Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The key to understanding “The Pagan Rabbi” lies in a quotation from an early rabbi that precedes the story. Loosely paraphrased, it warns of the danger in trying to combine one’s studies, presumably religious in content, with an appreciation of nature. Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld suffered precisely this fate, and could not live with the consequences. The rabbi’s fall from grace may be viewed as a tragedy in the classical sense of the word: A brilliant Talmudic scholar, in the prime of life and at the top of his field, destroys himself through his own flawed character. Cynthia Ozick undercuts what otherwise would be a somber story through the ludicrous events that led up to Kornfeld’s demise. His desperate obsession with picnics and his belief that he had sex with a dryad stand out in particular. In this sense, Ozick’s tale may be said to be tragicomic. The message is not that one should avoid nature, and the author is certainly not condemning Orthodox Judaism. She is pointing out the risky nature of trying to serve two masters, attempting to reconcile polar opposites. In Isaac’s case, it was nature and his religion. The consequence of the rabbi’s plight was a split consciousness, one that pitted his romantic yearnings against tradition.

Although the rabbi’s skill at explication was unparalleled, the story also points out that his imagination was so remarkable that he could “concoct holiness out of the fine line of a serif.” Therein lay the...

(The entire section is 451 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

Death and Mourning
This story focuses on the theme of death and mourning. It begins with the death by suicide of Rabbi Isaac...

(The entire section is 821 words.)