I grew up in a home where there wasn’t much in the way of Jewish religious practice, and I made it through Hebrew school at two Conservative synagogues without learning very much about Judaism. Arriving at college with only a rudimentary understanding of my own religion, I left it in the same condition. After graduating, however, I spent several months in Israel. Like so many others in the 1970s, I was lured from the Western Wall to a nearby baal teshuvah yeshiva and spent several weeks in an environment that was both inspiring and disturbing. What I learned whetted my appetite for more, but I was troubled by my new teachers’ absolute sense of certainty about all things Jewish, involving both practice and belief.
Returning from Israel after that experience to Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Dickinson College, where I had just received my B.A, I spent a summer in the basement of the college library, reading as much as I could about the Jews and Judaism. I was searching, without success, for the secret to the self-assurance that permeated the yeshiva, the feeling that all the answers were known and that the people there had them. One day, the Jewish studies professor at Dickinson, the late Ned Rosenbaum, placed in my hands a book I had not yet heard of, Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf. He said I might find it to be of interest, and I did.
A Conservative rabbi moonlighting as a novelist, Steinberg took the sketchy talmudic account of the life of a notorious heretic, Elisha ben Abuyah, and transformed it into a full-blown tale of a man’s life-long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to reconcile faith and reason. Steinberg depicts ben Abuyah’s travels through the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds and his encounters with the best and worst of both of them in ways that reflect the spiritual challenges of not only the second century C.E., in which the novel is set, but later ages as well. Most of all, the novel echoes the spiritual dilemmas of mid-20th-century Jews like Steinberg himself.
The fact that this novel remains in print almost 75 years after its initial publication is evidence that it spoke not only to Steinberg’s generation but to several subsequent generations as well—for one certainly cannot attribute he book’s longevity to its literary merits. Its dialogue is stilted, and many of its characters—especially the females among them—are quite flat. The philosophical dialogues that take place in the novel are sometimes rather tendentious, and—a real problem in a historical novel—Steinberg doesn’t get the background facts right all the time. Incredibly, he places the siege of Masada after the Bar Kochba revolt, around 135 C.E., when it actually occurred decades earlier, at the end of the first revolt against Rome.
None of this has stopped me from reading this novel five times, or stood in the way of its continued popularity. What, then, is the source of this flawed book’s unusual success?
I believe that it is the manner in which Steinberg depicts ben Abuyah’s quest, which affects both the heart and the mind. Steinberg’s prose, although less than stellar, enables one to empathize deeply with a character seeking philosophical and moral certainty and makes it possible for the reader to share in ben Abuyah’s disappointment as the years go by and such certainty eludes him. Finally, the conclusion of the novel at least points the way to a solution to the fundamental problem that pervades the book.
Ben Abuyah fails, in the end, to arrive at his goal of a complete philosophical system for two reasons, one theoretical and one moral. Borrowing the framework of his story directly from the Talmud, Steinberg has ben Abuyah, as an old man, riding a white horse when he encounters his former student, Rabbi Meir. Meir walks alongside his teacher and master, questioning him about his life’s work and receiving answers that go beyond anything contained in the original talmudic story. Ben Abuyah has learned, he tells Meir, that “all truth ultimately rests on some act of faith: geometry on axioms, the sciences on the assumptions of the objective existence and orderliness of the world’s nature. In every realm one must lay down postulates or he shall have nothing at all.” He goes on to explain to Meir that a good society requires justice and mercy, for which reason alone does not provide an adequate basis. Faith, by which ben Abuyah means the Torah, is also indispensable. “Faith and reason,” says ben Abuyah, “are not antagonists. On the contrary, salvation is through the commingling of the two, the former to establish first premises, the latter to purify them of confusion and to draw the fullness of their implications. It is not certainty which one acquires so, only plausibility, but that is the best we can hope for.”
For modern Jews this is an important truth. In an age of skepticism, the assertion that the mind requires some form of faith, some unprovable postulates, as its bedrock can help one wrestle with the question of loyalty to one’s religion. At the same time, ben Abuyah’s discovery is an invitation to openness and rationality. Yes, postulates are required, but so is thinking—about how to explicate the postulates and the content that follows from these postulates. The “what follows” is a product of the autonomous mind. It cannot reach the level of certainty, but only, as ben Abuyah says, of plausibility.
I suspect that this presentation of the modern problem and its solution is what keeps As a Driven Leaf alive. It is impossible to guess how many young men and women caught up in spiritual quandaries have derived their intellectual bearings from this book, but I am sure that there have been large numbers of them.
For me and countless others, ben Abuyah’s story, as told by Milton Steinberg, has been a small revelation. It has taught us that finding one’s place in the Jewish world is a process, one that grants us a great deal of intellectual freedom but reminds us, at the same time, that that freedom cannot be total: it must be rooted in something given.
Phil Cohen is the rabbi of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/iasadrivenleafi