Tuesday, June 15, 2010

J-BOM in June: As A Driven Leaf

The first selection for the J-BOM summer of fiction is Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf. I have been devouring this book. Within a few hours of first picking it up I found myself more than 50 pages in--and loving it!

What was it like to live in Israel after the Temple was destroyed but before the Bar Kochba revolt? This is when As A Driven Leaf takes place. I immediately loved the way Steinberg brings the rabbis of that generation to life. I've written before about Pirkei Avot and how impressed I am by the depth of wisdom contained in the sayings of those rabbis. This appreciation is only enhanced by Steinberg's ability to imaginatively reconstruct the world of those sages, bringing them to life as characters, in some cases speaking the same words we now remember them for.

Speaking of this: Derek Leman mentioned how he enjoyed seeing parables from rabbinic literature show up in a fictional context. I especially enjoyed the scenes in the Sanhedrin where sages like R. Joshua, R. Eliezer, and R. Gamaliel debate over the very decisions that have come down to us from nearly two thousand years ago. And even the way the boy's circumcision is narrated in the very beginning reveals the tensions among the different personalities: Abuyah, Elisha's father, who is ambivalent and even hostile towards his own tradition; Amram, the boy's dutiful uncle, who disapproves of Abuyah's interest in Greek philosophy; the aristocratic Rabbi Eliezer with his "haughty face."

In fact, it is Elisha's relationships--with Joshua his revered mentor, Deborah his wife, Akiva his brilliant colleague and the two Simeons who together with Elisha composed The Four, Meir his beloved disciple and Beruriah Meir's wife, Shraga the Levite, and the others who oppose Elisha because of his father--these are what propel the story forward, and identifying with the characters is what drew me in.

Now I'm nearing the end of the story. Suffice it to say that Steinberg creates in Elisha a character whose struggle between faith/tradition and reason/experience is not only emblematic of the modern struggle between religion and science but also empathetic to the post-modern challenge of navigating one's way through both worlds without completely rejecting one or the other. Even if Steinberg's portrayal is a bit anachronistic, it's somehow encouraging to think of this as a millenias-old problem.

I'll save my recommendations for after I read the end of Steinberg's incredible story. But if you've ever felt challenged in your faith, you may relate to the tale of Elisha ben Abuya. Hopefully none of us will follow the same fate--excommunicated from our community and remembered forever as a heretic. But maybe there is a little heretic in all of us? The challenge each one of us faces is to find the way to live with as much faith--and as much truth--as possible.

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