Critics have noted that Cynthia Ozick’s stories are difficult. This assessment is in part due to the erudite character of Ozick’s literary style, which makes reference to literary, philosophical, and theological texts not necessarily familiar to the reader. In particular, there are many references to elements of religious doctrine, ritual, and observance practices specific to Judaism. The following essay provides a brief gloss of the key texts of Jewish theology referred to in “The Pagan Rabbi,” and their significance to the story.
The narrator mentions that Isaac Kornfeld, the thirty-six year old rabbi whose suicide initiates the story, is a professor of Mishnaic history, who had published a “remarkable collection of responsa.” To understand the significance of this, one must have a clear idea of the central texts of Judaism. The Torah refers to the first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch (from the root “five”): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Torah is taken to be the text of God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Torah in a Jewish synagogue is handwritten on parchment scrolls and kept in a special cabinet called an “ark,” removed only for special rituals and holidays. The Mishna was the first written, codified text compiling an authoritative volume of the orally taught Jewish laws, rituals, and traditions to be recorded since the Torah. The Mishna was compiled over the course of two centuries by many scholars, and completed in the early third century, A.D. Two collections of commentary on the Mishna were later compiled in a volume called the Gemara or Talmud, completed in the fourth and fifth centuries, A.D. The Talmud also sometimes refers to the Mishna and Gemara together.
The Mishna is made up of six sections, each of which is divided into tractates (treatises). The first section, Zera’im (“Seeds”), is comprised of eleven tractates, which discuss daily prayer and religious laws regarding agriculture. The second section, Mo’ed (“Festival”) is comprised of twelve tractates, which discuss the laws pertaining to ritual observance of the Sabbath and other religious holidays. The third section, Mahim (“Women”), is comprised of seven tractates, which discuss rituals and laws pertaining to marriage and divorce. The fourth section, Neziqin (“Damages”) is comprised often tractates, which discuss civil and criminal laws. Neziqin also includes the important prohibition on Idolatry (the worship of graven images), which is punishable by death. One of these seven tractates, The Ethics of the Fathers, provides guidance for a moral life that does not violate these laws. The fifth section, Qodashim (“Holy Things”), is comprised of eleven tractates, and discusses laws and rituals regarding the Temple of Jerusalem. The sixth section of the Mishna, Tohorot (“Purifications”), is divided into twelve tractates, and discusses laws and rituals of purification.
Further written commentary on the Talmud (the Mishna and the Germara), called responsa (written replies), developed in the seventh century. Responsa continue to be written (and published) in modern times, by learned rabbis. The character of rabbi Isaac Kornfeld, the pagan rabbi of Ozick’s fictional story, as a scholar of Mishnaic history, has published more than one renowned volume of Responsa at the time of his suicide. The rabbi’s apostasy, or moving away from Jewish faith, is all the more drastic in the context of his role as a scholar of Jewish law. For instance, the law against Idolatry, punishable by death, is discussed in the fourth section of the Mishna. The rabbi in the story, however, eventually gives in to “idolatry,” as he feels compelled to worship Nature over God. Yet the rabbi’s reasoning, as revealed in the letter that Sheindal, his widow, reads to the narrator, concludes that, as God resides in Nature, the worship of Nature is not idolatry at all, but merely an extension of the worship of God. Sheindal reads:
“It is false history, false philosophy and false religion which declare to us human ones that we live among Things. The arts of physics and chemistry begin to teach us differently, but their way of compassion is new, and finds few to carry fidelity to its logical and beautiful end. The molecules dance inside all forms, and within the molecules dance the atoms, and within the atoms dance still profounder sources of divine vitality. 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. Hence in God’s fecundating Creation there is no possibility of Idola try, and therefore no possibility of committing that so-called abomination.”
The rabbi thus refers to Jewish doctrine to justify his violation of that very doctrine.
In the notebook found in the pocket of the rabbi after he hanged himself, the narrator finds passages from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. The passages, scrawled in Hebrew, are ”drawn mostly from Leviticus and Deuteronomy,” the third and fifth books. One quote, which the narrator explains is “not quite verbatim,” reads: ”And the soul that turneth after familiar spirits to go a-whoring after them, I will cut him off from among his people.”
This quote is significant to the story in that the rabbi, in fact, does eventually ”turneth after familiar spirits” in the form of the spirit of Nature that he pursues in the park. He can further be said to ”go awhoring after them,” as his obsession with the wood nymph takes on a distinctly sexual element. The rabbi, as a result of his direct violation of the laws of his religion, is spiritually “cut off from among his people.” The alienation from his own religious community that resulted from the rabbi’s foray into the worship of Nature, it is suggested, may have contributed to his eventual suicide.
The rabbi’s theological and philosophical foray into the worship of Nature includes reference to Shekhina. Shekhina is a term, which in Jewish theology, refers to the presence of God in the world. It comes from the Hebrew meaning “presence” or “dwelling.” Shekhina is sometimes used in place of the word for God in the Talmud. In Ozick’ s story, the rabbi mentions Shekhina twice. In one passage of the letter that Sheindal reads to the narrator, he mentions Shekhina in relation to the ”coupling” of “mortals” with “gods.”
“An extraordinary thought emerged in me. It was luminous, profound, and practical. More than that, it had innumerable precedents; the mythologies had documented it a dozen times over. It recalled all those mortals reputed to have coupled with gods (a collective word, showing much common sense, signifying what our philosophers more abstrusely call Shekhina), and all that poignant miscegenation represented by centaurs, satyrs, mermaids, fauns, and so forth.”
The rabbi’s thought process, as recorded, is a process by which he justifies his own act of ”coupling” with the Creature, a sort of goddess of Nature. These thoughts, however, represent a complete violation of Jewish theological doctrine, a central tenet of which is the existence of “one” god. The rabbi refers to “gods,” which he then relates to Jewish theology, suggesting that Shekhina in fact represents a Jewish notion of multiple gods. One can only assume that there are complex theological discussions in rabbinical scholarship that address the significance of Shekhina, but at least at a fundamental level, it seems that the rabbi, in his thinking, is twisting a Jewish doctrine that clearly emphasizes “one” god, into a justification for his developing pagan beliefs, which in fact completely violate Jewish doctrine. This convoluted reasoning on the part of the rabbi leads up to his attempt to “copulate” with the “Creature” of the Nature goddess. He hopes, by this act, to “free my own soul from my body”:
“By all these evidences I was emboldened in my confidence that I was surely not the first man to conceive such a desire in the history of our earth. Creature, the thought that took hold of me was this: if only I could couple with one of the free souls, the strength of the connection would likely wrest my own soul from my body—seize it, as if by tongs, draw it out, so to say, to its own freedom. The intensity and force of my desire to capture one of these beings now became prodigious.”
The rabbi comes to believe that through sexual union with the pagan Creature, or goddess of Nature, his soul will achieve transcendence. The rabbi successfully calls forth the Creature to satisfy his desire when he evokes the name of Shekhina. ”As the sons of God came to copulate with women, so now let a daughter of Shekhina the Emanation reveal herself to me. Nymph, come now, come now.” Again, the rabbi uses the term Shekhina, which refers to the Jewish belief in the presence of “one” God, in order to address the purely pagan and multiple spirit of Nature, a concept totally in violation of Jewish doctrine. The rabbi then describes an ecstatic sexual experience, in which he “couples” with what seems to be “some sinewy animal.” The rabbi is fully aware that this would be a violation of Jewish law, stating that he ”believed I was defiled, as it is written: ‘Neither shall thou lie with any beast.'” But, when he finally sees the Creature, which appears as a form combining features of an adolescent girl and those of a plant or flower, the rabbi justifies his encounter by exclaiming that “scripture does not forbid sodomy with the plants.”
The rabbi describes a series of nights of passionate copulation with the plant nymph, until, one night, she tells him that his body no longer contains his soul. She points to a man walking on the road, wearing a prayer shawl and carrying “some huge and terrifying volume, heavy as stone,” which turns out to be “a Tractate. A Tractate of the Mishnah.” (A prayer shawl, also called a talith, is traditionally worn by Jewish men, wrapped around the shoulders, during prayer.) The nymph flees, and the rabbi approaches the man, who admits to being the rabbi’s soul. The rabbi’s devotion to the study of Jewish theology in books is markedly contrasted to his sexual coupling with the pagan Creature of Nature. The rabbi asks his soul ”if he intended to go with his books through the whole future without change, always with his Tractate in his hand, and he answered that he could do nothing else.” The rabbi then unwraps the prayer shawl from the man who is his soul, and hangs himself with it from a tree.
The implications of “The Pagan Rabbi” for Jewish religious identity cannot be reduced to any one simple or indisputable moral. However one may conclude that the rabbi, through his pagan worship of Nature, loses his Jewish soul. Having strayed from his study of Jewish theology, in the texts of the Tractates of the Mishna, into the pagan realm of Nature, the rabbi is no longer able to turn back to his faith. Abandoning his soul, the rabbi chooses death.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Cynthia Ozick, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “The Pagan Rabbi,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.