As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg

Discussion Guide

The Author

The legacy of Milton Steinberg (1903-1950) is secure despite his tragically short life. He wrote his works of fiction and theology while serving as rabbi of the prestigious Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

In his search for a philosophy of Judaism, Steinberg sought contemporary answers to questions like: What is the nature of God? What is our relationship to God? What is God's relationship to history? What can we say about the problem of evil? How do we reconcile the demands of faith and reason? His best-known work is Basic Judaism.

What the Book is About

As a Driven Leaf is a historical novel set in Roman Palestine. The protagonist, Elisha ben Abuyah, a talmudic rabbi in the first half of the second century, was excommunicated for heresy.

Little is known of Elisha. The Talmud says of him: Four men entered Pardes [the Garden, the realm of theosophy and hidden teachings].... Ben Azzai died.... Ben Zoma went mad.... Acher [Elisha] mutilated the shoots [commited heresy].... R. Akiva departed unhurt.

What we do know about Elisha comes mostly from his pupil and disciple R. Meir, a major character in the book who remained loyal to Elisha and became an honored sage. Meir's teachings laid the groundwork for theMishnah of Judah ha-Nasi.

Fascinated by Hellenism, Elisha became enchanted with its presumed systematic logic. Drawing on talmudic and historical sources, Steinberg portrays the clash between Judaism and a modern, secular society. In the novel you will meet some of the great sages of the Talmud, watch them at work in the Sanhedrin, hear them dispensing legal decisions, become immersed in their arguments about theology and Torah, agonize with them on whether to cooperate with or rebel against an increasingly oppressive Rome, and visit the centers of learning in ancient Palestine.

You will also encounter the budding Christian groups and the debate over whether the Law of Moses had or had not been annulled. Seeking a faith born of reason, Elisha was ultimately left without faith or community, sadly disillusioned by the mystery religions and the barbaric side of Roman/Greek culture, and broken by the realization that Greek philosophy, itself, was based on postulates and axioms--that is, on faith.

Questions to Consider

  1. Amram keeps Greek books from Elisha to insure that the boy will grow up as a complete Jew. How can we insure that our children will carry on the Jewish tradition?
  2. The Passover haggadah recites the narrative of the talmudic sages in B'nai Brak discussing Pesach. The commentaries suggest that the all-night session was held to consider rebellion against Rome. What do you think of rabbis engaging in political activism?
  3. The patriarch of the Sanhedrin was descended from the House of Hillel. Some believed this birthright protected the office, while others held that it had to be earned. How do we select and retain Jewish leaders today?
  4. Greek culture and Roman oppression led many to question Jewish values, such as whether a slave has rights, whether the details of Law hold any meaning, and whether practical considerations outweigh the demands of Jewish jurisprudence. What tenets of Judaism are being challenged today? How are we responding?
  5. The death of Meir's children struck a great blow to Elisha's faith. How can we keep our faith when we are tried by life's vicissitudes?
  6. The clash between Greek and Jewish cultures split the Palestinian community. In what way are Jews in a similar circumstance today? How should we respond?
  7. Elisha is deeply troubled by his new doubts. What about Judaism has caused you to doubt?
  8. Discuss Job's challenge to God, Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf? Why do you think Steinberg chose it as the novel's title?
  9. Elisha observes that circumstances are leading to the end of the Jewish people. Do you think that the Jews in America are at risk of vanishing?
  10. Revelation must be either accepted or rejected. Do you agree that faith and reason are incompatible?
  11. Judaism outlived its persecutors because Judah ordained a new generation of teachers and Akiva continued to expound the Law in prison while awaiting his martyrdom. How can Judaism assure its survival today, when it faces few pressing external threats?