Milton Steinberg

This Jewish thinker and Reconstructionist leader asked: Does belief in God make sense?

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Milton Steinberg was an American Conservative Rabbi and theologian (1903-50). Steinberg studied philosophy at City College in New York and took the Rabbinical course at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1928.

Rabbinic Career

Steinberg first served as a Rabbi in Indianopolis but in 1933 he became Rabbi of the prestigious Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, in which capacity he served until his death at the early age of 47. At the Park Avenue Synagogue Steinberg became renowned for his thought-provoking sermons, some of which have been published in the form of sermon notes (From the Sermons of Milton Steinberg, ed. Bernard Mandelbaum New York, 1954).

Steinberg's preaching methods have become models for modern Rabbis in their apt quotations from world literature and in their application of philosophical ideas to the traditional Jewish texts without distorting either the philosophical ideas or the texts themselves.

Steinberg was greatly influenced by his teacher at the Seminary, Mordecai Kaplan, whom he joined in Kaplan's Reconstructionist movement, contributing many articles to The Reconstructionist, the journal of the movement. Later, however, Steinberg took issue with the religious naturalism of the movement, seeing no reason why the admirable aim of reconstructing Jewish life should be tied to a reinterpretation of the God idea in naturalistic terms.

As a Driven Leaf

Steinberg's novel As a Driven Leaf (Indianopolis, 1939, and frequently republished) has as its hero the tragic figure, Elisha ben Abuyah, the second-century Rabbi, colleague of Rabbi Akiba and teacher of Rabbi Meir, who became an apostate, torn as he was between his loyalty to Judaism and the allure of Roman life and civilization.

As a powerful novel of ideas, this work had a considerable influence on questing Jews obliged to grapple with problems similar to those faced by Elisha, albeit against a different cultural background.

Steinberg was also a leading Zionist; his positive attitude to Zionism can be observed in the posthumously published essays: A Believing Jew (ed. Maurice Samuel, New York, 1951).

Religion & Philosophy

Steinberg's mature thoughts on religion are presented in the posthumously published Anatomy of Faith (ed. Arthur A. Cohen, New York, 1960). Steinberg here presents Judaism as a religion which, while, like any other religion, based on faith, is supported by reason. To be sure, the medieval thinkers who sought to prove the existence of God were swayed too much by logic and failed to appreciate that 'reason can always argue against reason,' yet an anti-intellectual approach to religion is similarly misguided.

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