What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?
-Nicholaus to Elisha in the book:
“As a Driven Leaf”
by Milton Steinberg
Steinberg’s classic is set at the beginning of the Talmudic age in Palestine during the Roman occupation, some fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The book’s protagonist, Elisha ben Abuyah was born a Jew but raised by a Jewish father who disdained the traditional beliefs and who pursued pagan philosophies instead. Nicholaus was Elisha’s Greek tutor when he was a child but the tutor was dismissed when Abuyah died (Elisha’s mother died in childbirth). Abuyah’s brother then took charge of Elisha, providing him with a Jewish education rooted in Torah and tradition.
Elisha eventually abandons his Greek education and as a disciple of the sage Joshua, he not only becomes a Rabbi in his own right, but a member of the Sanhedrin as well.
Yet a series of personal and political conflicts throws Elisha into a crisis of faith and pulls his heart between the Jewish and Greek worlds. A chance meeting with his old tutor Nicholaus many years later in a bookstore in Caesarea, provides the stage for a confrontation between the spiritually tortured Elisha and his former teacher. But rather than support Elisha’s pursuit of “truth” by guiding him back into Greek beliefs, Nicholaus pushes Elisha toward the only path that seems sensible and right for a Jew; the path of Moses.
In some ways, I can relate to both Elisha and Nicholaus. Like Nicholaus, as a non-Jew, I can see great beauty, wisdom, and meaning in the fabric of Jewish ritual, learning, and understanding. Like Elisha, I feel as if I’m struggling to stand between two worlds; the Christian world which is the source of my faith, and the Jewish world which provides clarity and purpose to that faith. I too know what it’s like to be self-tormented, searching the path looking for divine sparks and not letting myself be satisfied with what I already possess.
Elisha’s anguish, and my own, reflects that of Job’s in our shared search for meaning and God, expressed here in Elisha’s own words:
“‘Wherefore,’ he demanded, ‘hidest Thou Thyself from me? Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?’
“I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition. It is a stark inner compulsion, dire necessary. And he against whom it moves has no more choice than a leaf driven by a gale. No, there is no retreat. Forward is the only way.”
Why do you hide your face
and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
Will you chase after dry chaff? –Job 13:24-25
For the past year, I have also been enduring a crisis of faith and like Elisha, seeking answers in unusual places..well, “unusual” relative to modern Christianity which doesn’t typically see a great deal of validity in seeking the Christ within the pages of Talmud and Kabbalah. Yet I have seen the Messiah in the Chasidic writings and found his fingerprints on the pages of the Zohar. How can I relent, when Jewish sages from Hillel to Maimonides teach wisdom that so clearly points to the Master?
In his desperation, Elisha desires to seek out those who his Jewish disciples and peers would categorically reject as pagans and heretics:
“Two courses are before me. I wish first of all to make contact with the Christians and the Gnostics here in Caesarea.”
“What good will that do you?” Nicholaus inquired, wary now.
“It is not impossible that they can teach me some principle to give me direction.”
While a Christian might read these words and rejoice that a Jew is seeking out the grace and salvation of Jesus, for Elisha, this could very well turn out to be a disaster. It is not so much that he sees in Christianity what Judaism lacks, but that he has not allowed his faith to rest on the foundation of his fathers, and for that matter, on the rock of Torah, which the Jewish Messiah continually taught and lived when he walked among men.
Ironically, Elisha’s quest threatened to cost him the very thing he already possessed in Judaism:
“A man has happiness if he possesses three things – those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being.”
In a sense, I am prepared to do what Elisha has done and leave my group and to some degree, the truth they follow, in order to seek out what I believe is right for me. Like Elisha, I’m taking a risk of falling completely away from my current expression of faith in order to seek out a greater closeness with God. Like Elisha, I am convinced in the existence of God but am uncertain as to how He may be understood and approached.
Unlike Elisha, I was not born into a people and a tradition built on the holy mount in Jerusalem and forged by the Shechinah at Sinai.
Here’s the danger:
“But look here,” Nicholaus cried, discerning a possibility he had not envisaged before. “Suppose the results of your experiment are not consistent with the Jewish religion?”
Elisha’s voice was strained, as though his throat had tightened, but he did not falter.
“I have considered that possibility, too. I hope it may never become an actuality. Yet, should that be my destiny, I am prepared to assume it.”
Here is what I face:
“I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.” –Luke 12:8-9
Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. –2 Timothy 2:11-13
I don’t say this is a great danger to me, but the challenge exists. Nicholaus called Elisha’s effort an “experiment” but for me, what I am doing is taking a journey and I expect that I will be traveling all of my life. I walk the path before me and risk losing my way. I travel in darkness while seeking the light. I pray that God travels with me and shows me who He is and who I am in Him. May my footsteps follow His as I climb a holy mountain.
As a Driven Leaf is a cautionary tale; it’s Steinberg’s warning that a Jew cannot live in two worlds without the danger of falling away from everything that gives meaning to being a Jew. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “if you gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss gazes also into you.” Yet like Elisha, I am driven by forces I do not always understand and cannot control, to seek out God in the places where He may be found, even in the darkness of the abyss.
That’s why I write. That’s why I’m here. I am the leaf driven before the wind. Where will I finally alight and take rest?
Only time and God can answer me.