Norm Goldman

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Review: Tales of the Holy Mysticat

With her Tales of the Holy Mysticat, esteemed feminist theologian, Rabbi Rachel Adler has come up with a creative and novel way to introduce readers to Jewish thought, mysticism, history, prayer, rabbinical teachings, customs, practices, and various other aspects of Judaic traditions.

Review: Tales of the Holy Mysticat

How does she accomplish this feat? She uses her pet cat Dagesh, who lived with her for eleven years as a holy and scholarly teacher. And as she states in the Preface: “understanding his behavior through the lens of Jewish texts and practice could be a playful way of learning and teaching.” Rabbi Adler further states, “imagine animal fables in which the moral teacher is not Aesop but a cat.” If you recall, Aesop left us with a wealth of enduring and endearing lessons such as one that I vividly remember, the story of the mouse and lion that taught us the rewards of kindness and gratitude. 

No doubt, you are probably muttering to yourself, this sounds ridiculous and absurd! Yet, you have to admit that giving human attributes to a cat, particularly when the cat possesses a mystical personality, is quite creative and unique when teaching esoteric subject matters. 

At the Los Angeles campus, Rabbi Adler is professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at the Hebrew Union College. She was one of the first theologians to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into Jewish texts and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. Originally, she had posted her stories about her learned Jewish cat on Facebook, and it was her publisher, Maggie Anton, who had convinced her to make a book of them. 

The tome comprises thirty-six essays, and eight very useful appendices including, The Cycle of the Jewish Year, What is Kabbalah? Jewish Perspectives on Sacred Texts, Anatomy of the Talmud, What is Midrash? What is Halakhah, and Why Do Jews Need It? What at the Codes? And a Timeline of the Jewish World. There is also a very helpful glossary that I had to continuously consult to understand some of the terminologies.

All of the stories contain an undeniable cleverness, and some are even comical, yet, they are filled with deeper meanings and never come off as contrive. 

One such example is Bikkur Cholim Kitty, where Rabbi Adler explains that bikhur cholim( visiting the sick) is a great mitzvah (an act of grace or good deed) and is one whose reward is limitless. It is listed in Mishnah Peah 1:1. The mishnah is the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah." It is also the first major work of rabbinic literature.

Rabbi Adler recounts how one day she was sick with an upper respiratory infection, and the Holy Mysticat had changed his routine so he could be with her. She explains that the sickbed is a holy site, for the Shekinah (English transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning "dwelling" or "settling" which denotes the dwelling or settling of the divine presence of God).

Consequently, the visitor ought to seat himself or herself on a level with the sufferer. No doubt, the Mysticat is fully aware of this practice. He began his visits by reclining on Rabbi Adler's upper chest nose to nose with her. She goes onto recount that “despite the fact that this feline servant of God is exercising special healing powers, fifteen and half solid pounds of cat, directly over the site of infection, is difficult to tolerate.” Amazingly, the cat recites a few prayers for healing, and silently recites 150 psalms, which is an effective practice at a sickbed.

For example, as Rabbi Adler explains, Psalm 119 is an “eight-fold alphabetical acrostic (an important fact to remember when volunteering to memorize psalms). This makes the Mysticat's feat impressive indeed.” Through this short story, we also learn that visiting the sick is also special to the Mysticat because it provides an opportunity to imitate God, who visited Avraham in Genesis 18:1 when our ancestor was recovering from circumcision (Sotah 14a). Rabbi Adler mentions that she is fortunate to have a tzaddik (a righteous or holy person) visit her. 

Rabbi Adler's thoughtful short stories can be described as a fulsome sweep through Jewish texts and practice summarized with clarity and detail. The journey is not only instructive, but also fun.

Widely researched, Rabbi Adler certainly knows her territory! To say that I gained a new appreciation and insight into the rich diversity and endless complexity of Jewish practices and culture would be an understatement. And you don't even have to be Jewish to likewise gain the same appreciation.


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