Questions of faith versus reason, religion versus paganism and strict adherence to ritual versus assimilation are all central themes in Milton Steinberg’s 1939 novel, “As a Driven Leaf.”
It is curious that this book is not as widely known as other Jewish classics of the same era, but some who have discovered the book can attest to its powerful impact, including Chaim Potok, who wrote the introduction in this edition.
The book takes place in ancient times, in a post-Maccabee world, after the Romans destroyed the Jews’ second Temple, and follows the life and internal struggles of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya. Not much is known about Elisha, who appears in the Talmud, though evidence suggests he was born in Jerusalem in about 70 C.E. and was a prominent scholar. Perhaps he is best known for betraying the Jews to the Romans.
At the time of the book, the Romans rule Jerusalem, imposing stricter and stricter laws and sanctions against the Jews, including refusing to allow them to rebuild the Temple.
The first half of the book chronicles Elisha as a boy and young man — his father sent him to learn more secular subjects because he did not believe that Scripture was actually the Almighty’s word and that miracles were stuff of legend. However, at some point, soon after his father’s death, Elisha’s uncle took over his education and exposed his nephew to the tenets of Judaism, teaching his nephew that the Almighty must be served with a whole heart, leaving no room for doubt.
Eventually, Elisha becomes a renowned scholar and an elected official of the Sanhedrin, the governing and judicial assembly in ancient Israel. Always a scholar and deep thinker, Elisha begins questioning the basis for Jewish practice and thought, having a hard time reconciling it with his earlier teachings. He has many questions about the world, about science, and he wants to learn more.
His fellow Sanhedrin is taken aback by his forthrightness in even daring to question faith or to incorporate Greek philosophy into his learning.
The Jews believe that they must be kept separate from the pagan Greeks and Romans. Eliezer, another member of the Sanhedrin, declares, “We are a small people in the vastness of the pagan world. Our faith is a pinprick of light in the night of their darkness. … Only if we keep ourselves apart can we hope to live at all.”
But in his soul, Elisha cannot accept that and argues back, “As custodians of the Tradition, we shall have failed in our duty to our people and our own souls unless we exploit every device to render faith secure.”
He becomes so confused that he renounces his former life, is excommunicated from his fellow Jewish community, and moves to Antioch, where he studies with the Greeks.
Elisha insists that he doesn’t disbelieve in a higher power but merely requires certainty. Thus, he is continually questioning the truth behind rituals and prayers. The basic questions that plague him are, “Are miracles possible? Is Scripture the Word of God? If not, what basis can there be for the Tradition, its law, its rituals and beliefs?”
So begins his quest for truth, abandoning his pre-existing beliefs, and deciding to begin again. “I have always started at the end,” he says. “My procedure has been ever to try to demonstrate predetermined conclusions, the doctrines of Tradition.”
Elisha seeks to employ geometric principles founded by Euclid to his truth seeking. “I am seeking a theology, a morality, a ritual confirmed by logic in the fashion of geometry so that one need not forever wonder whether what he believes is true.”
Once he is excommunicated, what follows are days of loneliness, despite his shedding his Jewish identity and immersing himself in the Hellenistic Greek culture.
Throughout his wanderings he meets many people, divorces his wife, falls in love with a courtesan, makes friends, makes enemies.
Discussing the future of the Jewish people, Elisha does not believe that the Jews will endure. In a spirited debate with his friend Pappas, Pappas relates Rabbi Akiba’s thoughts to Elisha: “No power on earth can destroy us, provided always that we remain loyal to our purpose. Given that, we shall outlive the great empires to be present when God’s Kingdom is inaugurated at the end of days.”
The book covers a lot of ground within the framework of Elisha’s story, everything from politics to religion to philosophy. Setting the book in ancient times shows that men have struggled with these same philosophical and internal struggles since time immemorial. In a poignant scene toward the book’s end, when Elisha has been defeated by his own logic, he concludes, “Faith and reason are not antagonists.”
The title comes from the Book of Job: “Wherefore hidest Though Thy face…/Will Thou harass a driven leaf?”
The author, Milton Steinberg, born in Rochester in 1903, was an American congregational rabbi. He was a brilliant man who excelled in school and was a beloved and charismatic rabbi. Steinberg was immersed in many Jewish organizations, including Hadassah, the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation.
He wrote extensively, and much of his personal writings are housed at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York. Although it was unfinished due to his premature death at the age of 46, another novel, “The Prophet’s Wife,” was published posthumously in 2010.
The book is quite lengthy, but is well worth the time. It will appeal to those interested in pondering life’s larger philosophical questions, but also for those who just appreciate the simple pleasures of a good story.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.