On March 19, 1950, Milton Steinberg, the esteemed rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, lay gravely ill with heart failure. But from his hospital sickbed he continued to work on his historical novel about the Prophet Hosea, describing an impending battle scene and a character’s premonitions of the angel of death.
A few hours later he was dead, at 46.
It took 60 years for Steinberg’s 400-page manuscript to see the light of publication, but he surely would have been proud of the symposium and book release that took place on Sunday at his beloved synagogue, where he served the last 17 years of his life.
The program, sponsored by Park Avenue Synagogue and The Jewish Week, included leading rabbis and thinkers from each branch of Judaism as well as Steinberg’s two sons, Jonathan and David, both highly accomplished in their chosen fields, who read from his final work.
The consensus among the participants was that he was not only the brightest and most well-rounded rabbi of his time, but that his historical novel, “As a Driven Leaf,” remains a classic work that continues to have a profound impact on Jewish lives seven decades after it was published.
Speaking to a rapt audience of more than 300 people in the Park Avenue sanctuary, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” and eight other books, posed the question as to why Steinberg felt the need to write a second historical novel, the one he was close to completing at the time of his death.
He suggested that the main themes of “As a Driven Leaf” and of the unfinished novel about Hosea, published this week by Behrman House as “The Prophet’s Wife,” mirror each other.
“As a Driven Leaf” focused on the tragic life of Elisha ben Abuyah, a leading second-century rabbi and member of the Sanhedrin who lost his faith after seeing a fatal accident, and was excommunicated for his heresy.
The novel explores Elisha’s commitment to logic over faith, and his inability to balance the two.
“The Prophet’s Wife” tells the story of the troubled relationship between the Prophet Hosea and his wife, Gomer, viewed by biblical scholars as a metaphor for Israel’s stormy association with God — one of love, devotion, betrayal, anger and the struggle for forgiveness.
Rabbi Kushner described the later novel as “a bookend” and “perfect complement” to the first, with Gomer unable to balance passion and commitment in her life.
“Together,” Rabbi Kushner said, the two books speak to “the balance of mind and heart, and when to give primacy to each.” Steinberg, he said, was warning us that the ideal of “an undivided soul” is impossible.
“What would he say to us today?” Rabbi Kushner pondered. “Live bravely but don’t betray either side of your heritage.”
Earlier in the program, planned and introduced by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue, four panelists explored different aspects of Steinberg’s theological writings and his impact as a leading proponent of the thinking of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement.
Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, noted that Steinberg was the first to use the term “peoplehood” in a popular book, the term having been invented by the Reconstructionist movement.
Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary observed that at a time of significant anti-Semitism in this country, Steinberg feared Jews would “hide their Jewishness from themselves and others.”
Eisen said Steinberg felt Judaism could not survive only ethnically, without a system of faith and practice. He added that the question of how distinctive American Jews are willing to be still applies today.
“Many will have a seder,” he said, “but how many will take matzah to work the next day and be public about their Jewishness?”
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and thought at Yeshiva University and senior scholar at its Center for the Jewish Future, spoke of how “As a Driven Leaf” challenged and excited him when he read it as a sheltered yeshiva student, forcing him to consider whether there is “life after doubt.” He concluded that while Elisha ben Abuyah perceived himself as beyond forgiveness, “repentance is always redemptive.”
Adriane Leveen, assistant professor of bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, addressed Steinberg’s literary imagination and “The Prophet’s Wife,” theorizing that one reason he chose to write about Hosea was “to teach about biblical prophecy.”
One of the most compelling scenes in the book has Hosea meet the Prophet Amos — they did live in the same century — and Leveen pointed out that both figures charted “a new prophetic voice” critiquing the Israelites’ hypocrisy, insincere worship and economic inequity.
She noted that societies are still judged by how they tend to their most needy, as relevant today as it was in biblical times. n
And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.