know.

All the podium-banging of the "God wars" hasn't proved a thing. If this book makes any contribution, it may be in its quiet, searching tone, which questions, to the depths, the violent surety on all sides. Science may tell us workings, and religion meanings, but nothing can tell us all. Since we cannot know, we literally do not know what the cosmos is. Instead, we have string theories galore, colliding branes, multiverses, comets bearing nucleic acids to a barren planet, and other lullabies of the mind.

The Language God Talks, a patchwork of memoir, rehash, and reminiscence, is a humble, understated little book. It leaves one more cause for wonder: that Wouk, author of two massive novels on the worst war ever fought, finds belief not an idiocy, not an obscenity, but rather a kind of listening.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane

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