Tuesday, February 9, 2010

As a Driven Leaf - The Ending

This is the last in a series of three posts with excerpts from Milton Steinberg's brilliant novel, As a Driven Leaf. (See here and here for the first two.) In the end, Elisha confesses to his former student, Rabbi Meir, that his quest was "vanity and a striving after wind:
Do you remember, Meir, that epigram quoted in the name of Rabbi Johanan ben Zaccai: "There is no truth unless there be a faith on which it may rest"? Ironically enough the only sure principle I have achieved is this which I have known almost all my life. And it is so. 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. In every realm one must lay down postulates or he shall have nothing at all. So with morality and religion. Faith and reason are not antagonists. On the contrary, salvation is through the commingling of the two, the former to establish first premises, the latter to purify them of confusion and to draw the fulness of their implications. It is not certainty which one acquires so, only plausibility, but that is the best we can hope for. (473)
The book celebrates the value of Jewish tradition, but also laments a social context that made no room for questions or for those who asked them:
That is the fantastic intolerable paradox of my life, that I have gone questing for what I possessed initially--a belief 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. And yet I may not enter. For those who live there insist, at least in our generation, on the total acceptance without reservation of their revealed religion. And I cannot surrender the liberty of my mind to any authority. Free reason, my son, is a heady wine. It has failed to sustain my heart, but having drunk of it, I can never be content with a less fiery draught. (474)
The book concludes with Rabbi Meir weeping on his master's grave:
Thunder rolled in the misty vault of the heavens. From the cemetery down the hill, from the grave at his feet and from out dead yesterdays ghosts came stealing. And he wept not alone for his master, but for himself as well, for a woman who rarely smiled, for sweet children who slept near by, for a people crushed and persecuted, for all the sons of men, their aches of the body and soul, and their dreams that die. (477)

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