As A Driven Leaf | Notes & Review

Posted on July 17, 2010


Milton Steinberg. As A Driven Leaf. Behrman House, Inc., 1939. (480 pages)

This is a historical fiction story of Elisha ben Abuya, based upon historical records, but pieced and crafted together by the author with some elaborations and dismissals. Thus it is “intended as a novel, not a biography.” (478) I picked up this book in order to search out answers–or at least responses–to the tension I personally have been feeling between my faith tradition (which I have great affections for), my current faith experience (which is leaving me sorely disappointed and dissatisfied), and the broader world and context of which I am a part of which I enjoy studying and learning so much about (and which piques my curiosity like no other subject, yet is unconvincing as a foundational system upon which to stand).

Elisha’s mother dies giving him birth. 8 days later, his father and uncle argue as to the future of this child. Elisha’s father reads Greek literature; Elisha’s uncle finds this anathema. Thus begins the struggle. Elisha grows to become an esteemed member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, but is also tutored by a Greek teacher that exposes him to a wider world. Eventually he is excommunicated from his position and from his community for his rejection of his Jewish faith. In the Hellenistic world, Elisha finds himself drawn to its life, its ways, its science and philosophy; its culture. However, he comes to be disgusted at the values, its disregard for human life, and its oppressive and de-humanizing treatment of their own kind. Intertwined throughout are historical echos of how life in both worlds work. Those who have heard of the Sanhedrin, or the Greek arenas will be thankful to have such details elucidated for our understanding.

In the end, Elisha ends up in a paradox, a concert of two oppositions.

Below are my highlighted quotes, some of which are quite lengthy, but worthy of remembrance. I truly thank Steinberg for giving us this story, and for helping us see the complexities of the world, through the simple telling one man’s journey.


The beginning debate in the Sanhedrin includes these two lines:

Let us neither commend nor prohibit the study of Greek wisdom. (12)

For there is a strange paradox which men are wont to forget. (13)


Elisha’s father, Abuyah whispers to him upon his dying,

I wonder, have I made a mistake with you, my child? You are a Jew, after all. I have been of two inclinations, one by birth, the other by preference…Now you will have to make your own choice, without me. … I hope you will be wholehearted, not torn in two…” (37)

Elisha has a conversation with his childhood friend, Pappas:

Tell me, Elisha, you can be honest with me–after all we have known each other since childhood–do you really believe all that you profess? I mean, all this about a God in Heaven who gave us the Torah and the Oral Tradition, who ordained quitclaims to bondsmen, and forbade shaving the corners of one’s head?

“What is one to do with you?” Elisha asked.

I am sorry. It was like asking a man whether he is honest. Only you know me. My Jewish education was wasted on me. My father tried hard enough, I suppose. I simply could not understand it, and, for that matter, don’t now. It is difficult for me to believe in God. The world looks too crazy and unreasonable. And as for the Law, why shouldn’t a man eat swine’s meat if he wants to ? Or why must he leave just the corners of his field uncut for the poor? Charity would be just as welcome out of the center of the crop. I cannot imagine that God, if there is one, really cares. And then that story of how the world came into being. The Greek scientists say that the world has existed forever–though that scarcely makes sense either. And as for the Jews being God’s chosen people, it hardly looks that way. If I had to select God’s favorite nation, I should say it is the Romans. Not that I really care. I have always felt that a man is a fool to waste his time on questions he cannot answer. (100)

At the passing of a friend’s wife, Chapter XIV begins,

For days thereafter, through the funeral service and the week of mourning during which he never left Meir’s home, Elisha’s eyes looked out as always to the ordered world of men and things. His speech and actions were addressed to it, but his thoughts were turned inward on the seething chaos of his anguish. … Aye, and where were the justice and mercy of that God? (134)

No future bliss would render less wanton a present cruelty. There remained only the dictum of the sages: “It is not in our power to explain either the happiness of the wicked nor the sufferings of the righteous.” But how could he make a truce with mystery when his soul cried out for understanding? Was there then in all the realms of the Tradition no light equal to the menacing darkness? (135)

A few snippets from Rabbi Eliezer’s long discourse addressing the assembly upon a contentious issue throughout the story; the study of Greek wisdom:

Aye, ours is a generation puny in its trust … The time has come to act on the Lord’s behalf. I insist that here and now we impose an interdict upon the study of the Greek tongue and upon the cultivation of pagan wisdom.

… What do they seek to gain, those to whom God’s word is not sufficient so that they must take Greeks and Romans as their tutors? I can tell you what we will achieve, unless once and for all time we prohibit this intercourse with Greek learning. Our young men will read their books. They will become godless as the pagans are godless. They will associate with them and learn their corrupt ways, exercising in gymnasiums, sitting in circuses, lounging all night in drunken symposiums and running in pursuit of harlots. And our sacred traditions, the expression of God’s will, will be abandoned. Whence came these Christian and Gnostic heresies into which so many have fallen away, if not from our failure to do fifty years ago what we still hesitate to do now? Or consider our brethren in Alexandria, their flouting of the Law, their disregard of its explicit commandments. What, pray, could one expect form them, living with an among pagans? The Holy Books were not good enough for them in the Hebrew tongue. They must have it in Greek. I say to you that the day when Scripture was done into Greek was as grievous a day for Israel as that on which our ancestors erected the Golden Calf.

… Some among you may object to our withdrawal from contact with the pagan world. They may plead that it is immoral for us to keep our truth to ourselves. ‘Throw open the windows,’ they will argue; ‘let the light go forth to the Gentiles.’ A noble argument, doubtless–if only one could be certain that the great darkness would not engulf the little light. [VIA: reminded me of John 1]

I say to you, this is not the time. Ours is an evil hour. A plague is abroad in the world–a plague of godlessness and immorality. Bar the doors, I tell you, bolt the windows that you and your seed may live. (136-7)

Joshua responds:

We have been taught and we teach others that truth must be the beginning, the middle and end of all things, even as the first, the middle and the last letters of the alphabet spell its name–Emeth (אמת) We have recounted from every pulpit the ancient legend concerning the scrip which fell from Heaven on which was found inscribed the single word Truth.

I do not quote to weary you with maxims. But if the essence of the Law be the service of truth, then this resolution of Eliezer’s is a betrayal of that Law and a profanation of God’s name. (138)

…it was already apparent that Eliezer’s proposal was destined to rejection. Elisha’s journey home from Jamnia is engulfed with an internal debate:

If the Stoics are right–that nothing ever happens contrary to the laws of nature–what became of all the miracles of Scripture–the burning bush… But if miracles were rejected, where was the veracity of a Scripture that recorded them as fact? And if the authority of Scripture were shaken, then there was no firm basis for the Tradition which rested upon it.

Yet it was from Scripture and the Tradition that Elisha’s world derived its system of living, its jurisprudence and ceremonial rites, its faith in the immortality of the soul and reward and punishment after death, even its belief in God. Every doctrine was so interwoven with every other that the denail of one meant the renunciation of the whole.

It was all like an avalanche. A pebble is disturbed. The soil behind it slides. A rock rolls. A bush strains at its roots and gives way, and the whole mountainside is in roaring destructive motion… (144)

Elisha “wished that events had worked themselves out differently, so that Judaism might have been free to absorb more of the wisdom of the Greeks.” He begins to find “discrepancy between his conduct and thought…” (152) His wife, Deborah asks, “Do you mean that you don’t believe in the Torah, the Tradition, our whole religion any more?”

That’s not quite it. I don’t actively disbelieve. I’m just horribly uncertain, so that every time I pray or perform some ceremonial, I begin to wonder whether it’s true or right. Worse, much worse, is having to preach to others when I’m not sure myself. I feel so hypocritical.

“But it’s mad,” she exclaimed. “You mustn’t even say such things. They are sinful.

But I think them. And I try to stop, but it’s impossible. No one can control his thoughts. (154)

His position, he realized instantly, had become intolerable. He could not remain in it, yet he could not extricate himself from it unaided. In conversation with his friends,

Doubt is a natural phenomenon. No one, and I include myself, is spared by it. Now what other function can there be for reason except to corroborate the truths of revelation? 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. (161)

In his Greek study, the gods, he noted, have no real existence but are merely human heroes who have been deified. Mathematics was different not in content but in method from that which he had known. This was no business of additions without an abacus or of the calculation of weights and distances. It was rather logic in motion. Pure abstract reason proceeded relentlessly from definition through close-knit argumentation to final unchallengeable conclusions. … But whether or not every detail was proved completely–and only an exhaustive study could determine that–the whole embodied a magnificent conception. For it was transparently an attempt to order the processes of thought into a series of rigid demonstrations. (171)

With his Greek instructor, Elisha reports,

A man has happiness if he possesses three things–those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being. (201)

Elisha attends a synagogue of Jewish believers in Jesus.

The moral epigrams and parables he heard were lovely. He was stirred by their ring of authoritativeness strangely combined with bold kindliness. But aside from the phrasing and one report of a miracle, there was nothing in the citation which was new to him. (215)

They reply,

The great rabbis and the members of the Sanhedrin are not fair to us…We are good Jews, devout Jews, observant Jews. The only difference between us and other Jews is that we know that the time of which the prophets spoke has been fulfilled, that the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Otherwise we follow the law to its last jot and tittle for so He enjoined upon us. Nevertheless, the sages insist on confusing us with the followers of Paul who are mainly Gentiles and who condemn not only God’s revelation but the Master’s injuction as well, in disregarding the ordinances prescribed by the Law of Moses. (216)

We do not believe that one is infected with idolatry merely by drinking of a brew, some of which may have been poured as a libation to some pagan god. As we see it, it is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of it that defiles the spirit. (218)

Justin proceeded to outline the doctrines of his group: how Adam, created for innocence, had corrupted himself and tainted his seed with sin; how the law of Moses, given for salvation, had served only to multiply the occasions for transgression; and how, for the redemption of mankind, God had taken on human form and suffered death so that through belief in Him men might be saved. Of all this Elisha had some knowledge. The Jewish academies were not uninformed of what was happening on the fringe of their religion. But what surprised him was the number of differences between the two Christian sects, Jewish and Gentile, and the bitterness with which they disagreed on the crucial point: had the Law of Moses been annulled or was it still binding? (219)

He asks,

Do you accept your basic presuppositions on faith and then use reason to confirm them, or do you first demonstrate them and then set them up as doctrine? (220)

The alternatives? Faith or nothing. Though Elisha understood, he was depressed nonetheless that he had found no more than he had anticipated, two versions of the old, faith-anchored Judaism, differing from it only in their elaborations. (221)

Elisha states that he is on a dignified enterprise, a quest for conviction. “I owe it to my self-respect to take its consequences. Besides it may well be that I may find here among my own people what I seek. To doubt as I do is not yet final denial. It would be stupid to reject the Tradition altogether until I have exhausted its last resources.

…this is the only world I have ever known. In it are all the persons I love, all the scenes that are dear to me, all the habits of living that are as natural to me as breathing. Leaving it for some strange, alien land would be half-death. And, I am not yet ready for suicide, even in part.

[VIA: to which I say, גם אני, “me too.]

Outside of Caesarea, Elisha engages with Akiba, his friend in one of the most poignant exchanges thus far:

“I am going to start at the beginning, by laying aside all prejudices, all preconceived notions, all my beliefs and affirmations.”

“I am afraid,” Akiba faltered, “that I do not understand. What will be gained if you substitute blanket denial for a wavering faith?”

Elisha rose and began to walk up and down the length of the columned porch, as Greek philosophers and rhetoricians had done when, a century before, they had met with royalty in this place.

“Let me put it this way. We have both studied Euclid’s Elements of Geometry.” You must have been impressed by the lucidity of the reasoning and the sureness of its results. For some time, I have been conscious of the contrast between the method of the Greeks and ours. Their success, I am convinced, followed from the fact that they started from the foundations. We, on the contrary, have always tried to bolster a pre-established case.”

He ceased pacing and stood over Akiba.

“Akiba, we have been friends for many years. You have been dearer to me than a blood brother. I would not hurt you or disturb your peace. But I know you. You are honest to the very core. Never have I seen you tolerate a lie or an evasion. Therefore, you must undertake this effort with me. Let us start at the beginning together.”

The issue had been stated. In all the subsequent wrestling of their minds over it, they did not refer even once to the ordeal of that morning. But the memory of it persisted, coloring, flavoring their discussion, investing it with an urgency and import that transcended the decisions of individuals.

“But I still do not understand,” Akiba had protested, “how you can expect me to discard beliefs even tentatively if I am really possessed by them. Your suggestion is like the procedure of those Greek philosophers who say, ‘I do not trust my reason, but I will use it to prove that I have no right to use it.’ A man may insist that he lays a doctrine aside, but if it is integral to him, he will carry it with him wherever he goes and will inevitably find it again since it has never left him.”

“But certainly one can put an attitude away.”

“You can only remove from yourself that which is not part of you. To be altogether honest, Elisha, I think that you might engage in such a project. I could not.”

“You mean,” Elisha struck, “that you are afraid to subject to honest examination any proposition which you like to accept?”

“Let us not abuse each other,” Akiba demurred. “We owe each other no explanations. Certainly I have no right to ask for nay. You who have few, if any, beliefs left are sufficiently detached from our traditional faith to be able to suspend it. I am not.”

“Suppose then you tell me,” Elisha asked in agitation, “how knowing as much as I, you can still maintain a naive faith?”

“The purpose of life,” said Akiba softly “is to live well. Whatever contributes toward that end is right and true. My first and last criterion concerning my proposition is: Does it help man to live better? You may remember a lecture in which I asserted, ‘All is foreseen by God, yet man possesses freedom of will.’ “

“But Akiba . . .”

“Hear me out, Elisha, please. I am aware that, judged by the logic of Aristotle, my thesis is a contradiction in terms. But there is a higher logic, a rationality that springs from the necessities of human nature. Does not man face life with greater assurance if he believes that a benevolent providence foresees the future? And yet he must at the same time be confident that his will is free, otherwise moral effort is meaningless altogether. Doctrines in themselves are not important to me, but their consequences are. For example, I urge upon men that they regard themselves as embodiments of the divine essence. If I convince them, their days are endowed with a sense of abiding significance and unturning glory. Then not all the misfortunes and degradations to which they may be subjected can take from them their feelings of oneness with angels and stars. And as for our people, persecuted and dispersed, they live under the shadow of death, cherishing a dream that is recurrently shattered by the caprice of tyrants and then dreamed against half in despair. What can enable such a people to persist except a conviction of a special relationship to God?”

“And the objective truth of that conviction?” Elisha broke in impatiently.

“A large and terrible question, I grant. Nevertheless, the first and ultimate consideration, I insist, must be of effects. If any doctrine enlarges life, then it possesses truth in realms beyond Aristotle’s logic.”

“Surely now,” Elisha retorted, unable to contain himself longer, “all wisdom will die with you. Why, every fool who cherishes some superstition, every rogue who seeks to persuade someone else of a lie, can justify himself by insisting that so he will live the better. The murderer can argue that his days will be enriched if the person he hates is put away. The theif can contend that his existence takes an added significance as he obtains possession of another’s property. Every adulterer pleads that his life is not worth the living unless he wins the body of his paramour.”

“You are deliberately making an absurdity of what I said,” Akiba broke in resentfully.

“Indeed not. Yours is a good principle to be sure. Alas, it proves too much. It justifies everything and its opposite. What is more, you know as well as I that if there be no God, it is a lie to speak about Him no matter how well such a falsehood functions. And your readiness to belief, your willingness to accept doctrines on blind faith and then to defend them on grounds of expediency…”

“By what right,” Akiba protested, “do you presume to call my attitude blind? Belief need not be unseeing. It is a darkening of counsel to admit that truth is not a matter of the mind alone, but of the heart and experience also? Since it cannot be obtained by reason unaided, fiath is indispensable both as a base on which thought may stand, and as a check-rein when logic goes astray.

“He who wishes to trace a circle must first select out of all space one point about which to draw it. The choice of the point makes possible the line which circumscribes it. The utility of the circle in practice will determine ultimately whether the point has been well placed. So with faith. It is the axis about which we move–an axis that must be posited as an act of will. The fate of man determines whether he has located it properly. That is all I am saying–that belief is the beginning, that it may be tested by experience, but that it must exist, or nothing can be.”

“Arrant nonsense,” Elisha interjected contemptuously.

“It was to be expected,” Akiba went on heatedly, “that you would say so. To speak of faith to the man without faith is like communicating the experience of color to one who is blind.” (240-3)

Later, at the accidental death of a young boy, obeying his rabbi…

A great negation crystallized in him [Elisha]. The veil of deception dissolved before his eyes. The only belief he still cherished disintegrated as had all the others. The last tenuous chord that bound him to his people was severed. (250)


Elisha now spends his time in the Greco-Roman world, learning several lessons and insights into its culture. Finding himself in the company of Manto, the host for a dinner in which he attends, she inquires,

What are you looking for? What do you hope to find here?

To which Elisha replies,

Certainty…about the universe in the first place. Is there a God directing it, or is it just brute accident? And if there is a God, what is His character? Certainty about how man ought to behave. Is there a right and wrong, and what are they? You see, I am one of those unfortunates who cannot be content with conjecture. … I want to proceed as Euclid does, only not with points, lines and triangles, but in the large domain of man’s ultimate beliefs and principles. (296)

A note on the Roman Empire: “I am never completely unaware of the fact that at no time in history and nowhere else in the world have men enjoyed peace, security, latitude in action and thought, such as is conferred on us by the imperial system.” (312)

After witnessing Manto’s treatment of her servants, Elisha, “saw all at once that for all its limitations there were in the old Judaism elements of moral dignity of which Antioch had not the slightest notions.” (330) After witnessing a gladiatorial battle, which is told in vivid detail, He remembers a prayer of a rabbi who had once recited: “Happy are we for we sit in houses of prayer and study while they sit in theaters and circuses. We labor and they labor, we in God’s eternal law and they in vanity and emptiness.” (339) And, “Whoever preserves one life, it is as though he had preserved a world; whosoever destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed a world.” What they had witnessed was not ugliness. It was sin. (340) Wistfully Elisha admitted that, so regarded, the world he had elected was less happy and buoyant and, as he had guessed that day in the slave exchange and again in the arena, less merciful than that which he had rejected. (354)


I have studied all the major metaphysical systems with care and found not a single issue which they have demonstrated absolutely. To make matters worse, there is not one conclusion on which they agree. (367)

“And Elisha was startled and strangely confused to hear a commendation of the Tradition he had abandoned coming from the lips of the foremost exponent of Greek thought.” (370)

Elisha’s journey engages him with conversations with both Pagans and Jews who embrace the matter of truth. “If the truth may be attained, you ask how comes it that after generations it does not lie full-blown in our hands.” (462) It is here where Elisha begins to understand more in-depth the nature and character of his inquiry.

In my eyes the pagan world was the seat of science and philosophy, hence as I supposed mankind’s sole opportunity of ever attaining certainty in belief and action. What other course was open to me except to give it my absolute loyalty? I did not see then, what I perceive now with such fearful clarity, that no society, no matter how great the achievements of its scholars, can be an instrument of human redemption if it despises justice and mercy. (472)

…neither reality outside man, nor feeling within him, is altogether logical. There will then always be in the crucible of thought a residue of the irrational never to be resolved into lucidity. … For all truth rests ultimately on some act of faith, geometry on axioms, the sciences on the assumptions of the objective existence and orderliness of the world of nature. … My destiny becomes then one episode in an eternal drama. (473)

That is the fantastic intolerable paradox of my life, that I have gone questing for what I possessed initially — a believe to invest my days with dignity and meaning, a pattern of behavior through which man might most articulately express his devotion to his fellows. In a sense it has all been a long arduous journey in a circle, whereby I have returned to my point of departure. (474)

— VIA —

Well, there’s a part of me that wonders why it took 474 pages to get to this conclusion, and another part of me that says this would not have made sense had it not been for the previous 473 pages. Now it’s on to write my own journey…