Navigate to News section

A Guide For the Purrplexed

How Maimonides explains the Hello Kitty controversy

Liel Leibovitz
August 29, 2014
Hello Kitty balloon at the 2009 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan. (gary718 /

Hello Kitty balloon at the 2009 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan. (gary718 /

Forget her name: Hello Kitty is no cat. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times earlier this week, an anthropologist curating a major upcoming Hello Kitty exhibition revealed that the beloved feline icon—according to its creators, Japanese cute conglomerate Sanrio—was never really a kitten, looks and all be damned. Instead, she was “a cheerful and happy little girl with a heart of gold,” who just happened to look an awful lot like an adorable, white Japanese bobtail.

You can only imagine how the Internet, our unending cat compendium, reacted to the news. But the critics are missing the point. If you’ve ever watched a lick of Disney, you know all about the famous dog duality: Goofy and Pluto are both canines, yet one walks on two legs and wears a fancy little green hat while the other is confined to barks and bones and the other attributes of traditional doghood. The same principle allows Hello Kitty to have her own pet cat, Charmmy Kitty. If you want to understand how all this interspecies fun works, just read Maimonides.

“Know that likeness is a certain relation between two things and that in cases where no relation can be supposed to exist between two things, no likeness between them can be represented to oneself,” the old master wrote in his Guide For the Perplexed. “Similarly it behooves those who believe that there are essential attributes that may be predicated of the Creator—namely, that He is existent, living, possessing power, knowing, and willing—to understand that these notions are not ascribed to Him and to us in the same sense. According to what they think, the difference between these attributes and ours lies in the former being greater, more perfect, more permanent, or more durable than ours, so that His existence is more durable than our existence, His life more permanent than our life, His power greater than our power, His knowledge more perfect than our knowledge, and His will more universal than our will.”

And that, of course, is wrong, because God is nothing like man. He hasn’t a face or a temper or anything else we might recognize. Hence Maimonides’s famed negative theology: rather than saying that God exists, the most we can argue is that he doesn’t not exist. He and us are just too different for a comparison to make any sense, and it is that realization that makes for a perfect starting point to a healthy relationship between us and our maker.

While on the subject of comparisons, I don’t mean to equate Hello Kitty with the Almighty—although generating more than 50,000 products and upwards of $5 billion in annual revenue certainly counts as transcendental—but a bit of negative theology is all we need to understand our beloved not-cat. To paraphrase Maimonides, it behooves those who were outraged this week over Sanrio’s revelation and who believe that there are essential attributes that may be predicated of Hello Kitty—namely, that She is existent, living, possessing power, knowing, and willing—to understand that these notions are not ascribed to Her and to us in the same sense.

Hello Kitty has sold so many products to so many of us for so long because she represents not a concrete notion but an abstraction, the manifestation of all that is good and adorable in an otherwise ravaged world. And we do not worship her like idolaters, dumbly bowing before what we believe are her magical powers; rather, we approach her as Maimonides did his God, with the reverence that comes only from realizing that the object of our adulation is not, in any sense that we may understand the word, real, and certainly not knowable to us. Sanrio’s answer makes perfect sense, then: all we know for certain about Hello Kitty is what she’s not.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.