Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, famously said “there is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Milton Steinberg certainly did not write his book with the intention to have it critiqued, but if he was worried about that, he would not have written it all. As a Driven Leaf is a historical novel written about the Talmudic character, Elisha ben Abuyah. In light of the Talmud mentioning Elisha’s name, it refers to him as achar, other. This is because Elisha is known as a heretic; he strayed from the path of Judaism. The full story of Ben Abuyah is mysterious and leaves a lot of room for speculation. Steinberg gives a thrilling, fictitious back story about Elisha’s life. The book’s claim of the role of Hellenism on Jewish society is historically inaccurate; Hellenism was an integrated part of Jewish culture long before ben Abuyah’s time. Elisha was not the first one to try to rectify Judaism and Hellenism. Additionally, the very institution of the Rabbis is a Hellenized institution. Hellenistic influence played a role in Judea since its introduction in the third century BCE, and contrary to public belief did not disappear with the Hasmoneans.
As a Driven Leaf makes it seem as though all Hellenistic influenced was banned from Judea since the time of the Hanukah story but that is incorrect. Steinberg portrays Abuyah, Elisha’s father, as a heretic who was disliked by mainstream Jewish society. He was viewed as wrong and dangerous for embracing Hellenism. After his death, Elisha was banned from studying Greek and speaking about his father’s knowledge. Amram, Elisha’s uncle “never spoke, [about Abuyah] and the boy, sensing that references to his father were unwelcome, refrained from voicing the many questions that stirred in him. With time memory blurred and recollection awoke less frequently” (Steinberg 30). Amram burned all of Elisha’s Greek books and fired his Greek tutor. The study of anything outside of Judaism was strictly forbidden. Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, Elisha’s other and preferred teacher, was more understanding of the young boy’s questions however he still seemed to feel that Greek culture played no role in Judea at the time.
Another place in the book that implies that Greek culture played no role in Judea was the reaction Elisha gets when he presented his idea to his colleagues. Ben Azzai was in disbelief that others living in Judea would have been influenced by Hellenism. He says:
You will pardon me, I was rambling. But to be honest with you, Elisha, I see no special point to your suggestion. There is no widespread skepticism among our people to justify it. And if there were, I would not be too confident of the powers of systematic argumentation to allay it. (Steinberg 146)
Ben Azzai seems to be denying that other Jews had doubts. He made it sound as if Hellenism did not infiltrate into mainstream society. Hellenism was simply not a fear of the Rabbis at that time. They were confident that their people trusted fully in the Bible and its G-D. The effect of Hellenism on the culture seems invisible. The only effect it seems to have is the fear of it. Hellenism was not a widespread issue according to the Rabbis, only there were scared it could potentially become an issue.
The Rabbis were scared of the spread of Hellenism. In reality, Hellenism had already spread and taken over Judean culture long before the Rabbis come into existence. The Rabbis as an institution is a Hellenistic idea. The Greeks are credited with creating schools and a form of government. The Rabbis’ Sanhedrin system included levels of court. One would start at a lower level court and then work their way up to the higher courts. This idea comes directly from the Greek version of democracy. The idea of academies and scholars gathering to discuss academic works is Greek as well. As much as the Rabbis claimed to be ‘Greek free’ there existence was Greek!
Additionally, As a Driven Leaf makes it seem as if Elisha was the first to try to blend Hellenistic thought together with Judaism. Philo the Great came many years before Elisha and he, together with many others learned Greek philosophy together with Judaism. A journal on Jewish Life writes:
At the same time, Philo’s constant Herculean endeavor to assign the highest Greek philosophical value to what he considered important in Judaism, heightens the awareness of the reader of the overwhelming degree to which he was both a product of, and a protagonist in, the Hellenistic culture of his day. (Cohen)
This proves that Philo was influenced by Hellenism and he was not the only one. Philo already reconciled the Torah and Greek literature according to Goldenberg. “Philo became passionately convinced that Greek wisdom and the teachings of Moses contain the same set of truths as long as each is properly understood” (Goldenberg 110). Similarly, The Book of Jubilees and the Exagoge text both had Greek influence. Even if the Rabbis in As a Driven Leaf denied it, Hellenism did penetrate mainstream Jewish society.
Hellenism penetrated Jewish society even into the offspring of the Hasmoneans. Simon the Hasmonean’s son, John Hyrcanus, had a Greek name. Just two generations after the Hanukah story, Simon’s grandsons are named Judah Aristobulus and Alexzander Yanni. These names include a Hellenistic component and a Jewish component. A few generations later, by Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, they drop the Jewish part. These are leaders of the Hasmonean dynasty, mainstream leaders of the Jewish community. The Rabbis seem to not believe it but everyone across Judea was affected by Greek influence.
Steinberg portrays the period of the Rabbis as free from Hellenistic culture. He makes it seem as if a reconciliation of the Torah and Greek literature had never been done. The Rabbis seem to no believe that Jews were affected by Greek ideology. However, the Rabbis themselves were Hellenized by the way they operated. Philo the Great had tried to accomplish Elisha’s goal centuries before and even the Hasmonean’s names changed as Hellenistic culture dominated. Steinberg writes about Hellenism in an almost Voldemort way. It was a forbidden evil among the Jews but chances are in this time more Jews were connected to Greek culture than Jewish culture.
- Cohen, Naomi G. “Philo and Midrash.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, vol. 44, no. 2, 1995, pp. 196–207.culture of his day.
- Goldenberg, Robert. The Origins of Judaism. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Steinberg, Milton. As a Driven Leaf. Behrman House, Inc., 2015.