When Rabbi Milton Steinberg died suddenly and tragically in 1950 at the age of 46, there was a keen awareness that the Jewish community had lost one of its great literary, intellectual and spiritual voices. Steinberg was a preacher of uncommon eloquence and depth, a literary craftsman of prodigious output, and a scholar at home with both rabbinic and classic literature.
Even today, more than a century after his birth, Steinberg is known for his historical novel, “As a Driven Leaf,” a book that grapples — in a way few had before or since in fiction — with Judaism’s core values and beliefs.
First published in 1939, “As a Driven Leaf” remains in print and is praised as a literary masterpiece in nearly every major survey of Jewish books. What is not widely known about Steinberg, however, is that he was feverishly at work on another historical novel at the time of his death. In his study, on his desk, he left a 401-page typewritten manuscript titled “The Prophet’s Wife.” The book, being published this month, is the first-ever release of this remarkable tale to the public. As the reader will see, “The Prophet’s Wife,” based on the book of Hosea, vividly and creatively brings to life the prophet and his world. But it is an unfinished work. Not all the characters are fully drawn and not all the plot lines neatly concluded.
Regardless of these facts, and even perhaps because of them, I am convinced that the novel will prove to be an unforgettable reading experience for the public and a major contribution to modern Jewish thought. “The Prophet’s Wife” will fascinate scholars of Steinberg, as well as fans of his earlier work and those who are hearing about him here for the first time.
Why it took so long — 60 years — to release “The Prophet’s Wife” is an epic story in itself, but one that can be best understood if put in the context of Milton Steinberg’s life and legacy. So let us begin with a brief review of his life.
Milton Steinberg was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1903. His father was a Lithuanian-born refugee who had received a traditional Jewish education at the great yeshiva in Volozhin. Although Samuel Steinberg was, for a time, a committed labor socialist, he considered the pursuit of knowledge to be life’s highest calling. Young Milton attended synagogue as well as cheder (Hebrew school). Steinberg’s American-born mother, Fannie, was determined that her children succeed. She moved the family to New York City when Milton was 15 so that his sister, Florence, could further her singing career. Milton soaked up the intellectual and Jewish life of New York. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he was valedictorian of his class, and later went to City College, where he graduated first in his class and with prizes in history, philosophy, Greek and Latin.
He contemplated the academic life but chose the rabbinate instead because he wanted to bring Jewish ideas to a wider audience. It was during his rabbinic training at the Jewish Theological Seminary that Steinberg met Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. The two would become significant influences on each other over the years.
Steinberg was only 19 when he fell passionately in love with an even younger Edith Alpert. The two married and moved to Indianapolis so that he could take a position as a congregational rabbi there. They stayed for just a few years. Edith very much wanted to return to New York City. When Milton was given the opportunity to serve as rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, they moved back. Their sons, David and Jonathan, were born soon after.
During Steinberg’s tenure at the Park Avenue Synagogue, the congregation increased from approximately 120 families to 700. His preaching and his writing, first in national magazines and later in books, made him a highly sought-after lecturer who crisscrossed the country giving talks on contemporary Jewish life and thought. He wrote seven nonfiction books, including “Basic Judaism” and “The Making of the Modern Jew,” but the book that became his most enduring work, “As a Driven Leaf,” was a work of fiction.
“As a Driven Leaf” animated philosophical questions through a compelling literary character. The story describes how Elisha ben Abuyah, a brilliant scholar of the early Rabbinic period, has a crisis of faith and turns his back on God and the Jewish people. Elisha’s crisis of faith, as recounted in the Talmud, is a searing one. Elisha knows his Scripture well. There are two places in the Bible in which God promises Israel long life. Long life is promised to one who honors his parents. And long life is promised to one who observes another Jewish law: the requirement to send a mother bird away before taking her eggs. According to the Talmud, Elisha witnesses a scene along the lines of the following:
A father and son are out walking. The father instructs the boy to climb up to a tower and bring him eggs from a bird’s nest. The boy obeys his father and climbs to the tower, only to find a mother bird sitting on the eggs. In accordance with the biblical law, the boy sends the bird away. But the promise of long life is not fulfilled. As the boy reaches for the eggs, he loses his footing, falls to the ground and dies.
Seeing this tragic scene, Elisha denies the existence of God. He is excommunicated as an apostate by the very sages who were once his colleagues and friends.
In “As a Driven Leaf,” Steinberg takes this thin reed of a tale and places it in the context of the Greco-Roman world with which the early rabbis struggled. Steinberg puts flesh on Elisha, his teachers, his friends and his ideas by taking the reader on a great philosophical adventure through the ancient world.
‘The Prophet’s Wife” is similarly based on the vague outline of a story. The prophet in question is Hosea, who lived in the eighth century BCE, toward the end of the First Temple Period. In his prophesies Hosea rails against the Israelites who had strayed from righteous living, were worshiping foreign gods and might have been engaging as well in ill-conceived political alliances. Hosea’s tale is startling. After introducing the prophet and his time, the book of Hosea begins with these words: “The Lord said unto Hosea: Go, take unto thee a wife of harlotry and the children of harlotry; for the land doth commit great harlotry, departing from the Lord.”
Can this be true? Take a harlot as a wife? Hosea obeys by marrying Gomer, only to find himself betrayed time and again. Hosea complains to God, but God orders him to take Gomer back. She will be faithful.
No one takes the story literally. The book of Hosea is seen as a metaphor for God’s love for Israel. No matter how much Israel sins, God’s heart will always be open to her and take her back.
No one takes the story literally, that is, except Milton Steinberg. The empathy with which he has portrayed Gomer, one of the most enigmatic women in the Bible, and the humanity he gives to both her and Hosea is extraordinary. In the pages of “The Prophet’s Wife,” Steinberg imagines someone so much in love that he is blind to his beloved’s faults and even infidelities. Steinberg conjures up a flesh-and-blood Hosea and follows him through the hardships and disappointments of his young adulthood. Hosea, in Steinberg’s rendering, is a boy who, early in life, is mercilessly teased by his brothers and then loses his mother. His emotionally detached father is distracted by other concerns. Hosea learns the value of silence and becomes a scribe in the king’s court, a position that allows him to be exposed to the great controversies of the day. “The Prophet’s Wife” demonstrates that the “gift of prophecy” is not something bestowed but earned through the travails of life, not least of which for Hosea is a passionate but troubled marriage to the wayward woman Gomer.
How come “The Prophet’s Wife” wasn’t published when it was discovered sitting on the rabbi’s desk in 1950? The official reason was that it was a fragment and not something that could hold up as a literary work. Steinberg seems to have left no notes, no outline, no plan for the book. After Edith’s death in 1969, the couple’s sons and literary heirs donated the manuscript, along with all of Steinberg’s papers, to the American Jewish Historical Society. It remained in the archives until now.
Without Milton Steinberg to finish the story and explain it, perhaps it was for the best. But I think there is another reason “The Prophet’s Wife” wasn’t published. It was too hot to handle. It was well known that Steinberg had a complicated relationship with his adored Edith. On the one hand, she was the midwife to many of his literary works, collaborating with him and editing his manuscripts for publication. At the same time, she was a force in her own right who felt intensely ambivalent about being a rabbi’s wife. The two continued to love each other deeply throughout their tempestuous marriage. The story of Hosea and Gomer cut too close to the bone.
I think Steinberg was also working out some issues about the relationship between God and Israel in his novel. The mid-20th century was a troubling time in Jewish history. The full horrors of the Shoah were just coming to light, even as the modern State of Israel was emerging. These were subjects that occupied a great deal of Steinberg’s intellectual life in his final days and were themes that no doubt found their way into “The Prophet’s Wife.”
The novel is set in another tumultuous time, the eve of the Northern Kingdom’s destruction. Steinberg creatively brings together two prophets, Hosea and Amos, who, as far as we know, were contemporaries but never really met. While they both warn that Israel’s sins will result in the nation’s downfall and its people’s exile, Hosea is the far more optimistic prophet. He reassures the people that God will ultimately bring them back under divine protection. In 1950 there may have been little reason for such optimism. Whether Hosea’s vision or Amos’ vision would prevail vis a vis the modern State of Israel, then in its infancy, was an open question. Perhaps this, too, was too volatile a story to try to understand at the time.
It wasn’t until 1999 that David Behrman, the head of Behrman House, began to think about publishing it. This was in part occasioned by the company’s successful reissue a few years earlier of “As a Driven Leaf” in paperback with a new foreword by the great Chaim Potok. Behrman shared the manuscript of “The Prophet’s Wife” with numerous authors and asked them for advice. He remembers asking Potok if he would be willing to finish what Steinberg had started. “How can I finish another man’s work?” Potok answered.
I had no such scruples when Behrman asked me to get on board with this project in 2001. I instantly fell in love with “The Prophet’s Wife” and spent many years, including a semester at Oxford, trying to craft a proper ending. Without success. Potok, I learned, was right.
Steinberg’s magnificent tale remains open-ended, as he left it. There is one thing, however, that the reader needs to know. The last page of the story, in which Hosea’s companion Binyamin praises God for letting him see “the angel of death on his way,” was written by Steinberg on the night before his death. What a curious place to leave off, because, with the release of “The Prophet’s Wife,” Milton Steinberg is vividly brought back to life for a whole new generation. n
Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and is the author of several books. This article is excerpted from his foreword to “The Prophet’s Wife.” Copyright Behrman House, Inc., reprinted with permission. www.behrmanhouse.com