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As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

Milton Steinberg author of “As a Driven Leaf” is one of my most esteemed intellectual heroes and largely undervalued in the history of ideas. His insights are penetrating and his quest for religious meaning endlessly stimulating. I believe he touched uniquely in recent times upon the nerve of what drives us spiritually and the issues at the roots where truth and authentic meaning converge. Originally a follower of Mordechai Kaplan within the folds of the Reconstructionist movement perhaps slated as its future leader, he ultimately departed seeking a different notion of God. It was vital in his view to worship God as more than just a metaphor as it was in that movement, but rather one rooted in a higher and deeper reality. This would moreover be one consistent with the value of scientific and philosophical inquiry while recognizing their limitations.

I first became acquainted with his work “As a Driven Leaf” through my personal friendship with Rabbi Max Routtenberg (Blessed be his memory) known Jewish leader and intellectual and where he was a fellow congregant at Yorktown Jewish Center (Yorktown NY). After Shabbat services he approached me urging, “I think this is a book you will find meaningful.” There is nothing like a recommendation in reading from someone you profoundly respect, so I knew at that point it was vital to read it. It subsequently became a pivotal life influence. The book discloses his realization that religious belief develops from first principles which cannot be proven paralleling some other disciplines (e.g. geometry), but he never answers the question regarding their basis although implying a certain intuition. It was this pursuit of clarifying the role of this intuition that led me to further studying Steinberg. The incompleteness of this position regarding these first principles became a challenge for me and will in my own way attempt here to partially address it along with clarifying his position acknowledging that the brevity of his own life preluded his own solutions. Indeed he was involved in building his own congregation at Temple Immanuel that took him away from this effort.


In Reconstructionism God becomes a pure metaphor where according to Steinberg religious commitment, especially prayer, loses its footing and fulfillment is not thereby attained. Reconstructionism as Kaplan framed it accepts and most significantly is satisfied with this metaphorical status. It is in fact this discomfort with the metaphorical status that led him to reject Reconstructionism. Steinberg initially introduces faith (“Toward a Rehabilitation of the Word Faith”-The Reconstructionist, April 1945) and maintains that it has suffered a devastating downfall where he asserts, “No other item in the vocabulary of the Western world has fallen so spectacularly as the word faith”.

He goes on to suggest that it may be perhaps completely abandoned and asserts that the custodians of religious traditions “might substitute for the word “faith” the word “hypothesis.” However this smacks of a kind of reductionism where science becomes the model for understanding reality. Steinberg significantly subsequently abandons this model in “Basic Judaism “and instead links belief with a capacity that may regarded as intuition, but intuition in an enlightened sense. This “intuition” is brought up in connection with the struggle to seek God’s revelations through what is going on behind the scenes. He cites the philosopher/poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol in this connection in the following statement concerning the three things that stand together which bring awareness of God: “Three things stand together to bring awareness of God first the heavens, second the earth in its expanse and finally the stirring of my heart when I look inward. The heavens and earth here may be regarded as nature in all its majestic forms while the third (stirring of the heart) may be understood as human manifestations of God’s nature. A role of “intuition “is implied here by allusion to the grasped presence of God. It may perhaps here be linked to emudah or Jewish faith since it is trust driven.

This intuition, moreover, is made explicit in reference to love of God where he asserts “On this intuition of the supremacy of love Judaism stands when it proclaims that the dying (Akiva the paradigm) shall proclaim as their last words “Here O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” It is central in that this understanding is linked to an intuitive sense of value in creation derived from God. It is related here as simply something greater in magnitude or gravity than anything not physical i.e. “it would seem to resemble man’s love for anything which is not physical or in which the physical is an irrelevancy. This grants holiness and meaningfulness to the life. Moreover he explicitly spells it out in his chapter on prayer where as a prelude to prayer asserts “In intuition one experiences Him.” This vital statement on prayer thereby makes explicit what was formally implied and confers unity upon Steinberg’s perspective. It may be noted that this is consistent with Kabalistic thought which underscores it in the notion of Chochmah as a form of intuitive creativity.

Intuition is a capacity, moreover, that has been utilized in the scientific realm by Albert Einstein as its greatest promoter, but also may be discerned in other subject areas. Here Einstein by his intuitive grasp of space and time developed his special and general theories of relativity. These led to incredible predictions that are verified every time we use a GPS and continue to astonish us in applications to other areas of astrophysics. Einstein, moreover, utilized deductive reasoning subsequently (for Einstein by mathematics) as did Steinberg. Like Steinberg the intuitions did not spring up in a vacuum but against a broad enriched canvas of experience which in Steinberg’s case are life experiences particularly those entailing suffering. Both intuited something more was going on behind the scenes in terms of the greatness of nature’s magnificence with Steinberg also including human moral depth and Einstein the intelligent patterns of nature through certain equations. Einstein also intuitively grasps a mysterious greatness.

In his conclusion Steinberg cites an allegory that he states is suited to stand for everything his book tried to say. It involves a medieval Jewish tale where a traveler is halted by a river too deep to cross. He tries to empty his purse with coins to raise a pathway unsuccessfully. Finally when left with a single coin he spots a ferry he failed to notice before and realizes payment of the coin will allow him passage. Steinberg emphasizes payment of the coin represents repentance which should have been the first expenditure. I would maintain an additional second theme entirely consistent with what he asserted on intuition, namely that the ferryman represents intuition’s fruitful process and should have been his first recourse rather than analysis (e.g. the coins in building) which could serve him better later. The coins had a use but could not supplant the vital priceless gold coin of enlightening intuition.

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Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy