‘Tales of the Holy Mysticat’ Provides a Fresh Take on Jewish Mysticism

Adler employs both wit and wisdom in using the Mysticat to explore the inner meaning of Jewish wisdom.
October 13, 2020

Rabbi Rachel Adler is a woman of many accomplishments. She is a celebrated and revered feminist theologian. She is the David Ellenson Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the author of Engendering Judaism, the first book by a female theologian to win a National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought.

And, as it happens, Adler is also a cat-lover, a category that includes the poet T.S. Eliot, the owner of YouTube star cat Maru, my wife, and me—a fact that explains what inspired her latest book, “Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom Stories by a Feline Mystic” (Banot Press). The book is an utterly charming and deeply illuminating meditation on Jewish mysticism, as explained by Dagesh, Adler’s rescue cat.

Adler’s book originated with the tales that she invented to tell her friends about her “peculiar cat.” All true cat-lovers are prone to telling such stories. But Adler concluded that Dagesh ( “Holy Mysticat,” as she dubbed him), was more than a flesh-and-blood feline. Rather, he was “a holy teacher of sorts,” and understanding his ways “through the lens of Jewish texts and practice” was a path to higher wisdom.

“Truthfully, Dagesh was not the most engaging cat I had ever lived with,” she confesses. “He was imperious, obstinate and crabby, but he radiated a complex spiritual beauty that humbled me.”

Of course, it was Adler—not her cat—who consulted the texts, and it was Adler who wrote the book. Her stories started as “a surreal joke,” as she readily concedes, but they opened a pathway for Adler and for her readers.

For example, Adler explains that the ancient rabbis divided the night into “watches,” the last of which ends with the dawn. During the last watch, the Mysticat “performs his most mundane duty as a ferocious watchcat protecting his household from things that go bump in the night.” And he honors the exhortation of the Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayyim to “arise like a lion to do the will of our Creator.” Writes Adler, “The Holy Mysticat, being more closely related to the lion than I, finds it easy to obey this dictum.”

Adler employs both wit and wisdom in using the Mysticat to explore the inner meaning of Jewish wisdom. When she puts on tefillin for weekday morning prayers, for example, the leather straps remind the Mysticat of “the state of war between the snake and cat.” (For my cat, anything long and string-like will do the same.) “The long, sinuous black strap,” Adler explains, “perfectly symbolizes for the Mysticat the primeval serpent who is, according to the Talmudic sage (one of the amoraim) Resh Lakish, also the Satan or Accuser, the Angel of Death, and the yetzer ha-ra, the Impulse to Do Evil.”

Adler employs both wit and wisdom in using the Mysticat to explore the inner meaning of Jewish wisdom.

Throughout “Tales of the Holy Mysticat,” Adler uses the same  bracing approach to Jewish learning with charm, humor, and knowledge. Dagesh prepares for Shabbat “by engaging in pre-rest rest,” she jokes. He is free to do so, she points out, “because, like [the] pious sages, he has a woman to take care of all his material needs.” The joke has a sharp edge: “The implications of this critique have never quite penetrated the Mysticat’s consciousness, but he wishes all who are preparing, in whatever humble manner, a blessed Shabbat.”

Lest the reader think that “Tales of the Holy Mysticat” is the equivalent of a children’s book for grown-ups, be assured that Adler seeks to explore every complexity of Jewish mysticism. We are told that the Mysticat, like some mystics, is an “acosmist,” which means that he believes that there is no cosmos apart from the Almighty. “Instead, as the first Lubavitscher Rebbe, the Baal Ha-Tanya, said, ‘Alz iz Gott’ (God is all that is).”

The implications of this acosmism are mind-blowing: “Our sense of being distinct, individual selves other than God is merely illusion,” Adler explains. “The entire Creation is part of God.” Adler herself dissents: “[A]cosmism seems to me to lack consistency… How else would we be able to have relationships with our Divine Other and with all the others around us?”

The Mysticat isn’t an entirely benign creature, either. One night, mistaking Adler for a demonic creature known as a mazik in the dark, he sunk his teeth into her foot. “I was as offended at being mistaken for a mazik as my sister once was when a complete stranger mistook her for the egregious Linda Tripp,” writes Adler. But the Mysticat makes amends with a face bump. “Now that Tisha b’Av is past, we had better all be setting our thoughts and actions toward teshuvah. I only hope I will do as well as he.”

Adler concludes her book with a passage that sent chills down my spine because it prefigures the actual fate of her beloved cat. “When I try to imagine the depths of the Mysticat’s prayer, I imagine it as more tactile and visual, less wordy, and more brilliant than mine,” she writes. “Perhaps he saw the light of the Garden of Eden, one of the metaphors for the perfect, untainted place to which we return when our lives are done. Perhaps, perhaps.”

The world, of course, is divided between cat people and dog people. (Only a few us are equally smitten by both species, and I am one of them.) But readers who are not comfortable with cats need not shun Adler’s enchanting book. Adler’s grandson, she reports, has a Mystidog. “[T]he Mysticat had to acknowledge that since he believes the entire creation is a part of God, dogs must be as much a part of God as anything else.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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