This is a very entertaining book with a perplexing, yet somehow satisfying conclusion. It's a book--a comic book--that explores Judaism while gently educating the reader on what Judaism actually is.
As a seeker and a Jew, I found myself in my adult life identifying as Jewish (a Consecrated, Bat Mitzvah’d and Confirmed Jewish Woman), without really understanding what it is the Jews believe in. Honestly, I didn’t really know anything except for the very basic twist that makes us different from Christians.
It's only been in the last 5 to 10 years that I started to learn, after attending ultra-religious “Beginner” High Holiday services at Aish HaTorah in NYC. My holiday season always begins with me feeling uplifted, curious, eager to learn, a little bit lost and drunk on belief. And by the end of the ten day period, during those final hours of Yom Kippur, I always find myself poking holes in some of the logic, wondering about the role of women in Judaism, and feeling generally defensive about how much of this stuff do I really am buying into. And every year, I go back and mess around with it one more time. Those feelings--questions, doubts, all the rest--came up while I was laughing my way through The Rabbi's Cat, and are a big part of why I found this comic so affirming.
It actually is about a cat, by the way. A cat who eats a parrot and is suddenly able to talk. He lives with a Rabbi and his daughter (who the cat looooooves and calls his “mistress”), and is a complete wise-ass. What’s entertaining is that this cat ends up representing, in my opinion, Western Thought. Like me, he pokes holes in every argument, and seems to even win a few. His self-loving, anti-God stance is, honestly, witty and amusing. He’s quick and smart and I found myself rooting for him over and over again.
Our cat friend is totally base. Sexually oriented, irreverent, and out for himself. In other words, he's like every interesting person you've ever met. He’s hilarious, and it's completely delightful to hear this story through his words and thoughts.
In the first part of this book, the cat is the Rabbi’s antagonist. Sfar uses the Rabbi to gently explain aspects of Judaism that are not common knowledge to the cat and reader alike, like in the sequence after the cat tries to tell him that Adam and Eve are just symbols and were not real people. The cat explains to us, “He tells me that among Jews there are no symbols and no allegories. He tells me Jewish teaching works by analogy. He tells me I’m refusing to enter into it because my sight is clouded by Western thought. Western thought is a prehensile, predatory and in the final analysis destructive machine, my master explains.” This passage goes on for quite some time, and is fascinating from start to finish. It's no accident seeing words like “prehensile” and “predatory” used to describe Western thought--I was surprised to find out this dialog wasn't originally written in English.
Overall this entire book ends up being less about the cat and more about the Rabbi. It's about the Rabbi’s dedication to God and to Judaism as he faces the challenges of potentially losing his position (a misunderstanding) to a younger Rabbi, and losing his daughter to the same young man. He goes on a journey both physically and spiritually as he travels with his daughter and her new husband (and the cat) to Paris from Algeria. The Rabbi seems able to maintain a sort of vulnerability and childlike innocence as he navigates the twists and turns his life begins to take. He repeatedly finds himself in challenging situations with Jews who do not observe Jewish law, and though consistently uncomfortable, he never reacts angrily toward them. Until, of course, he does, and ends up breaking Jewish law himself.
What will happen? Will God strike him down? Will his whole life fall apart?
No. None of these things happen. The comic stays true to life, true to itself. And we come to the end of the story with the Rabbi asking his congregation why we follow all of these laws and traditions if we can be happy - as it seems others are - not following them?
This is a big question. This is THE big question!
And I love that the answer to this big, big, big question that has been driving this story (and many people’s lives) is a profound: “I don’t know.”
I like that. I find it wildly satisfying. I find it exquisitely right for a religious leader to honestly say that they don’t know why. It's humble. It's honest. It shows true faith to me, versus the people who try to tell you that they know the "Will" of whatever God it is that they believe in. I think its more honest to just say, “I don’t know.” And maybe even, “I don’t know. I just know that it works for me.”
All this from a comic book about a Rabbi and a cat. That's pretty great, huh?
-Nina Stone, 2012