“A long-lost novel by the author of As a Driven Leaf.
Infidelity, faith, and power all come together in a gripping story of the biblical prophet Hosea and his wife, Gomer.”
Behrman House 2010
ISBN: 9780874419405 (paperback)
Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob
“…a fitting memorial to a gifted rabbinic spirit. Where are such voices today?”
TORONTO. November 6/22 – Milton Steinberg was a rabbi with quite a rep when he died suddenly in 1950 at the age of 47. He was rabbi of the prestigious Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, New York City, the jewel in the crown of the Conservative movement. Membership exploded during his tenure. But he also had a rep as an educator for his seminal book Basic Judaism, and as a creative writer for his novel As A Driven Leaf, about the self-inflicted ordeal of a major Talmudic voice, Elisha Ben Abuya, who gave up on Jewish tradition for Greek philosophy, with tragic consequences.
Among Steinberg’s papers when he died was a manuscript, he called The Prophet’s Wife, which expanded a few verses at the beginning of the Book of Hoshea, into a major, but unfinished, work. It was finally published in 2010, 70 years after it was written. The publisher approached Rabbi Harold Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People) to finish it, but he demurred.
He not only brings the characters to luminous life but the lifestyle of the times. Awesome! And not a superfluous word besides, all developed around the prophet’s divinely ordained marriage to a wanton wife.
The first remarkable takeaway from the novel (in the Forward) is that the manuscript was clean. Not a note was found with it as if it had written itself with Steinberg wielding the pen. Pretty remarkable. But like As A Driven Leaf, the story is fully realized, with amazing detail of a period in biblical history we have little information about. He not only brings the characters to luminous life but the lifestyle of the times. Awesome! And not a superfluous word besides, all developed around the prophet’s divinely ordained marriage to a wanton wife.
There is not a word in the whole novel about Hoshea’s prophetic phase, and the message of doom and redemption he learned from his encounter with his contemporary Amos. It’s a very human, very young Hoshea and Gomer that Steinberg gives us, struggling to do the right thing as their conscience guides them. And those struggles are dismaying. They are so limited by tradition and custom.
Gomer is no more than a name in the biblical text. But Steinberg makes her out to be a willful young woman caught in a bad situation, with limited choices, and no strong moral sense to guide her. Her struggle for self-identity is so fraught. Hoshea comes from a traditional home, tutored by his father, with conventional expectations. The description of how those two come together as innocent adolescents is beautifully described. And the agony of separation is painful, especially as Hoshea is caught between mishpat and hesed, that is, acting according to the law, or with compassion for a woman he loves and cannot disengage from, despite her betrayal.
There are also strikingly vivid scenes that will linger long after you put the book down. There’s the whole long complex process of negotiating a match, to the ceremony, to the proof of virginity on public view, the next morning. There’s the ritual of the alternative Beit HaMikdash of the Kingdom of Israel in Beit El, the crucial encounter between Amos and Hoshea, the arrogance of the religious and political elite in dealing with the masses, and the extraordinary public trial of Amos for sedition, on the steps of the compromised Temple. But most memorable are the inner struggles of the main characters, tenderly but agonizingly rendered…decent people caught rudderless in desperate conflicts.
One inevitable takeaway is connecting with the original source in the Book of Hoshea, a mere handful of verses that Steinberg has enhanced to over 300 incomplete pages. And of course, we have the pleasure of working out for ourselves the denouement, or we can go to the afterward and see Kushner’s proposal. Or we can engage with the theme of women’s limited choices in the biblical context, in the essay Unfinished Lives that concludes the book.
In sum, this is a powerful read of a conflicted era, much like our own, but entirely Jewish, among people trying to navigate between traditional and pagan values, also much like our own time.
It’s all a fitting memorial to a gifted rabbinic spirit. Where are such voices today?♦
Ralph Wintrob is a former journalist, teacher-librarian
Do you have comments or questions about this book review? Ralph Wintrob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org