History, theology and biography collide in Milton Steinberg’s ‘new’ historical novel.
Precisely 60 years since his death and just over 70 years since the publication of his classic “As a Driven Leaf,” Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s hitherto unpublished novel “The Prophet’s Wife” will be released at his Park Avenue Synagogue pulpit on March 21.
For the generations of readers to whom “As a Driven Leaf” has given expression to their own spiritual struggles, this new, posthumously published book is sure to prompt new investigations into Steinberg, his subject matter and the theological questions that animated his all-too-brief life.
Just as there are at least three different ways to read “As a Driven Leaf,” so too readers of “The Prophet’s Wife” will be asked to experience this new literary offering from a variety of perspectives.
First and foremost, “As a Driven Leaf” is an historical novel based on the life of the Talmudic sage, Elisha ben Abuyah. While the Talmud itself offers very little biographical information on this hero heretic, Steinberg’s literary imagination provides a gripping tale around his enigmatic character. Elisha’s engagement with Rabbinic and Hellenistic culture, Jewish and pagan thought in second-century Palestine, has served as an intriguing portal of entry into a fascinating historical context.
And yet, readers of “As a Driven Leaf” also sense that the background of Rabbinic Judaism was merely a literary vehicle to describe the tensions of Steinberg’s own day and age. Elisha ben Abuyah’s crisis of faith represented the anxieties being negotiated within American Jewry of the 1930s — between faith and reason, secularism and piety, universalism and particularism — to name but a few.
Finally, readers of “As a Driven Leaf” inevitably wonder to what degree the figure of Elisha ben Abuyah served as a proxy for the author himself. The son of a Talmudic scholar who himself had lost his faith, Steinberg was a philosophically trained intellectual whose towering achievements represented a deeply personal attempt to balance the tensions wrought by critical inquiry and devotional learning, congregational work and the “ivory tower” sophistication and plainspokenness, as well as denominational commitments, world Jewry and universal humanity.
Readers of Steinberg’s new novel would do well to keep these same three reading strategies in mind when approaching “The Prophet’s Wife.” In this case, Steinberg, who served as rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue, has constructed a far-reaching contextual backdrop to the eighth-century biblical prophet, Hosea. As with Elisha ben Abuyah, not much is known about Hosea’s biography beyond his marriage to the adulterous Gomer. Their broken marriage and the possibility of reconciliation served as a ready metaphor for God’s betrayed and restored relationship with Israel. Once again Steinberg’s brilliance provides a context for the prophet, his wife and the combination of anger, revulsion and pity with which Hosea responds to her unfaithfulness. Given that Steinberg died prior to the novel’s completion — he died suddenly in 1950 at the age of 46 — it will be the task of readers to debate the plausibility of Steinberg’s treatment of the biblical text and context, and, more interestingly, to discuss how he may have finished the novel.
But more than Hosea’s cultural milieu, readers of “The Prophet’s Wife” will find themselves wondering how this novel serves as a theological comment to late 1940s American Jewry. Only 10 years had passed since “As a Driven Leaf,” but in the interim, the horrors of the Shoah had fundamentally changed the theological playing field for Jews. What sort of God would allow such abuse to befall a people? If Elisha ben Abuyah enabled Steinberg to explore the dialectic of faith and reason, then perhaps Hosea and Gomer provided Steinberg with a biblical template to meditate on issues of betrayal and reconciliation, transgression and punishment, rage and pity. It is of no small significance that while most of Steinberg’s narrative concerns Hosea, the book’s actual title turns our attention to the prophet’s wife, allegorically speaking, the Jewish people. It is entirely conceivable that Steinberg found the persona of a despised, abused and pitied woman seeking to reconstitute a covenantal relationship gone awry as the starting point to formulate a post-Holocaust theology.
Finally, as with “As a Driven Leaf,” students of Steinberg will inevitably ask whether this novel may serve as a window into Steinberg’s own tempestuous biography and marriage. Certainly, Steinberg himself would have granted that all theological reflection bears a personal dimension. Given the time that has elapsed between Steinberg’s death and publication of “The Prophet’s Wife,” this avenue of inquiry promises to be as interesting as it will inevitably remain speculative and incomplete.
Steinberg’s sophistication of thought and lucid writing style have granted him an enduring influence extending well beyond his length of years. This “new” novel, though written decades ago and set in a context long before that, will, as did “As a Driven Leaf,” speak to us. After all, more than his erudition or insights into sacred texts, Steinberg’s achievements were impelled by the questions and quandaries knocking at his own heart and the hearts of the Jewry he served, questions that continue to be asked by searching Jews today. n
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is the spiritual leader of Park Avenue Synagogue and editor of the forthcoming volume “Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief” (Jewish Lights).
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