Cynthia Ozick’s thesis for her M.A. degree was titled “Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James,” an exercise that she later thought of as a first step in an act of devotion that resulted in her belief in the exclusivity of art. In effect, as a result of studying Henry James, she became, she believed, a worshiper at the altar of art, a devotee of the doctrine of art for art’s sake. This idea—one that many believe places art before life, form before content, beauty before truth, aesthetic enjoyment before moral behavior—became the belief system that led Ozick to conclude that to worship art is to worship idols—in effect, to break the Mosaic law. This kind of understanding led Ozick to study the Jewish textual tradition and the role of Judaism in Western culture.
In the 1980’s, Ozick began to realize that creative writers needed to use the highest powers of imagination to posit an incorporeal god, as exists in the Jewish faith, and to put forth a vision of moral truth rooted in the history, traditions, and literature of the Jewish people. Ozick’s success in this endeavor is manifested not only in her identification as a Jewish American author but also in the number of awards she has received from representatives of the Jewish people. Perhaps most important, however, is her own satisfaction that in her writing she is serving and has continued to serve the cause of moral truth according to Mosaic law.
A highly serious approach to art as embodying moral imperatives, however, is not necessarily one that eschews metafictional techniques, repetitions, reworkings, and story sequences. Happily, in her use of self-referential devices and other dazzling postmodern presentations of the fantastic, the irreverent, and the grotesque, Ozick’s techniques are relevant to the traditions and teachings of Judaism, where magic, dreams, and fantastic occurrences are ways to embody and convey truth.
“The Pagan Rabbi”
“The Pagan Rabbi” is a case in point. It is the story of Isaac Kornfeld, a pious and intelligent man who one day hangs himself from the limb of a tree. Isaac’s story is told by a friend who has known Isaac since they were classmates in the rabbinical seminary and who is a parallel character to Isaac. In the same way that the narrator and Isaac are counterparts, the fathers of both men are set up as opposites who agree on one thing only—that philosophy is an abomination that must lead to idolatry (the worship of false gods). Though the fathers are rivals, the sons accept the apparent differences in their own personalities and remain friends. In time, their different ambitions and talents separate them. The narrator leaves the seminary, marries a Gentile, and becomes a furrier; Isaac continues his brilliant career in the seminary and achieves the peak of his renown at the time of his death, when he has almost reached the age of thirty-six. The narrator, now a bookseller separated from his wife, learns that Isaac has hanged himself with his prayer shawl from a tree in a distant park. Immediately, the narrator takes a subway to the site of the suicide; Isaac’s behavior seems totally alien to his character and personality.
In the remainder of the story, Ozick attempts to explain the odd circumstances of Isaac’s death, and, by means of the parallelisms, inversions, and doublings, point to the ramifications of leaving the intellectual path for the mysteries and seductions of the unknown world of fantasy, magic, and dream. Apparently Isaac, shortly after his marriage, began to seek different kinds of pleasure that may have been associated with the marriage bed and the beautiful Scheindel. In line with marriage customs, Scheindel covers her lustrous black hair after the wedding ceremony and subsequently bears Isaac seven daughters, one after another. As he fathers each daughter, Isaac invents bedtime stories for each, relating to such aberrations as speaking clouds, stones that cry, and pigs with souls. At the same time, Isaac shows an inordinate interest in picnics in strange and remote places.
As Isaac behaves in odder and odder ways for a rabbi, exhibiting unhealthy (because excessive) interest in the natural world, Scheindel becomes more and more puzzled and estranged, since she has no interest in old tales of sprites, nymphs, gods, or magic events. Scheindel’s refusal to countenance anything magical is in counterpoint to her escape from the electrified fences of the concentration camp, which seemed a miracle of chance. Isaac’s notebook offers little explanation for his behavior, though it is filled with romantic jottings, quotations from lyric poets, and a strange reference to his age, using the means of counting rings as for a tree. Below this unusual computation, Isaac has written a startling message: “Great Pan lives.”
The narrator begins to understand more as Scheindel reads a letter written by Isaac and left tucked in his notebook. The letter makes clear that Isaac has eschewed deeply held Jewish beliefs to accept a kind of animism or pantheism, where all matter has life and, moreover, soul, although all matter except for human beings can live separate from their souls and thus are able to know everything around them. Humans cannot live separate from their souls and thus are cursed with the inability to escape from their bodies except through death. Isaac concludes that there may be another route to freedom—exaltation and ecstasy by means of coupling with a freed soul. The idea, once conceived, needs a trial, and Isaac’s efforts are subsequently rewarded by the appearance of a dryad, the soul of a tree. The dryad’s lovemaking brings Isaac to marvels and blisses that no man, it is said, has experienced since Adam. Isaac errs, however, in trying to trap the dryad into his own mortal condition. In so doing, he loses his own soul. His soul free, Isaac’s body is doomed to death. More important, however, the soul retains the visage of the rabbi, who has been and will be the one who walks indifferently through the beauties of the fields, declaring that the sound, smells, and tastes of the law are more beautiful than anything to be found in the natural world.
Scheindel’s repugnance toward, and lack of charity for, her husband’s folly surprises the narrator and turns him away from her. The narrator is able to appreciate the subtlety of the rabbi’s thinking and the bravery of the pursuit, but Scheindel is one who guarded the Mosaic law with her own wasted body during the Holocaust, and Scheindel is the issue here—not intellectual subtlety—she who seemed doomed to death when she was seventeen years old, she who traded her youth and vitality for marriage to a Jewish rabbi. After his conversation with Scheindel, and as an ironic afterthought, the narrator goes home to clear his house of his three paltry houseplants. His gesture next to Isaac’s forthright...
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