Our Jewish Book of the Month for June has been As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. It is the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the tragic heretic, much beloved as a member of the Sanhedrin, a disciple of R. Joshua and the teacher of R. Meir.
The July selection is The Promise by Chaim Potok. The August selection is The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart.
The September selection, to prepare us for High Holidays, will be Yom Kippur: Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers which is available on www.artscroll.com. I will recommend a few sections of the book, which isn’t long in any case, and so you won’t need to read the whole thing (though you certainly may). I had hoped to suggest a shorter work focused strictly on repentance (and Maimonides’ teachings), but it is not widely available (if you’d like to get it, look for Wahschal’s Practical Guide to Teshuvah). But the Artscroll guide to Yom Kippur has selections from Maimonides’ teachings in repentance and is a volume which will add depth to your Jewish library.
The end of As a Driven Leaf is filled with a sweet sadness. Steinberg does well in capturing the senseless tragedy of the second Jewish revolt and in posing questions of faith and doubt. The story of an encounter late in life between Elisha ben Abuya and his student, the faithful and devoted R. Meir, is told superbly and with the exact pathos to match the tale from the rabbinic literature (see “J-BOM: Elisha ben Abuya, Pt 2”). The legend of Elisha’s burning grave and Meir’s determination to win redemption for his master in the world beyond is also brilliantly presented.
If our day-to-day oblivion to all that is evil, senseless, and spiteful in the world needs a wake up call, As a Driven Leaf will fill us with a sense of the reality of the Satanic. Several scenes of needless, useless, practically random violence fill out Steinberg’s account of the horrors of the Second Jewish revolt. And the executions of the sages are told in scenes not for the timid reader. If you read these and do not experience horror, then you are due for some soul-searching.
We forget that evil is palpable and not a myth. The capacity of human beings for cruelty without reason is real and exists no less today than in antiquity.
But even closer to home, for people of faith, is the torment of Elisha’s soul. The heretic, the traitor, the one who walked away from his rabbinic calling in Steinberg’s speculative retelling (the actual reason for Elisha’s excommunication is known only in vague sources) and searched for philosophical answers is beyond sad. We see our own doubts and fears in the story. We can imagine being such a tortured soul as Elisha.
If Augustine explained reason as “faith seeking understanding,” Elisha in Steinberg’s novel is doubt seeking faith.
The rabbinic tradition is that Elisha heard, variously from a class of young Torah students or from the voice of an angel or God, that repentance is offered to man, but not to Elisha ben Abuya. Like many doubters, Elisha wants to know the peace of God and the assurance of mind and spirit he once knew. But he does not believe either that he will be accepted after his many sins or that he will be capable of going back to an innocent faith.
In answer to this dilemma, a real one, I offer words from the scriptures. Perhaps in these words we can let this issue rest and maybe some reader of this blog, struggling with doubt seeking faith, will find here the voice of the One Who Spoke and It Came Into Being:
Wisdom cries aloud in the streets, raises her voice in the squares. At the head of the busy streets she calls; at the entrance of the gates, in the city, she speaks out. –Proverbs 1:20-21
If you seek it as you do silver and search for it as for treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and attain knowledge of God. –Proverbs 2:4-5
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. –Proverbs 3:5
Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water, Even if you have no money; Come, buy food and eat: Buy food without money, Wine and milk without cost . . . Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant. –Isaiah 55:1-3
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. –Hosea 14:1
Even now, return to me with all your heart. –Joel 2:12
He forgives all your sins, heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit, surrounds you with steadfast love and mercy. -Psalm 103:3-4
He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has He requited us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him. –Psalm 103:10-11
My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:30
Your faith has saved you; go in peace. –Luke 7:50
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled. –John 14:27