Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

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...

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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 danger in Isaac’s life: By the end of the story, his fertile imagination is no longer compatible with the intellect of the scholar. His internal division is played out at the scene of his suicide, in which Ozick makes concrete the rabbi’s moral dilemma. Isaac’s soul, the embodiment of his life of study, laments the fact that he was abandoned by his owner. Kornfeld’s romantic imagination, represented by the dreamy image of Iripomooéià, recalls the visionary works of the English poet William Blake. Isaac’s radically splintered consciousness can no longer balance the narrow confines of a rigorous intellect with the freedom necessitated by a supremely romantic imagination.

In a larger sense, Isaac’s plight can be seen to represent the timeless struggle between the constraints of tradition and the artist’s need to transcend boundaries. Isaac’s abortive attempts at writing certainly cast him in this role. His immensely imaginative mind simply could not find adequate expression in scholarship. When his imagination no longer found satisfaction in searching for textual meaning, he constructed a world of Pan and sprites in a decayed city park that reeked of excrement. Rabbi Kornfeld lost contact with reality.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

Death and Mourning
This story focuses on the theme of death and mourning. It begins with the death by suicide of Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld. In visiting Sheindal, the rabbi’s widow, the narrator implicitly ‘‘asks the unaskable’’—what is the meaning of the rabbi’s suicide? The narrator’s own father, also a rabbi, had declared him dead when he decided to leave rabbinical school and, following traditional Jewish mourning practices, he ‘‘rent his clothes and sat on a stool for eight days.’’ The narrator’s father never spoke to him again, eventually dying without another word to his own son. The narrator declares that ‘‘it is easy to honor a father from afar, but bitter to honor one who is dead.’’ In discussing Isaac’s suicide with Sheindal, the narrator blurts out, ‘‘What do you want from the dead?’’ Isaac’s philosophical and theological musings, left in his letter and notebook, also address themes of death, in relation to the soul: ‘‘There is nothing that is Dead. There is no Non-life. Holy life subsists even in the stone, even in the bones of dead dogs and dead men.’’ In recording his discussion with the Nature goddess, the rabbi reports that she told him, that, in men’s praise of Nature, ‘‘It is not Nature they love so much as Death they fear.’’

Marriage and Family
The narrator’s quest for the meaning of the rabbi’s suicide is in part an attempt to make sense of his own experiences of marriage and family. His father having declared him dead, the narrator married a non-Jewish woman, clearly out of rebellion. At the Orthodox wedding between Isaac and Sheindal, the narrator becomes aware of his non- Jewish wife’s negative attitude about Jews and Judaism, and compares their secular wedding in a courthouse to the religious ritual of the Orthodox wedding. The narrator’s initial plan to woo and marry Sheindal, after Isaac’s suicide, is a swing in the opposite direction, a desire to reconnect with an Orthodox Jewish life after the failure of his marriage to a non-Jewish woman. In the end, however, the narrator’s desire to reconcile his failed relationship with his dead father, a rabbi, by marrying the widow of a rabbi, is negated when he finds that, much as his own father refused to forgive him for leaving rabbinical school, so Sheindal refuses to forgive her dead husband for leaving his Jewish faith in the pursuit of paganism.

Crisis in Faith
This is the story of an Orthodox rabbi’s secret crisis in faith, as revealed posthumously through the note and letter he left upon his suicide. The worldrenowned rabbi develops a secret life in which he addresses theological and philosophical questions concerning the pagan worship of Nature. The rabbi’s extreme crisis in faith, which results in his suicide, parallels the crisis in faith of the narrator, who chose not to pursue his father’s rabbinical career. Ozick’s writing often addresses crises in faith of Jewish people in secular America. The seduction of the Orthodox rabbi by a pagan goddess of Nature represents the seductiveness of secular, non-Jewish society to many modern Jews.

Nature
The ‘‘pagan rabbi’’ is seduced away from his Jewish faith by a goddess of Nature. He becomes preoccupied with Nature in the form of the plant world, and with literary and philosophical references to Nature. His notebook contains quotes from the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, whose poetry focuses on Nature as a source of inspiration. Nature is posed in opposition to Jewish theology. Having been exposed to such musing on the part of the rabbi, at the end of the story, the narrator finds himself flushing his three houseplants down the toilet. This is a highly enigmatic ending. Is the narrator negating any evidence in his own home of the worship of Nature? Is he, in effect, liberating the houseplants, by sending them back into nature, via the public sewer system, through which they will end up in the river of sewage by the park where the rabbi hung himself? Is this story a condemnation of paganism? These questions are left for the reader to interpret, without clear guidance from the narrator.

Forgiveness
Forgiveness is an important theme of this story, in terms of the relationships between characters in the context of their Jewish identity. The narrator’s father is unable to forgive him for choosing not to become a rabbi. The father’s inability to forgive is so extreme that he declares his son dead and never speaks to him again. The narrator’s psychology is deeply rooted in the bitterness of being cast out by his own father. When, in the end of the story, the narrator sees that Sheindal is unwilling to forgive her dead husband for his ‘‘paganism,’’ he is reminded of his own father’s obstinacy, and loses any desire to marry her.

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