An Interfaith Friendship

Published March 30, 2021 by Wendy Smith

While studying the Woolf Institute course Representations of Jewish Christian Relations in Literature, I read for the first time George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda and looked into the relationship between Herr Klesmer, a Jew, and Catherine Arrowpoint, who is not Jewish. Eliot describes Herr Klesmer as 'a first-rate musician' and 'one whom nature seemed to have first made generously and then to have added music as a dominant power'. Klesmer becomes Catherine's piano teacher and love develops between the two of them. This made me think how friendships of all kinds between people of different faiths may start with a mutual interest, rather than by sitting down and saying 'Let's talk about our respective religions'.

My own religious background is within Christianity and I have enjoyed a friendship over the last thirty years with a Jewish lady, with whom I have had many interesting discussions about music, both religious and secular, history and prayer and ritual, in our respective places of worship and in the home. Reflecting on how this friendship first started, I remember a discussion which she and I had at an interfaith conference about our shared love of cats!

Using these experiences as a starting point, I decided to do a little exploration into cats in Judaism and Christianity, particularly when used to illustrate sacred texts. Recently, I was delighted to come across some medieval illuminated Haggadot in the Bodleian Library in Oxford which depict a cat beneath the seder table at Pesach, at the feet of the celebrating family. The supple body of a cat is an easy 'space-filler' but it seems as though the presence of the cat goes beyond the purely aesthetic. In one Haggadah, the cat itself comments on its task: 'Behold, I bite the mouse, lest he eat the grain'. It seems that cats may have been 'invited' to catch mice which might bring in some crumb of bread after the householder had cleaned all of the hametz out of the house, thus providing an 'answer' to the problem of whether it is necessary to search the house again if a mouse brings in hametz after the house has been searched and cleaned. In one 15th century Italian manuscript the man of the house appears to be 'shaking hands' with the cat in a gesture of welcome.

Credit: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

Cats also feature in the Christian manuscript, the Book of Kells, the date of which is subject to some debate but seems to be from the late 8th or early 9th century and which is housed today in the Old Library of Trinity College, Dublin. A poem called 'Pangur Bán', written in the 9th century by an Irish monk about his cat, highlights how cats were kept as pets during the time that the Book of Kells was created. As well as cats' supple shapes being excellent space-fillers of margins of manuscripts, their role as expert rodent-catchers is again to the fore. In addition to safeguarding the day-to-day food supplies of the monks who created the Book of Kells, the cats are also shown protecting the sacred, including one cat which is pursuing a rodent which seems to have a communion host in its mouth.

There is of course no mention of the domestic cat in the Torah nor in the Christian Bible but my friend and I enjoyed sharing pieces of folk-lore, including the story that God created the cat to enable Noah to control the rodent population on the ark and the story that 'explains' why the Manx cat has no tail. According to this, the Manx cat was the last of the animals to enter the ark because she was busy hunting. Eventually, Noah had to close the door. The Manx cat managed to squeeze through but lost her tail as the door slammed shut.

Wendy Smith has undertaken Woolf Institute online courses, Religion is… and Jewish-Christian Relations in Literature, and is about to begin the brand new online course, Gender and Religion Today.

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