Studying a classic novel of Judaism
Rabbi Brenner Glickman first encountered Milton Steinberg's masterpiece of 20th-century Jewish fiction, "As a Driven Leaf," when he was a seminary student at Hebrew Union College.
"I was still new to learning about Judaism," said Glickman, who is spiritual leader at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota. "I remember how it opened up so many worlds to me. I absolutely loved it."
"It's not an academically rigorous book. It's a novel. But some of our professors recommended it because of how it personalizes some of the rabbis we study in earnest," said Glickman.
The 75th anniversary of the book's publication is this year, and Glickman thought it would make a timely novel for a three-part discussion series at Temple Emanu-El. For the next three Tuesday mornings, Glickman will "dive into" the story of the life and times of Elisha ben Abuyah and Rabbi Akiba, two of Judaism's most prominent Talmudic scholars of the second century.
Elisha ben Abuyah was a man who struggled with his faith and with living in the world of the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Hellenistic secular world.
His counterpart is Rabbi Akiba, "probably our greatest scholar, the most influential of all our rabbis," said Glickman, "so he is important, his teachings are important."
Glickman is dividing his series into three parts, the first a "standard book-talk kind of thing, what happens in the plot, things that affected us because of similar things in our lives."Then he'll look at the historical and literary underpinnings of the book.
"The author created a very rich and detailed novel, but it is based on episodes, some historic, some legends of the Talmud. Some of them are very ...elementary stories in the Talmud. He takes these pieces to create a narrative and greatly elaborates on it," said Glickman.
He'll also devote some time to the author himself, an American rabbi and theologian who lived from 1903 until 1950.
When the book was published in 1939, its author was "a very influential and popular conservative rabbi, so it is equally popular among conservative and Reform Jews," said Glickman. Orthodox Jews, however, were forbidden to read it.
"The struggle of the protagonist is, I would say, a uniquely modernist struggle. The main character is the most famous apostate of the Jewish tradition. There were very high hopes for him to be one of the greats of our people, and he had a crisis of faith," said Glickman. "He encountered the Greeks, philosophy and particularly geometry and the appeal to reason, and he had a crisis of faith. He couldn't take things just because scripture says so. We all wrestle with that struggle. Orthodox Jews, no, you take the received tradition and you don't question it. Here is a protagonist who not only questions, but you penetrate deep into his mind and you question along with him. You see the emptiness that his past leads to, as opposed to his friend Akiba who keeps his faith. When you read this book, you want to be Akiba, you don't want to be Elisha."
Glickman had not re-read the book since his first encounter with it 20 years ago.
"The second (reading) could never be as instrumental as the first time when it was a great moment of transformation in my life," he said. Still, he found "As a Driven Leaf" to be enjoyable and provocative as he prepared for the series.
"Knowing much more as I do now, having studied so much more about that era, I can now see aspects of the book that are romanticized and not necessarily historically accurate," he said. "He wrote with an accuracy in history that I could never match, but in the 75 years since, through archaeology, through advanced scholarship, we know a little bit more detail, have a somewhat better understanding and we can look back at the book and say 'I know a little better now.'"
Rabbi Brenner Glickman will lead a three-part discussion of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf” at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 8, 15 and 22 at Temple Emanu-El, 151 McIntosh Road, Sarasota. Cost is $18 for the series. For reservations, call Judliee Sterne at 349-9287.