1. Your cat serves as the moral teacher in these stories, as opposed to you. Why did you decide to use your cat as a way to lead readers on a journey through thousands of years of Jewish thought, history and practices?
At first, I wrote this series of stories to amuse friends about Dagesh, the Jewish cat. Over a number of years and a growing body of stories, I came to see the fictional Dagesh (alias The Holy Mysticat) as a holy teacher of sorts, and to use his relationship to Jewish texts and practice as a playful and unique way of learning and teaching. It is hard to say what the demarcation line is between the fictional Mysticat and my flesh and blood feline companion.
2. You say that Jews read sacred texts differently from the way other religions read sacred texts. How so?
The most important point to understand about how Jews read sacred text is that there is very seldom one “correct” meaning. A holy text abounds with meanings. The learner tries to discover some of its holy possibilities and enjoy the many meanings already on record. That does not mean the text can mean whatever you want it to. There are ground rules for interpretation. But the text is not an “it,” but instead, a “thou.” Learning text is for Jews a social act. One learns with study partners, precisely, to get multiple perspectives. The text is another study partner, a member of the learning relationship, not an object to be analyzed and set aside. When we finish a chapter of Talmud, the ritual farewell we say to the chapter is “we will return to you, Chapter (title of chapter). Learning is both relational and expansive. Jews delight in the multiplicity, or, as the anthropologists say, the ‘thickness” of the text.
3. From the first time you met the cat, you say you knew he was Jewish. How can you spot a Jewish cat?
As soon as he arrived at my apartment, he was immediately at home among the massive Hebrew volumes, purring and rubbing against them as if they were old friends. Then he inspected and approved the mezzuzot on every doorpost, my kosher kitchen, the display of silver Shabbat candlesticks, braided beeswax Havdalah candle, spicebox, menorah, and more books. He made sure he was present for all rituals, though he was not a wine-drinker. Possibly, he was a Sefardic cat, because, like most Sefardic Jews he regarded the Ashkenazic delicacy, gefilte fish, as disgusting and inedible.
4. Do you believe animals are innately spiritual?
I think it is hard to say what any complex creature is “innately.” How do we distinguish inner qualities from the impact of relationships and experiences? If you read the book of Psalms, you’ll see that its premise is that all creatures pray. Trees and plants, hills and oceans, all utter praises in the book of Psalms, thanking God for the joy of being what they are. A medieval work, Perek Shirah helpfully provided each entity with a Psalm verse appropriate to it. I am very sure that the Mysticat prayed.
5. Why do humans rely on rituals and concrete symbols to connect with God?
I speculated on this question in the Mysticat tale about tefillin. Anthropologists have studied the matter; indeed, there is now a new hybrid academic field called Ritual Studies, encompassing anthropology, sociology, literature, and drama. Bottom line, I’d say human beings use rituals and symbols because we are embodied creatures, not just heads. Our bodies convey body-knowledge to us through our senses. Rhythm and patterning in poetry, music, gesture, and dance are eloquent for us and move us to tears or to deep joy. In the tefillin story, I speculate that for the Mysticat, Jewish symbols evoked different and distinctively feline images and experiences. This made enacting the tefillin ritual rather complicated, with two creatures enacting different and contested meanings. As a souvenir, I still have tooth marks in my tefillin.
6. If there’s such a thing as a Mysticat, could there be a Mystidog?
The topic first came up when my grandson age 2, adopted an old cord with a boxy plug, and declared that he had a Mystadog. This development made the Mysticat very uncomfortable. H acknowledged that, since he believes the entire creation is part of God, dogs must be as much a part of God as anything else. However, he added, he had never encountered a dog who knew Chumash with Rashi, much less the esoteric literature of Jewish mysticism. As a rebuttal to the Mysticat’s position, there is a Mysticat Tale about Chipper, a canine student of Bible and commentaries who comes to visit and has a marvelous time learning with the humans. Fortunately, the Mysticat was meditating in the bedroom closet at the time of this visit, because Chipper, who was broadminded about foreign food, chowed down on the Mysticat’s leftover food. Interspecies Tolerance was a difficult issue for the Mysticat. He considered that he had stretched his limits by tolerating me, but dogs were even a greater challenge to his theology. Before you condemn the Mysticat, consider how many humans are still struggling with the probability that members of their own species but of a different color are nevertheless human.
7. You write about the importance of mystics sharing and writing about their visions and angelic communications. For centuries, women were prevented from doing so. As a feminist theologian, what are your thoughts on the importance of women writing about topics of spirituality and religious thought?
The Mysticat and I had many painful conversations on this issue. All of the Mysticat’s previous incarnations had been as pious (human) male mystics. He strongly resisted having his consciousness raised. But all my published work, a lifetime’s worth, is about Judaism and Gender, and I was not going to transmogrify myself into a sweet little Mysticat servant just because he had a few thousand years of male privilege behind him. Around my table many brilliant feminist scholars gathered and taught with originality and authority. The Mysticat never did declare himself an ally, but he eavesdropped a lot.
8. Do women experience the spiritual differently than men?
This question assumes a binary essentialist understanding of gender in which I do not believe. Most scholars today believe that gender is socially constructed rather than an innate, timeless quality. This explains why gender is constructed differently in different times and places. For example, the Mishnah specifies four genders, and the Gemara adds another two. But because the power to adjudicate, record, and transmit observations about religious experience was usually monopolized by cisgendered males, we have a paucity of information about anyone else’s religious experiences. We will have to revisit that question in two hundred years or so, when we have richer data on the subject.
9. What is the most important lesson you learned from the Mysticat?
I learned how that we experience altered consciousness may be as individualized as fingerprints or DNA. I finally concluded that I did not need to discover what the Mysticat’s prayers were like. It was enough to discover what mine could be. The Mysticat taught me that the most important thing we can learn from one another is the ability to love the other’s otherness. That practice at loving and learning to understand the other’s otherness moves us toward a God who is radically different from ourselves. The Mysticat loved me Despite immense differences in species, in gender, in spiritual depth and scholarship, the Mysticat came to love me, and stretching one’s understanding across mind-boggling boundaries is exactly what one must do to love God.