Sunday, February 7, 2010

As a Driven Leaf Revisited - The Quest

As I mentioned earlier, Milton Steinberg's novel, As a Driven Leaf (Behrman House, 1939), offers a sympathetic portrayal of 2nd century rabbinic Judaism. Even more remarkable is its sympathetic portrayal of the Roman world: Steinberg was a Conservative Jewish Rabbi writing during the Shoah, but he makes his readers care about his main character, an apostate Jew who abandoned his belief in God and betrayed his people.

But therein lies its brilliance. Because we like Elisha ben Abuyah and sympathize with his quest for certainty, we are moved more profoundly by his tragic failure. As one reviewer put it: "Perhaps so completely frustrated a life has never before been presented in fiction. Sheer beauty!"

Elisha claims Euclid's geometry as the inspiration for his quest, but Steinberg is thinking of Descartes and the European Enlightenment:
I am seeking a theology, a morality, a ritual, confirmed by logic in the fashion of geometry so that one need not forever wonder whether what he believes is true. . . . Of course, the price is high. But that makes no difference. According to our sacred literature there once was a man called Job who stood before the inscrutable universe and demanded an answer to its mystery. It did not reply. Therefore he repeated his question, hurling it again and again into its unresponsive face. And when his friends protested that he was destroying himself by his obduracy, he turned and challenged the Presence behind things--"Wherefore," he demanded, "hidest Thou Thyself from me? Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?" I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition. It is stark inner compulsion, dire necessity. And he against whom it moves has no more choice than a leaf driven in a gale. No, there is no retreat. Forward is the only way. . . . My procedure has been ever to try to demonstrate predetermined conclusions, the doctrines of Tradition. I have spoken glibly about the method of Euclid without ever applying it seriously. If I am driven to it, I shall do exactly as does the geometry book. I shall lay away all beliefs, principles and affirmations, and set out afresh accepting only what is as thoroughly self-evident as the axioms and postulates of mathematics . . . (201-3).
To be continued...since if you are like me you tend to skim or skip long posts, and the quotations to come deserve individual attention.

No comments: