What is the summary for As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Milton Steinberg- A Biography

Rabbi David Wolpe gives a good picture of Rabbi Milton Steinberg's life in the Forward to the 1969 edition of As a Driven Leaf (1939). Steinberg was born into a Jewish home in Rochester, New York, that combined traditional Judaism with modern socialism. Steinberg became a rabbi but associated himself with the controversial Reconstructionist Judaism of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Steinberg made his greatest mark after being called to serve as rabbi for Manhattan's Park Avenue Synagogue, noted then for its Reform beliefs. Steinberg died young, at age 46, from a heart attack, but he wrote several important theological works including a comprehensive Jewish history called Basic Judaism, The Making of the Modern Jew and the novel As a Driven Leaf.

As A Driven Leaf - A Summary

Beginning on the eighth day of his life, Elisha ben Abuyah--the son of Abuyah but named for his dead mother Elisheba--enters the rabbinic Jewish world of the first century in Palestine, then under the reign of Roman Emperor Vespasian (c. 70 C.E.). The arrogance, the quarreling and the lack of faith that colors the day of his brit milah, or circumcision, is the same that will color his whole life as he searches for a reconciliation to the great philosophical questions that burn his mind and that are relevant even today.

In a fictionalized account of a true-life rabbi about whom very few facts are known, Milton Steinberg tells the story of Elisha ben Abuyah and in so doing establishes an emblem for his own life, which, according to Rabbi David Wolpe, who wrote the 1969 Forward to Steinberg's 1939 novel (sixty years after its publication), closely reflected the vastly earlier, ancient life of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah.

According to Steinberg's fictionalization, motherless Elisha is orphaned at the age of ten with the death of his heretical and Greek sympathizing father. Now a wealthy boy, Elisha is taken to live with his mother's brother, Rabbi Amram, relieved now to take the boy because of the great hatred he felt for Abuyah whom he believed to be an "infidel and scoffer." Elisha is raised by Amram to be a rabbi and a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest council of wisdom in Jewish governance.

Sadly for Amram and, later, for Elisha himself, Elisha abandons, wife, faith, Judaic practice, and the Sanhedrin in order to live in Antioch and pursue the answers to the questions burning in his mind and heart. He wants to know the answer that explain the inter-relationship between the Jews and their Roman conquerors; the meaning of the failed Bar Kochba Revolt; and the inter-relationship between science, philosophy and Jewish faith. For his quests after truth within Greek and Roman thought, Elisha is excommunicated from the Jewish faith: He denies that there is justice and that is a Judge.

While in Antioch, he falls in love with the concubine, Manta, of a Roman soldier, and later saves himself from the judgement of death by fighting with the Romans against the Jews of the Bar Kochba Revolt. He dies alone, penniless, nearly friendless after having found that his quest was futile and an empty dream: It was like a leaf driven by the wind. 

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