One warm afternoon, some time back, I attended a shiur before which the rabbi took off his jacket, approaching the group in his shirtsleeves. I was surprised to hear an older woman turn to the person beside her and comment, audibly, “Nebbish.” She said it twice – there was no mistaking it.
I think she meant he was unimpressively thin, which he was. On a deeper level, though, the woman was channeling a stereotype of the skinny, knock-him-over-with-a-feather, bookish Orthodox rabbi.
Literature has several overlapping stereotypes for the Orthodox rabbi – the overweight, socially inept glutton; the avaricious user of his flock; the strict legalist of gaunt face and sharpened beard; and the nebbish, the skinny rabbi, often young, generally a wallflower.
I just finished reading Allegra Goodman’s “The Family Markowitz” the other day (this is definitely not a recommendation for the book), and she presents several appearances of this last, uninspiring mold of rabbi. It appeals, this vision of the clergy as a bookish young man who is socially inept and unimpressive. Discounting the religious message is easier if we can assume that the rabbi is a shy milquetoast who simply lacks the ability to pursue the sins he claims to willingly shun. Think of the initial impression of Father Mulcahy from MASH, until you learn that he has a sense of humor and can do a tracheotomy with a pocketknife.
Perhaps rabbis own a certain obligation to prove that they are not this pathetic; that feeling certainly figured into my decision to return to the gym several years ago. [Granted I haven’t gone since moving to Canada…]
But I think Jewish society owes itself some degree of freedom from the stereotype, which hampers the community as much as it hampers the rabbi. Assuming that the baal mussar [author of rebuke] does not know the pleasures he condemns is a cheap way out of taking his words seriously. Better to hear what he has to say, and weigh it seriously, regardless of the conclusion.
By the end of the shiur, the rabbi had completely won over this woman; she was laughing at his jokes, participating in the discussion, and calling, “More” when he concluded his talk. So he won the battle that day. But I wonder how many times the speaker is not given the opportunity to correct misimpressions, and so a valuable message is lost.