Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Shevat 5763 - January 15, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Why Pets Don't Go To Heaven

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

When the woman identified herself as the producer of a national network television news program, I naturally sat up and straightened my tie. And she was only on the telephone.

Dropping my voice a couple of octaves to project the requisite gravitas, I asked how I might be of help. As spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, I am regularly called by reporters from Jewish papers, and not infrequently even by various general media. But it is a relatively rare occurrence to hear from a major electronic network's news department.

I imagined she sought comment on some pressing Jewish issue of the day, or perhaps that I articulate an Orthodox perspective on some Jewish religious concept. I was quickly and properly deflated by her question:

"Rabbi, what we'd like to get your take on is the question of whether pets go to heaven."

"Pardon?" I objected. She repeated herself, explaining that a survey on a popular religion-oriented website had revealed that the question of eternal reward for the four-legged or finned seemed of major concern to the participants. I responded that I really didn't think I wanted to be part of the particular program in question. I'm ready for my close- up, I told myself, but if my only line is a single word -- "no" -- the debut will hardly be memorable.

She persisted, though, and, eventually, having been given a day to think it over, I consented. What I came to realize was that if the issue was really so important to so many, there must be some reason. And then I realized the reason.

Many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time -- indeed of any time -- touch upon the special distinction of humanness. That is, those who are proponents of what they choose to call "choice," choose as well to call an unborn child a "pregnancy," or, at most, a "fetus." Dehumanizing (used here in its most simple sense) a baby makes it easier to advocate for their cause.

"Ethicist" Peter Singer has gone a significant step further, arguing for the killing of already-born babies who are severely disabled. He has written, pointedly, that "the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals must apply here, too." Or, as he more bluntly puts it: "The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee." Professor Singer advocates as well the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

And speaking of chimpanzees, Professor Singer decries "speciesism" -- the belief that human beings are inherently superior to other creatures.

All of which unfortunately casts an ominous cloud even on the entirely proper concern that animals not needlessly suffer. When "animal rights" groups advocate for better treatment of cows or chickens being bred for food, they may well simply be seeking to prevent needless pain to nonhuman creatures -- a quest entirely in keeping with the Jewish religious tradition, the source of enlightened society's moral code.

But, in our increasingly morality-shunning world, they might also be acting as the subtle advance troops for a determined and concerted effort to muddle the distinction between the animal world and the human.

Consider the astoundingly offensive but very telling title of a recent book that focuses on "the exploitation and slaughter of animals" in the contemporary world. Eternal Treblinka compares animal farming to Nazi concentration camps, decrying "the hierarchical arrangement of the world into `higher' and `lower' beings."

And so what I came to realize is that much indeed of import to the contemporary world in the end revolves around the difference between animals and humans. It is a difference that not only keeps pets from meriting heaven (or, of course, hell) because they lack true free will and the Divine mandate to utilize it, but also charges us humans with quintessential human behavior, as delineated by the Torah. Behavior that includes according special respect to human relationships, and to human life, able-bodied or not.

That was the point I tried to make when the producer and her entourage eventually shlepped their camera equipment to my office. I have no idea how many, if any, of my comments made it into the program that was broadcast, but I hope that what I had come to recognize as a truly important opportunity to raise an important point wasn't squandered.

And that some viewers may have been spurred to think about the fact that, whatever the case with pets, humans can indeed go to heaven.

But only if they earn the privilege.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.