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86 of 88 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bracing, if poignant, tale of estrangement and Truth
Although this tale is somewhat wooden in execution and its characters never come fully to life, and while the thrust of the tale, itself, is an intellectual rather than a visceral one, I was greatly moved by it. There is a tradition in the Talmud that four great sages sought to go beyond the realm of man's knowledge. One died. One went insane. One became a heretic...
Published on November 28, 1999 by Stuart W. Mirsky

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Accurate and approachable
Historical fiction, starring many characters from the Talmud, including Elisha ben Abuyah. In my opinion, the book was much better before the relatively graphic torture scenes near the end of the book, but I suppose it's difficult to write any honest historical fiction from those times without a little bit of violence.
Published on September 23, 2009 by M. Godon


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86 of 88 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bracing, if poignant, tale of estrangement and Truth, November 28, 1999
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This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
Although this tale is somewhat wooden in execution and its characters never come fully to life, and while the thrust of the tale, itself, is an intellectual rather than a visceral one, I was greatly moved by it. There is a tradition in the Talmud that four great sages sought to go beyond the realm of man's knowledge. One died. One went insane. One became a heretic. And only the great Akiba came out of it whole, only to be tortured to death by the Romans in the aftermath of the third abortive rebellion against the Empire. Well, Elisha ben Abuyah, the central character of this tale, is the one who became a heretic. He is recalled in the Talmud as a member of the Rabbinate who forsook his faith and people for the Greek way, thereby condemning himself, in life and memory, to excommunication and the label of heretic. This tale attempts to visualize what might have driven such a man and where it would have taken him in the end. The actions of the story are really quite commonplace until one gets to the final Roman war against the Jews in Palestine. But even these events are seen only from a distance. The real crux of this tale is the seeking and the life-events which might have underlay the tale of Elisha and help explain why he did what he did. His is the tale of the child of a Hellenized father, wrested at his father's death from the larger, intellectual Greek world and shoe-horned into a realm of orthodoxy in keeping with the narrow prejudices of his deceased mother's brother. His Greek learning aborted, Elisha becomes an enthusiastic student of his people's traditions rising, in time, to membership in the revered Sanhedrin. But the Greek seeds (or something else) have been planted and in time take root, pushing out the superimposed shrubbery of orthodxy. And Elisha begins to doubt and question. Unable to reconcile his restless questioning to the blind teachings of orthodxy, he seeks wider knowledge, causing a rift with the community of the orthodox. Driven into exile in Antioch he begins a life of study and inquiry, trying always to use his reason to erect an edifice in which he can wholeheartedly believe. But events catch up with him even as his understanding increases. There is a very fine rendering here of that process by which we try to understand the underpinnings of the world in which we exist and one sees clearly the metaphysical problems and Elisha's burden in grappling with them. He does seem a bit simple at times and one can't help thinking that this, in some sense, is the author's own tale, writ into a fable about a first century Jew in the Roman world. But it's all very compelling and, at times, riveting, especially as it captures the hellenistic world and its thought. But it's a book of ideas, in the end, rather than people. Ideas which tear at all of us in the end.

Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Ancient Look Back at a Current Problem Facing Modern Jews, December 10, 1999
This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
"As a Driven Leaf" is a magnificent work of historical fiction. Brings to life a little know time of ancient Israel. Steinberg paints a picture of life in ancient Israel during the time of the Roman occupation just prior to the final days of the Judean War that answers so many questions of those of us who only knew the period through religious readings. The dilemma that faces the novel's protagonist is a problem that is as current in today's assimilated society as it was in the days when Jews were facing the pull toward Hellenism. Unwilling to accept Judaism's blind faith in God, the protagonist returns to the Hellenistic roots of his childhood, only to find that he loses his place in either world. Great book that should be the subject of discussion groups in synagogues across the country. Highly recommended.
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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful allegory about the trials of modern Jews, August 22, 2001
By 
J. A Magill (Sacramento, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
The recent vogue among Jews to read this book is not surprising. Indeed, it is a wonderful tribute to an author and theologian of great potential who was taken from us far too young.
The book tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the contributors to the Talmud who we are told lost his faith. The Talmud tells us little about him, but Steinberg does a marvelous job weaving the character into a historical tapestry that drapes over one of the great crisis of the Jewish nation, the destruction of the second temple and eventual exile. Through the book, we meet the various personalities that participated in the writing of the Talmud. To Steinberg's, each is interesting, unique, and richly brought to life.
That said, many people have made the same mistake with this book that they do with other historical fiction; assuming that they can assume Steinberg accurately describes this milieu. I am fairly certain that were the author alive, he would laugh at such an absurd presumption. Rather, the genius of this work is that Steinberg projects some of the major problems facing modern Jewry on to an ancient context. While several of the arguments that appear in the text are historic, the central conflict between Hellenist (secular humanist) philosophy and Jewish ethics is a modern conflict we continue to fight to this day. Any reader of Rabbi Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, will recognize many of the arguments that Steinberg puts in his character's mouth as coming from the writings of that modern sage.
This book touches modern Jews exactly because it speaks to the trials they face as we weave together and try to make compatible a life of torah and our place in the modern world. Steinberg speaks powerfully and emotionally to that conflict, recognizing that it is more than simply intellectual, but is also visceral.
If you have struggled with such issues, I hearty recommend this work.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant historical novel of the intertestimental period, October 24, 1997
By 
smarmer "smarmer" (Los Angeles, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
This book should be of interest to both Jews and Christians. It follows the life of Elishia Ben Abouya, a brilliant young rabbi who lived in the first century of the common era. Based on accounts reported in the Talmud, this book contains Steinberg's imaginative and sensitive depiction of a time strangely like our own, in which the stresses and strains between the secular world and old and new religion play themselves out. Jews will find many of their rabbinic heroes portrayed -- such as Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir. Christians will be fascinated by the tensions between the Hebrew Christians and the Gentile Christians of the first century. Particularly moving is Steinberg's elaboration of Ben Abouya's reaction to the deaths of Meir's children, a story also based on talmudic writings. This is historical fiction at its best. A classic. Very highly recommended.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?" -- Job 13:25, June 27, 2001
This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
Set at the time shortly after the destruction of the second temple, this novel is based on a traditional tale from the Talmud. The tale describes how four sages journeyed into the realm of metaphysics and as a result one died, one became insane, one became an heretic, and only one (Akiba) was able to come through the experience. The main character, Elisha ben Abuyah, is in fact a historical figure, and has come down through history as an heretic rabbi, an apostate, a dualist who betrayed the Jews to the Romans after the rebellion in 132-135 C.E. (the "Aher" -- the one who took another point of view).
Elisha's faith, already shaken by the influence of Greek and Roman culture, looses his faith in God after witnessing the accidental death of a child. Like Job, Elisha challenges God -- "Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?" The dictum of the sages "it is not in our power to explain either the happiness of the wicked nor the sufferings of the righteous," was not an adequate answer to calm his distress. In his attempt to find axioms and a succession of propositions on which the doctrines of the Tradition might rest, Elisha opens a Pandora box in his mind.
Although Elisha's despair is honest, his persistent reverence and reliance on intellect turns his life into tragedy. He becomes aware that neither reality outside man, or feeling within him, is altogether logical, there is always a residue of the irrational never to be resolved into lucidity. Man's mind is an inadequate isntrument to achieve certainty. For all truths rests ultimately on some act of faith, geometry on axioms, and sciences on the assumptions of the objective existence and ordeliness of the world nature.
Published for the first time in 1939, this novel remains forever important in its dealing of a fundamental philosophical issue: the limitations of reason and the power of faith in the search of Truth.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why faith, without proof behind it, is a wonderful idea, May 3, 1998
By 
MiriamS16@aol.com, Miriam (Illinois, Massachusetts) - See all my reviews
This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Hardcover)
I read this book a few years ago when I was troubled over the "accuracy" of religion- was all that stuff true? It seemed wrong to believe in what wasn't proven. AS A DRIVEN LEAF showed me, through the journeys of one man, Elisha ben Abuya, why faith is okay, and even necessary to live a full and meaningful life. It allowed me to love Judaism for reasons that I had never seen before, and to stop worrying about whether the Red Sea had really split. I apply what this book has taught me to many areas of life, and being Jewish is certainly not a prerequisite for appreciating this book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for the thinking person, November 4, 2005
By 
Gil Yehuda (Palo Alto, CA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
As others have said -- this is a must read, it is brilliant and magnificent. It is a 2000 year old story that rings true in every generation. And here's why:

Have you ever wondered -- What is faith? how do you know the truth of what you believe in? what if you have doubts? how do you find the truth? and at what costs. These are some of the spiraling questions you will deal with when reading about Elisha.

You fall in love with Elisha, and understand his quest. You sympathize with his love of his friends. And then the book tightens its grip on your heart. Just as these questions of Truth are hard, life too is hard. And Elisha makes decisions that you can't understand. They hurt. And he struggles with this part of himself too. Is he motivated by logic or by love? Where is his loyalty? What does it mean to be part of a people or an empire? Is there good in the heart of men? in the core of a government?

The author paints a wonderful landscape, highly colorful and accurate in most cases, and modified only to be accessible to the modern thinker.

In the authentically Jewish writing style -- the heroes are flawed, the villains are fully understood, and everyone suffers. So you leave the book with an emotional charge. You are both sad and enthused. And better for reading the book. At least more humble.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A true "theatre of the mind" listening experience., August 6, 2000
This review is from: As A Driven Leaf (Audio Cassette)
Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf is the explosive, touching story of Elisha Ben Abuyah, the real-life Talmudic sage who experienced a crisis of faith in the face of political tyranny and terrible human suffering. A ground breaking historical novel, As A Driven Leaf offers an unparalleled view of the conflicts between Judaism and the pagan world, from the brilliant legal debates of the Sanhedrin to the bloody gladiatorial contests of the Roman arena. By effectively utilizing First Century characters, Steinberg is ably to vividly illuminate the pervasive tensions between Jews a world of gentiles. George Guidall's talented narration in this complete and unabridged audiobook edition does full justice to Milton Steinberg's superbly crafted story and brings the listener into a world of revolution, change, and conflict with the engaging intimacy of a true "theatre of the mind" experience.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars HE CAME FULL CIRCLE, April 26, 2003
This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Hardcover)
For clarification, it should be understood that any action or thought that I attribute to Elisha ben Abuyah refers to Milton Steinberg's ben Abuyah. I fully understand that ben Abuyah is a fairly obscure historical figure and that he has been fleshed out in this work of fiction loosely based on history.
I personally relate to the central philosophical question of AS A DRIVEN LEAF. Since childhood, and still continuing today, I've always had a problem with the concept of "The Beginning" as in "In the Beginning God created. . . ." My thinking is that there had to be a time when there was absolutely nothing, yet how can nothing become something, and what is "nothingness?" Religionists say that God created something from nothing. This leads me to ask: "Where did God come from?" Scientists say that primordial gasses came together and that there was a "Big Bang." Again, I ask: "Where did the primordial gasses come from?" I can't conceive of nothingness but I can't comprehend there always having been something. In any system of logic there doesn't seem to be an answer, and accepting it on faith doesn't work for me.
It is a form of this question that causes ben Abuyah to lose faith and begin his all consuming search for an answer based on pure logic. Elisha ben Abuyah was a religious Jew who, early in life, had been exposed to Greek thought. After some years as a Rabbi and leader of the Jewish community, he was re-exposed to Greek thought and to Euclidian Geometry. Absolute faith no longer worked for him, and he replaced his faith with the belief that everything could be proven logically, this logic based on Euclidian Geometry and that faith was unnecessary. He dedicated his life to studying and trying to prove this approach and was branded as guilty of heresy, and, as a result, lost his home, his place in the community, and his wife.
He finally became disillusioned when, as an old man, many years later, still in search of the final proofs, he came to understand that even in Euclidian Geometry, the first "given" had to be accepted by faith. It's truth couldn't be proven.
What sadness when he realized that his whole lifetime's work and its associated losses had been for naught. He had come full circle, back to his starting point.
All of which leaves me just where I started too. No logic explains "The Beginning." It has to be accepted on faith, and I can't. I guess that if you can't accept it on faith, you're better off forgetting about the whole thing. This, at least, was the final lesson learned by Elisha ben Abuyah.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As A DRiven Leaf, March 12, 2004
By 
Elliot Fein (Trabuco Canyon, California) - See all my reviews
This review is from: As a Driven Leaf (Paperback)
As A Driven Leaf is a novel about Elisha Ben Abuya, a character in the Talmud who became a heretic, a non-believer, an apikoras to Judaism. He was one of the most learned rabbis of his generation who nevertheless lost faith, who abandoned the Jewish community, who denounced the Jewish religion and way of life as false, and who sought to find the absolute truth of the universe in the Graeco-Roman world around him.
Elisha dies a lonely, isolated, and tragic man, not at ease in either the Jewish or Graeco-Roman world. As I read this beautifully written novel, I felt empathy for Elisha Ben Abuya, for as a committed Jew, I too am on a personal quest. Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined the purpose of Judaism as "seeking answers to ultimate questions of existence." When I engage in Jewish life, I often feel compelled to look inside myself and to search for answers to life's ultimate questions.
On the other hand, I feel alienated from Elisha Ben Abuya in that I have a different starting point in my search and a different area where I am searching.
Elisha Ben Abuya was born and educated in an isolated Jewish community. He chose to abandon that community and to search for answers to life's ultimate questions in another world. I, conversely, have been born and have been educated in an open, secular world. I have not necessarily chosen to abandon that world. I have chosen to explore Judaism, however, and to seek answers to life's ultimate questions through that exploration.
Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf is a book which has helped me in that intellectual and spiritual search. I am sure it has helped others who feel they are living in two worlds simultaneously to search on that path as well.
Elliot Fein teaches Jewish religious studies at the Tarbut V'Torah School in Irvine, California.
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As a Driven Leaf
As a Driven Leaf by Chaim Potok (Paperback - March 1, 1996)
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