“As a Driven Leaf,” by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, is a 20th century book that’s a retelling of an ancient rabbinic story. The protagonist, Elisha ben Avuyah, is a respected rabbinic scholar living in the ancient land of Israel. Despite his traditional Jewish learning and stature in the community, he comes to question his faith in an all-good, all-powerful God. He finds tragedy to be incompatible with faith, and logic to be at odds with tradition.
In many ways, I identify with Elisha. I never want to have to sacrifice being intellectually honest, or having to live with some sort of cognitive dissonance, in order to be a Jew. I do not believe in creation the exact ways depicted in the Hebrew Bible. Bad things obviously happen to good people, even though many sacred Jewish writings, like the Book of Deuteronomy and our High Holy Day prayers, seem to say that the good are rewarded and the evil punished.
“As a Driven Leaf” helped me sort out my own struggles — wanting to be a believing, practicing Jew, yet being unable to reconcile many traditional Jewish beliefs with reason. The book does not conclude that such reconciliation is at all possible. Rather, it acknowledges the tensions and thereby helps us to construct an alternative system of belief that understands that there is a discord between tradition and reason. As a modern, I felt a great need to address these issues before I could fully embrace being a Jew.
Jason Holtz is the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.