Friday, January 8, 2010

As a Driven Leaf

Update: I wrote this yesterday and scheduled it to be posted today when I expected to be on the train from Portland to Montana. We found out when we showed up at the train station yesterday afternoon that our train was canceled due to extreme winter weather conditions in North Dakota; trains are not running today either. Hopefully, service will resume on Saturday so that I can make it back in time to begin teaching on Monday.

On the Emperor Builder today, I may well finish Milton Steinberg's excellent novel, As a Driven Leaf. First published in 1939, the novel is about Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, a historical figure who, according to rabbinic sources, was excommunicated for heresy. The novel is a well-written, compelling story, but it is also fascinating on several additional levels:
  • Steinberg presents a sympathetic view of rabbinic Judaism, and an interesting Jewish perspective on early Christianity.
  • Steinberg's imaginative reconstruction of Jewish Palestine and Roman Antioch in the early 2nd century brings the period to life.
  • The book is also an engaging portrayal of what I presume was a typical understanding of the role of the Rabbis in Jewish life in 1930's era scholarship (i.e., the rabbis controlled everything; there was a council at Jamnia). That perspective is now very dated, but it is nice to have such a readable overview.
  • As Chaim Potok explains in the foreward, the book can be read as a parable about the conflict between Orthodox Judaism and the Western world. The protoganist's desire for certainty (thinly veiled allusions to Descartes) and struggles with doubt mirror the experiences of Christians reacting to their fundamentalist upbringing. Fortunately, apostasy is not the only option.

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