by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Why Pets Don't Go To Heaven
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
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
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
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.
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