With all the recent caterwauling about who and where one can pray at the Western Wall, I wondered if Jerusalem’s army of stray cats might unknowingly be serenading us with a solution. Since in the Talmud it says that “In all creation there is nothing that lacks a Divinely-appointed purpose,” I thought that the hundreds of feral cats I saw during a recent visit to Israel should have should have a voice in the matter.
Let me explain. On a July visit to Jerusalem to attend a family bat mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch which happened only a few days after a resolution creating a Israeli government sanctioned egalitarian prayer section at the southern end of the Western Wall had blown up, I was worried that somehow the event would somehow be caught up in protest.
Walking down the stairs that led to the platform where the bat mitzvah would take place, I saw slinking among the tumble of ancient stones at the base of the wall, a skinny grey cat. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as according to one estimate, Israel has around 2 million such cats, and we saw them on the streets, alleys and dumpsters of Tel Aviv. Local legend has it that he British introduced them in the 1930’s to control the rat population, and today local and national governments have been slow to introduce neutering as a means of control. Though they are quite bold and ubiquitous, Israelis pay them no mind. At an outdoor café in Jerusalem, while the waiter was taking my order, one even made itself comfortable at my feet.
Though cats are not mentioned in the Torah, the rabbis nonetheless spent some energy in placing them in the Jewish universe. In the Talmud, the Rabbis thought cats modest because they covered their poop. They even go as far to say that if the Torah were not given, we would have learned modesty from them.
Making my way to the bat mitzvah, I wondered if the ‘modest’ cat had been invited. At the Kotel, according to several videos that I had seen, cats seemed to come and go as they pleased, one was even videoed drinking at a hand washing station. Was this a thirsty cat, or perhaps one hungry for a religious experience? Was the tabby a Conservative cat, who might try to catch the straps of our dangling tefillin? Or Reform, with fur raised, back arched, and ready for a fight over rights at the Wall? What if the cat were Orthodox, ready to hiss at about what was about to transpire?
What about the cat’s gender? Though in this egalitarian area of the wall that was not at issue, I could not help but speculate. What if the cat were male, would he be able to withstand the purring of a female? I certainly hoped so. With both a wedding and bar mitzvah going on at nearby platforms, there was already noise enough.
Thank heavens, I can report that the bat mitzvah went off without a hitch, with the Wall serving as an inspirational backdrop as well as witness that a group of men and women can pray and celebrate together in its presence.
However, afterwards, as my wife and I made our way up, around, and down to the area of the Kotel where gender did matter, things did not go as smoothly. You would think that I would know better, but walking down to the Wall, caught up in the moment, and as zoned out as any cat, I forgot where I was, and began to walk towards the wall with my wife.
Caught up in the excitement, and religious rush, we walked about halfway down to the right end of the Wall before a woman in some kind of uniform began waving her arms at me, shooing me away. “Stop,” she said. “You can’t go here.”
What a transgression. How could I have forgotten? Who did I think I was? Some kind of cat, able to go wherever I pleased. Embarrassed, tail down, I padded over to the men’s side, considering my place in Jewish life.
With all the rhetoric and position hardening, it seems, to have compete freedom at the Wall, my wife and I would have to become cats. The fur might be a little uncomfortable in the hot Jerusalem sun, but as for the ability to have access to any part of the wall, we would have it made in the shade.
As for the religious authorities controlling the wall, maybe they could become cats as well. Perhaps they would learn to walk a bit more softly, and as the rabbis said, a little modesty would be good too.