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Book Report: As a Driven Leaf

My shul is reading Milton Steinberg’s historical novel As a Driven Leaf in some sort of Temple Beth Bolshoyeh Book Group thing. Papa Rabbi will be giving a sermon on it, and I think the Brotherhood will be having a discussion breakfast thing. I will not, I expect, be discussing the book either with Papa Rabbi or with any of the other members of the shul, but I thought to myself laddie, thought I, if it’s such an important book as all that, maybe you should read it. So I did.

It’s a story of Elisha ben Abuyeh, the sage that supposedly went heretical. Mr. Steinberg took that basic idea, and a little history of the days of Elisha and Akiba and Bar Kochba and them, and made a novel of his own time and place, America in the thirties, placed into the historical moment. His Elisha is a modern man of modern sensibilities; he is also a tool for Rabbi Steinberg to show the aspects of Judaism and Rome at the time. He’s not quite a character, but then most of the characters in the book aren’t quite characters. As a novel, it’s not the sort of thing that people read these days. It’s Thomas Costain for Jews, or Mary Renault for Jews who have a lot of patience.

The fundamental question that Rabbi Steinberg wants to address is the difficulty of reconciling faith and reason. His Elisha is unable to live comfortably as a Rabbi because his rationality won’t let him accept Scripture (this is complicated, of course, but I’ll simplify for discussion), and is unable to live comfortably as a pagan philosopher, because, well, this is complicated and resists simplification. He winds up helping the Romans crush the Bar Kochba rebellion, and is guilt-ridden over that. He finds that the world of pagan philosophy is ultimately hollow, and rests on axioms that are as much a matter of faith as Scripture. And he finds that his aggressive rationality cannot overcome an emotional attachment to his Land and his People; when he attempts to overcome it, he makes himself miserable.

Of course, Mr. Steinberg cheats. His Bet Din excommunicates his Elisha for heresy. It isn’t so much that he can’t live comfortably as a Jew as that the Jews of his time and place won’t live comfortably with him while he is expressing his doubts. The Bet Din are portrayed (not inaccurately but nonetheless to make a modern point) as intolerant and closed-minded. The response to Elisha’s apostasy is to ban Greek books altogether; the orthodox attitude is to prevent contact and cross-fertilization. Furthermore, the pagan civilization Elisha flees to is a brutal tyranny that oppresses his friends and family.

You know the old thing about what would American Jews do if Jews went to war against Israel? That’s utter nonsense for most of us, but Milton Steinberg put his Elisha ben Abuyeh in that position when the Jews followed a false messiah and revolted against Roman rule, and the Romans put the sages to death and outlawed the practice of Judaism. Those things actually occurred, mind you, but it’s not something most of us will have to worry about.

Although it turns out that it’s something that strikes a deep chord with a lot of American Jews and has for fifty years, now. I find that fact a little disturbing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,