· essays · dialogues · meditations · about subscribe

Critique of “As a Driven Leaf”


Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote As a Driven Leaf and published it in 1939. It is a novel about Elisha ben Ayubah’s exploration of faith and reason, leading to his excommunication and tragic end as he fails to resolve the questions that haunted him. According to the foreword by Chaim Potok, Elisha’s struggles paralleled Steinberg’s, who was considered a heretic by some.

The book is a tragedy within a tragedy—Elisha’s story is set in Palestine and Syria during the Jewish-Roman wars.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly. The outer story of the Jews within the Roman Empire is vivid, and I can relate to Elisha and his struggles.

Elisha’s intellectual journey has three stages:

  1. Implicit faith in religion, developed with reason
  2. A complete rejection of “faith,” and exclusive reliance on reason
  3. A considered faith, developed with reason

In this essay I critique arguments presented in four of Elisha’s conversations, each occurring at different points along his journey.

Conversation After Rejecting Faith

The first conversation is with Akiba, a close friend of Elisha and a fellow rabbi.

“Elisha, what strange things have you been thinking? I knew that you were disturbed but I never dreamed it had gone so far. Am I correct in believing…”

Euclid’s Elements of Geometry derives a set of theorems (called Euclidean Geometry) from a set of assumptions, or axioms. Although Euclid’s formulation had several flaws, its method remains the basis of mathematics to this day.

Elisha, like most of us, wants his religious beliefs to be as certain as Euclidean geometry. This approach ultimately fails because he can’t find certain axioms to base his religious beliefs on. We will discuss this in more detail later.

“Akiba, we have been friends for many years … you must undertake this effort with me. Let us start at the beginning together.”

Akiba’s argument here is invalid. I agree that reason can not prove or disprove itself, but this does not imply that we can not set aside our beliefs to analyze them. Our core beliefs can obscure implicit axioms in our reasoning, but once these axioms are identified, our reason is no longer bound by them. An atheist can realize that the proselytizer may be worried for his soul, and a Muslim can understand why the Qu’ran can not argue for its own validity to a non-believer.

Steinberg may have intended for Akiba to convey that our core beliefs influence which axioms we have faith in. If this is so, then I agree. Or perhaps Akiba wants Elisha to recognize that he is putting faith in reason and that we all must put faith in our axioms.

However, some axioms are more “believable” than others. If we include “reason” (vaguely defined) among our axioms, we can reason about the believably of our other axioms, but without reason we are lost. Even with reason, there are few foundational axioms for us to put our faith in, and it is ultimately up to the individual to have faith in what they find most “believable,” despite not having certainty. And with this faith, to implicitly or explicitly answer the ethical question—how should one live?

“The purpose of life,” said Akiba softly, “is to live well. Whatever contributes toward that end is right and true. My first and last criterion concerning my proposition is: Does it help men live better? You may remember a lecture in which I asserted ‘All is foreseen by God, yet man possesses freedom of will.’ “

When Akiba claims “if any doctrine enlarges life, then it possesses truth,” I think he means that the truth of your axioms is indicated by the ethical outcomes they produce. This view presupposes the central importance of humans and how they act. This belief is strange, but logically consistent. Before discussing further, it is useful to define some terms.

I think the three primary questions (and their loosely defined field of philosophy) are:

Most philosophies (or worldviews) answer these questions recursively. For example, the modern scientific worldview claims that the laws of nature describe how our bodies sense the world and these senses are deemed the basis of all knowledge—including the laws of nature. Thus our metaphysics informs our epistemology which informs our metaphysics.

The recursion between epistemology and metaphysics seems unavoidable. Ethics, on the other hand, is typically derived from the other two fields. But it doesn’t have to be—Akiba argues that ethics can inform epistemology. Here is an expanded form of his argument:

  1. Humans and how they live are of utmost importance.
  2. The universe should be consistent with this importance.
  3. Judaism makes people live well, so it is more likely true.

This argument is unconvincing unless you agree with the first two axioms, but it is internally consistent.

Akiba’s comments about the difficulty of removing oneself from his beliefs apply; a religious person may not be aware of their axioms when deciding what to believe. They are apparent once disclosed, but the collective validity of the axioms and anything deduced from them is still unclear.

For ethics to affect metaphysics or epistemology, we must assume that humans (or conscious beings generally) are special. This importance may be justified if one believes we have souls or that the creator is especially interested in the organization of our brain matter. These metaphysical claims are possible. If we are not special in some sense, however, then ethics must be isolated from metaphysics and epistemology.

I think one of the thesis of As a Drive Leaf is that ethics should inform our epistemology and our metaphysics. Besides Akiba’s arguments, Milton Steinberg hints that the Jewish survival through so much terrible persecution over the years contributes to the Jewish religious tradition’s validity.

Akiba has a few more interesting comments:

“He who wishes to trace a circle must first select out of all space one point about which to draw it. … The utility of the circle in practice will determine ultimately whether the point has been well placed. So with faith. It is the axis about which we move—an axis that must be posited as an act of will. The fate of man determines whether he has located it properly. That is all I am saying—that belief is the beginning, that it may be tested by experience, but that it must exist, or nothing can be.”

Akiba is aware of the truth that Elisha has not yet discovered, that some faith is unavoidable.

It is interesting to note that Akiba considers faith “an act of will”—most Christians also believe this. I think it is only partially true; if a belief seems highly implausible, will can not produce faith.

Conversation While Exclusively Relying on Reason

The second conversation is between Elisha and Demonax—a philosopher who has decided to focus more on ethics than metaphysics. It takes place while Elisha remains confident in the power of reason.

“Let me explain,” Demonax continued. “To you philosophy is a science. To me it is an art. To you it is a method of discovering truth. To me it is a guide to noble living … I am the expositor not of a theory but of a skill. As a flute teacher imparts his art, first by personal example and then by simple, practical principles, without too much concern over the nature of sound, so I attempt to influence people to live beautifully by striving to live so myself, and by communicating those rules of conduct that have stood the test of time.”

Demonax’s derision towards “high-flown schemes of reality” is likely a reference to Aristotle’s Organon, which divided reality into ten categories: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, situation, condition, action, and passion.

Demonax, like Akiba, does can not think we can find a certain foundation for our ethics. Unlike Akiba, who puts his faith in Judaism, Demonax thinks ethics only needs “reasonable belief in God and a fairly consistent picture of the universe and man’s role in it.” But how do we know man’s role within the universe? Assuming there is a God, does it care how we act? And even if it does, how should we act? Perhaps Demonax views ethics as the empirical science of making men happier, and as a science, we can observe and refine our approach.

“But after all,” Elisha objected, “there is just as little agreement in the realm of practical principle [applied ethics] as in that of theory [metaphysics]. Your own argument can be turned against you …”

I can imagine this conversation occurring between the mature Milton Steinberg and his younger self. “Can we withdraw into our books…?”

I occasionally doubt the utility of philosophical investigations. Some investigation is appropriate, but once you have considered the main arguments, why continue? Shouldn’t we focus on our more immediate problems? I believe that privileged like myself are obligated to give back.

Like Elisha, I think one answer is that the philosophical investigation is a form of giving back. This answer requires you to believe that there is more to discover, and that you are well-suited to discover it.

My fear is that I am not able, and that I use the investigations as an excuse to avoid the messy, uncomfortable work of making the world a better place. Demonax seemed to feel similarly.

Conversation While Realizing the Necessity of Faith

The third conversation is between Elisha and a philosopher who, like Elisha, believes we can develop a firm metaphysical foundation—this conversation is when Elisha loses his faith in the possibility of a solid metaphysical foundation.

“See,” he [the philosopher] urged, “how generous nature has been with us, equipping our minds from birth with sure truths for which we need not labor and which no sane person ever challenges. Will the boldest skeptic deny that two and two equal four, no more, no less; that the whole is the sum of its parts; that equals, added to equals, yield equals; that every effect must have a cause; that A cannot be B and its opposite at the same time, that …? But why belabor so obvious a point? Each of you can list dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of principles of like character.”

Elisha’s question is perceptive. How can we transition the innate certainty we have in logic and mathematics to reality?

Euclidean geometry is useful because it is a good model of physical space. But, unlike the Greeks, we know that Euclidean geometry is an imperfect model of physical space; it is accurate in Earth’s gravitational field, but it does not describe space near massive objects. Thus Euclid’s derivations may seem like certain statements about reality, but they are not. The derivations are, in fact, isolated from reality. They correspond with it as much as the axioms used to derive them correspond with reality.

This disconnect between mathematics and reality is subtle. Many engineers and scientists I have met haven’t considered it. I suspect this is why the disconnect is highlighted prominently in the introductory chapter of an excellent math textbook:

Why does arithmetic have such wide application in spite of the abstractness of its concept?

Thus, I think the answer to Elisha’s question is “you can’t make the transition.” Any mathematical model may correspond to reality in every situation we have experienced thus far, but it is always possible we will observe new situations. Even more problematically, even if a mathematical model perfectly described reality today, reality may change in the future!

This disconnect between mathematical certainty and reality is the first of two reasons Elisha decides faith is unavoidable. The following quotes demonstrate his second reason:

“You have posited the validity of the deductive process. But what happens when you form a syllogism. You take major premise A, minor premise B and deduce conclusion C. You say when you are though that C follows inevitably from A and B. But what do you mean by that? Only that you have a sentiment of congruity, an emotion of fittingness. Are sentiments the stuff of rational demonstration?

Elisha questions our mind’s ability to reason. If our minds evolved to work well within the physical laws of our world, then perhaps the innate logical and mathematical truths that “feel” certain, do so because we evolved that sense of certainty? Could we imagine a different universe where the laws of logic would not feel certain?

After this conversation, Elisha abandons his strict rejection of faith.

Conversation After Recognizing the Necessity of Faith

The final conversation is between Elisha and Meir, his favorite student, years later. In it Elisha beautifully summarizes his conclusion that we must rely on faith and reason:

“… neither reality outside man, nor feeling within him, is altogether logical. There will then always be in the crucible of thought a residue of the irrational never to be resolved into lucidity … man’s mind is too frail, too inadequate an instrument to achieve certainty.

Meir loved Elisha:

“But, Master,” Meir pleaded, “back there is all that you have failed to find—a faith—a God…”


As a Driven Leaf is a wonderful book. The philosophical discussions were well thought out and essential, and the story provides an emotional and intellectual backdrop for these conversations that enhances their meaning.

While reading the book, I felt a strong connection with the Steinberg, and as Chaim Potok says in the foreword, I would have loved to meet him.