What Might a Cat Say?

In the award-winning ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ (Le Chat du Rabbin) by Joann Sfar, which ‘The Boston Globe’ calls, ‘An affecting, fraught, and yes – sometimes hilarious tour de force about the complexities of living faithfully in a godless world’, a rabbi’s cat begins to talk after he eats a parrot. In one part, the cat narrates the story and says…

‘He [the rabbi] wants me to study the Torah and the Talmud – the Mischnah, the Gemara. He wants to put me back on the straight and narrow [because I lied about not eating the bird]. He tells me that I have to be a good Jew, and that a good Jew does not lie. I answer that I am only a cat. I add that I don’t know if I’m a Jewish cat or not. The rabbi tells me that of course I’m Jewish since my masters are Jews. I tell him that I’m not circumcised He tells me that they don’t circumcise cats. I tell him that I haven’t had a Bar Mitzvah. He tells me that the Bar Mitzvah occurs at thirteen years of age. So I tell him that I am seven years old, and for cats, the years are multiplied by seven; therefore, it’s as if I were seven times seven years old, which is definitely more than thirteen. I tell him that if I am a Jewish cat, I want to be bar-mitzvahed, We go to the rabbi’s rabbi to ask him if a cat that talks can be bar-mitzvahed. The rabbis rabbi says no, that Bar Mitzvahs aren’t for cats, I ask him what the difference is between a human and a cat. He replies that God made man in his own image. I ask him to show me a picture of God. He tells me that God is a word.

I say to the rabbi’s rabbi that if man resembles God because he knows how to talk, then I resemble man. He says no. Because my speech is evil. Because I acquired it in an act of killing. I tell him that it isn’t true, that I didn’t eat the parrot. He says that, even worse, I am a liar. I say that with speech, you can say what you want, even things that aren’t true, that it’s an amazing power, that he should try it. The rabbi’s rabbi tells the rabbi that he doesn’t want to see me anymore and that I should be drowned. The rabbi tells his rabbi that He won’t drown me because he loves me and I don’t water. And I tell the rabbi’s rabbi that I am God, who has taken the appearance of a cat in order to test him. I tell him that I am not at all satisfied with his behavior. I tell him that he was as dogmatic and obtuse with me as some Christians are with Jews. He gets on his knees and begs my forgiveness. I tell him that it was a joke, that I’m only a cat, and that he can get up.

The rabbi’s rabbi says that I blaspheme and that I lie and that I usurp the name of God and that I should be disowned. The rabbi asks him if a rabbi shouldn’t systematically accept contradiction from his students, if that isn’t the very basis of Talmudic teaching. Contradiction, yes, malice and malevolence, no, replies the rabbi’s rabbi. Students should bite their masters the way puppies do. In Jewish tradition, the dog is a good animal, says the rabbi’s rabbi, because it is honest, persistent, and prepared to suffer for the common good. As for cats, pff! You can’t trust a cat. I ask the rabbi’s rabbi where in the Bible he found this praise of dogs. He doesn’t know. He answers by talking about the oral Torah that wasn’t fully written down. He speaks of the spirit of the law rather than the letter. And then he tells me that the Greeks believed the dog to be the epitome of the philosophical animal. The dog is not that cat. I reply that the Greeks destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and if a rabbi ends up calling on them for help, it means he’s run out of arguments. He tells me that the Torah speaks more of humans than of dogs or cats, and that the question I’ve raised is pointless.

I tell him that’s enough. That I want to have a Bar Mitzvah. I tell him that I want to convert to Judaism. He asks me why. I tell him that if I am a good Jew, the rabbi will let me spend time with his daughter. I explain to him that the rabbi’s daughter is my mistress. That I can’t live without her, because she is my joy, and love is a beautiful thing. He tells me that my motives for converting to Judaism are unsatisfactory, that my love of God isn’t sincere. I never said anything about love of God. He explains to me that to become Jewish, you have to fear God and put yourself under his protection and cherish him. He says that a Jew must see in all things the presence of God. He says that thinking of God fills even the grayest days with sunlight. He says that the love of God must be almost carnal. He tells me that it is an intellectual love but you should always feel as though you were cradled in the arms of a master who is invincible, benevolent, and just. I tell him that this is exactly what I feel for my mistress.

He tells me that since I am a animal who walks close to the ground on all fours, I can’t raise myself up to the love of God. He says that I can only limit myself to secular and imperfect love. I answer that he blasphemes, that my mistress is true. He says that only God is true. I say that God is a reassuring myth. I say that he doesn’t have anyone to take care of him because he is old and his parents are dead. I say that I have my mistress and I will never be alone because I will die before she does. He throws my master and me out. So we end up on the street, my master and I. And I can tell that my master’s a bit angry with me. [I say…] He’s your master and you love him and I just proved to you that he’s not all-knowing. You’re even realizing that, for all the difference you feel for him, this master is less intelligent than you are. So you have no master, but you don’t want to admit that, do you, because you don’t want to end up old and alone and without anyone to turn to when you don’t understand anything. So you’re going to do all you can to make the old man look good. And the more foolishness he talks, the more you’ll call him “my master, my master, my master”, as if to convince yourself. [My master asks, “Why are you so harsh?”] I’m just trying to tell the truth, to see how it feels.’

Comments: Anyone can be a good person, who does not kill or lie, whatever faith one is of. We are in the image of a maker – ourselves, who make and remake ourselves with our thoughts, words and deeds. Is anyone who wishes to rid the ‘evil’ by killing ‘evil’ too? Was the cat offering contradiction with malice and malevolence, or with cheekiness and wit? Is it impossible to love another or all like one is supposed to love one’s subject of spiritual refuge? If animals do not deserve pure love, what is the kind of love that animal-lovers give them? The question of whether there is God aside, we can all strive to love more purely. Is the cat good or evil? Perhaps like most of us – a mix of both. [Book is available at Singapore national libraries.]

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