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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…”

“Yes,” came the toneless reply, “everything is gone, not steadily and all the time, but quite generally—everything except for faith in God … I am going to start at the beginning, by laying aside all prejudices, all preconceived notions, all my beliefs and affirmations.”

“I am afraid,” Akiba faltered, “that I do not understand. What will be gained if you substitute blanket denial for a wavering faith?”

“Let me put it this way. We have both studied Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. You must have been impressed by the lucidity of the reasoning and the sureness of its results. For some time, I have been conscious of the contrast between the method of the Greeks and ours. Their success, I am convinced, followed from the fact that they started from the foundations. We, on the contrary, have always tried to bolster our pre-established case.”

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.”

“But I still do not understand,” Akiba had protested, “how you can expect me to discard beliefs even tentatively if I am really possessed by them. Your suggestion is like the procedure of those Greek philosophers who say, ‘I do not trust my reason, but I will use it to prove that I have no right to use it.’ A man may insist that he lays a doctrine aside, but if it is integral to him, he will carry it with him wherever he goes and will inevitably find it again since it has never left him.”

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.’ “

“But Akiba…”

“Hear me out, Elisha, please. I am aware that, judged by the logic of Aristotle, my thesis is a contradiction in terms. But there is a higher logic, a rationality that springs from the necessities of human nature. Does not man face life with greater assurance if he believes that a benevolent providence foresees the future? And yet he must at the same time be confident that his will is free, otherwise moral effort is meaningless altogether. Doctrines in themselves are not important to me, but their consequences are. For example, I urge upon men that they regard themselves as embodiments of the divine essence. If I convince them, their days are endowed with a sense of abiding significance and unturning glory. Then not all the misfortunes and degradations to which they may be subjected can take from them their feeling of oneness with angels and stars. And as for our people, persecuted and dispersed, they live under the shadow of death, cherishing a dream that is recurrently shattered by the caprice of tyrants and then dreamed again half in despair. What can enable such a people to persist except a conviction of a special relationship to God?”

“And the objective truth of that conviction?” Elisha broke in impatiently.

“A large and terrible question, I grant. Nevertheless, the first and ultimate consideration, I insist, must be of effects. If any doctrine enlarges life, then it possesses truth in realms beyond Aristotle’s logic.”

“… Yours is a good principle to be sure. Alas, it proves too much. It justifies everything and its opposite. What is more, you know as well as I that if there be no God, it is a lie to speak about Him no matter how well such a falsehood functions. And your readiness to believe, your willingness to accept doctrines on blind faith and then to defend them on grounds of expediency …”

“By what right,” Akiba protested, “do you presume to call my attitude blind? Belief need not be unseeing. Is it a darkening of council to admit that truth is not a matter of the mind alone, but of the heart and experience also? Since it cannot be obtained by reason unaided, faith is indispensable both as a base on which thought may stand, and as a check-rein when logic goes astray.

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.”

“But,” Elisha demurred, “no art can be entirely divorced from theory.”

“Perfectly true,” Demonax replied. “That is why I have some interest in metaphysics, but only in the barest and most essential minimum of it. It is guidance in their behavior which men need, a vision of immediate, attainable objective to which they can dedicate themselves, not high-flown schemes of reality. Of the latter a man has enough if he attains to a reasonable belief in God and a fairly consistent picture of the universe and man’s role in it.”

“But even that minimum,” Elisha protested, “must be thought through. You would not say that men should accept belief in God unless first they have reasoned their way to it clearly, consistently and indisputably. Or that they ought to adopt a code of morality unless they have convinced themselves of its validity.”

“… I have studied all the major metaphysical systems with care and found not a single issue which they have demonstrated absolutely. To make matters worse, there is not one conclusion on which they agree.”

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 …”

“You are right,” he said. “I am not altogether logical. Here I tell you that the quest after metaphysical certainty is not worth while because after several centuries of effort it has not attained its objectives. And at the very same moment I say that one ought to devote his efforts to teaching people how to behave although there is no agreement as to the better life and, so far as we are aware, no one has ever lived it in its completeness. But the contradiction is not mine. It is nature’s. The human scene is not some philosopher’s garden, but a confusing, dark struggle. Through its noise and obscurity men grope, all seeking for serenity, few finding it. And some of us, though we have not completely demonstrated our principles, believe that we know how they may make themselves both better and happier. Can we withdraw into books and their abstrusities when men need insight into their souls, balms for their wounds, and healing of their sorrows? …”

“But if so,” Elisha cried out, “it will go on forever. If they possess no certainty and are never fully convinced of anything men will always take refugee in aphorisms and maxims. I am not insensitive to human suffering, but the slow cure is sometimes the surer … only if there be first an indisputable interpretation of reality and a moral system drawn from it, will men be able to live, as engineers and architects work, with assurance.”

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.”

“As you spoke,” Elisha [said] … “I detected a gap in your argument—you left unabridged the interval between innate ideas and the syllogism you quoted. After all it is a far cry from the assertion that if equals are added to equals the results are equals, and the major premise, ‘All men are mortal.’ The former is indeed a judgment of pure reason. The latter, on the other hand, involves the concepts ‘men’ and ‘mortality’ and an inference as to their association—all derived from sense and hence subject to all the uncertainties of physical experience.

“Now my question is this: how do you make the transition from innate ideas to such generalizations as the universal mortality of humanity? …

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?

The answer is simple. The concepts and conclusions of arithmetic, which generalize an enormous amount of experience, reflect in abstract form those relationships in the actual world that are met with constantly and everywhere…

At the same time every abstract concept, in particular the concept of a number, is limited in its significance as a result of its very abstractedness. In the first place, when applied to any concrete object it reflects only one aspect of the object and therefor gives only an incomplete picture of it… In the second place, abstract concept cannot be applied everywhere without certain limiting conditions.

— A. D. Aleksandrov, et al., Mathematics: Its Content, Methods, and Meaning

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?

“Besides, I have been rereading the skeptical philosophers recently and have been impressed by one of their standard arguments. Every syllogism, they contend, rests on a first premise. Either you posit that premise as an act of faith, in which case it is patently impossible to speak of its absolute sureness, or else you derive it from another syllogism … Somewhere you must stop and say, ‘Here I shall believe without proof.’ Then what becomes of the claim to certainty?”

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.

“… For all truth rests ultimately on some act of faith, geometry on axioms, the sciences on the assumptions of the objective existence and orderliness of the world of nature. In every realm one must lay down postulates or he shall have nothing at all. So with morality and religion. Faith and reason are not antagonists. On the contrary, salvation is through the commingling of the two, the former to establish first premises, the latter to purify them of confusion and to draw the fullness of their implications. It is not certainty which one acquires so, only plausibility, but that is the best we can hope for.”

“… In all men there is a relentless drive to know and understand. My destiny became one episode in an eternal drama. In generations to come, others will desert the beliefs of their fathers and go seeking what I thought, others will put their trust in the intellect and strive to build philosophies and moralities after the fashion of the geometry book. If only I could discover some way of bequeathing to them my hard-won conclusion, that the light of man’s logic is too frail, unaided, to prevail against the enveloping darkness, that to reason faith is a prerequisite—then my career should not have been unavailing…”

Meir loved Elisha:

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

“Yes,” Elisha said reflectively, “—and no. It is true that I seek, that I have always sought what they have in the city yonder. That is the fantastic intolerable paradox of my life, that I have gone questing for what I possessed initially—a belief to invest my days with dignity and meaning, a pattern of behavior through which man might most articulately express his devotion to his fellows. In a sense it has all been a long arduous journey in a circle, whereby I have returned to my point of departure.

“And yet I may not enter. For those who lie there insist, at least in our generation, on the total acceptance without reservation of their revealed religion. And I cannot surrender the liberty of my mind to any authority. Free reason, my son, is a heady wine. It has failed to sustain my heart, but having drunk of it, I can never be content with a less fiery drought.”

“Then what awaits you, Master?”

Elisha raised his eyes to the distant hills.

“Older, sadder, wiser, I go seeking now, through faith and reason compounded, the answer to this baffling pageant which is the world.”


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.