Milton Steinberg

Monday, March 22, 2010

A different sort of book launch took place yesterday at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue, a flagship of the Conservative movement. Being celebrated was the release of a long-lost novel left unfinished at the time of the author's death 60 years ago. The author was Milton Steinberg, who once served as the synagogue's rabbi and was among the most influential American Jews of the 20th century.  

Steinberg's early thought was molded by three teachers. At City College, the philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen imbued in him a commitment to philosophical rationalism. Rabbi Jacob Kohn taught him that the life of the mind was inconceivable without faith in the very existence of truth. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, he became a disciple of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

Kaplan's monumental work, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), marked the summit of what a recent historian has called "sociological Jewishness." Rescuing non-Orthodox American Judaism from the tepid pieties of ethical universalism, this new dispensation recast Jewish identity and practice in functional terms as a way of maintaining and preserving such American values as pluralism, social justice, and civil society. Sidestepping the hard questions of theology, sociological Jewishness held sway over Conservative and Reform Judaism for decades.

Steinberg's The Making of the Modern Jew (1933) was written in the spirit of Kaplan's desire to combine critical and historical thinking about God and religion with an embrace of Jewish peoplehood, history, and moral concern. In his best-known and still popular work, the novel As a Driven Leaf (1939), the figure of Elisha ben Avuya, a talmudic sage whose mysterious persona has tantalized scholars and skeptics for centuries, dramatizes the tensions between reason and faith. By the novel's end, it is clear that reason cannot live without faith—albeit a faith couched in terms of "a pattern of behavior" for an ethical life, hardly the stuff of prophecy and martyrdom.

Steinberg was an eloquent and prolific writer and lecturer, and his mix of a reasonable deism with a commitment to Jewish life and ritual made him one of American Judaism's most popular expositors. But in his final years—he died at the age of just forty-six—his tone shifted. For him, as for others, the Holocaust shattered confidence in human reason and its ability to face evil. He found an echo to his questions in the Christian thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, began to study mystical texts, laid greater emphasis on prayer, and in a 1949 address called for a return to theology. His last, posthumous work was titled Anatomy of Faith.

Steinberg's lesson, wrote his friend Arthur A. Cohen, was that "any authentic Jewish theology must combine the wise innocence of the Jew, the intellectual rigor of the Greek, and the irresoluble ambiguity of the modern Christian." To this we might add another, central element: a commitment to the Jewish people, past, present, and future.

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