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Chanukah And Heresy

Chanukah And Heresy

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

While Chanukah marks the military victory of Mattathias and his five sons over the Seleucid (Syrian Greek) monarchy, it also represents the ascendancy of the Maccabees over their fellow Jews who had become infatuated with Hellenistic culture.

The most famous literary exploration of this underlying theme is Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s 1939 historical novel, “As a Driven Leaf,” which centers on Elisha ben Abuyah, an iconoclastic rabbi from Talmudic times who was excommunicated for his embrace of Greek philosophy and who was then accused of betraying the Jews to the Romans during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Barry Schwartz’s new dramatic version of the novel will be performed Dec. 18 in a free reading by the Instant Shakespeare Company at Temple Emanu-El.

The playwright, a Reform rabbi, is now the director of the 126-year-old Jewish Publication Society. He views “As a Driven Leaf” as exemplifying the struggle that many Jews still face. The protagonist, he told The Jewish Week, is “caught between Athens and Jerusalem, or between reason and revelation.”

Like that of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher who was also excommunicated for his atheism, the tale of Elisha, Schwartz reflected, “disturbs and haunts us to this day.” Indeed, in 1991, a Baghdad-born Israeli author, Shimon Ballas, published a controversial novel, “Outcast,” about an Elisha-like Iraqi Jew who converts to Islam; it was translated into English in 2005.

Steinberg, who was the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue until his untimely death at the age of 46, was a disciple of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. In 1945, Rabbi Kaplan was excommunicated by Orthodox rabbis; they burned his Sabbath prayer book, which eliminated references to a supernatural God, to belief in a messiah, and to the Jews as the chosen people. The episode, Schwartz said, was extremely sobering for Steinberg.

Paul Sugarman, who plays Elisha, is the founder of the Instant Shakespeare Company, which performs readings of the Bard’s work in public libraries across the city, Sugarman remarked that his character is “tragically caught between his community and his loyalty to his rational ideas.”

Vacillating between the Jews and Romans, Sugarman said, Elisha betrays both. “He is overwhelmed by circumstances,” the actor observed, and “thus fails to bridge the gap between not just different ideas, but between different parts of himself.”

“As a Driven Leaf: The Heresy of Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah” will be read this Thursday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. at The Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, One E. 65th Street. For information, call the Skirball at (212) 507-9580 or visit

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