Afterlife for Animals?

Jewish authorities disagree as to whether all cows go to heaven.

Of all the awkward theological questions that can be provoked by real-life crises, few are as poignant as the need to determine the afterlife destiny of a beloved family pet. Sometimes the most convenient solution to the predicament is a facile assurance that Fido is now enjoying a blissful existence in Doggy Paradise.

Jewish tradition has not been very clear on this question.

The few ancient rabbinic texts that raise the issue take the position that animals have no expectation of eternal life. This premise forms the basis of a midrashic homily on Ecclesiastes 3:18-19: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other.” From the biblical comparison, the midrash deduced that “just as beasts are fated for death and do not merit life in the world to come, so too the wicked are fated for death and will not merit life in the world to come.”

Justice for Animals

A very different position was taken by Saadiah Gaon, the tenth-century scholar whose Book of Doctrines and Beliefs was one of the pioneering works of systematic Jewish theology.

Saadiah deals with the fundamental question of why the Torah commands us to sacrifice innocent animals as an act of worship. After explaining that God has ordained matters in such a way that the time of an animal’s slaughter is metaphysically equivalent to the natural life-span of a human, Saadiah ponders whether death by the slaughterer’s knife really causes the beast more suffering than a natural demise. To this he replies that if that were the case, then the all-knowing and perfectly just God would certainly reward the beast for the suffering that was inflicted upon it.

This view was discussed by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed, though he did not attribute it to Saadiah. Instead, he ascribed it to the Mu’tazila, one of the important theological schools of Islam, a school that did in fact exert a powerful influence upon Saadiah Gaon.

Maimonides Rejects the Idea

Initially, Maimonides characterized the Mu’tazila position as “disgraceful,” and poked fun at the notion of dead fleas, lice or mice enjoying their rewards in the next world. Later on, he conceded that the Mu’tazila were motivated by a legitimate concern, that no injustice or wrongdoing be ascribed to the Almighty.

Nevertheless, the prospect of Doggy Paradise was not a valid option for Maimonides. His concept of the afterlife was a profoundly intellectual one, in which eternal life was the exclusive privilege of those who were capable of contemplating eternal truths. He accepted Aristotle’s thesis that humans, by virtue of their intelligent minds, were subject to individual divine providence. Dumb animals, on the other hand, benefit only from a general providence that guides the survival of entire species.

Mystical Approaches

A very different perspective on the issue was introduced by the Kabbalah, and especially by the rise of the Hasidic movement in eastern Europe.

One of the most bitter struggles waged by the Hasidim against the Jewish establishment had to do with the mechanics and administration of ritual slaughter. Not only did they appoint their own shohetim [slaughterers], but they also insisted on the use of specially sharpened knives.

On one level, the Hasidic position was motivated by their suspicion that the communal authorities, who had come to rely on the taxes paid to the slaughterers as an important source of revenue, would not be stringent enough about disqualifying meat that was halakhically unfit.

There was, however, an additional dimension to the controversy, one that derived from their distinctive beliefs about the destiny of the soul.

Like many adherents of the Kabbalah, the Hasidim believed in the doctrine of gilgul, the transmigration of souls. According to this belief, those persons who are not quite ready to be admitted to Paradise are sent back into the world until they succeed in repairing their spiritual state. The souls of sinners have to rise through the stages of inanimate objects, plants and animals before being allowed to resume their human status. Kosher animals, such as cattle and sheep, are the penultimate stage in the scale of spiritual ascent, such that the slightest flaw in the slaughter can prevent the soul from achieving its final restoration.

By building on this theological premise, Hasidic ideology was able to offer a compelling new reason to be exceedingly scrupulous about the procedures for slaughtering. That poor cow whose neck is stretched out under the knife might well house the soul of a repentant sinner, whose last chance for eternal serenity depends on the performance of the slaughter according to the strictest standards of Jewish religious law.

This idea was promoted with especial vigor by students of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, such as the Maggid Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch. For this reason, manuals for the use of professional slaughterers would include calls to repentance and special prayers, in which the slaughterers expressed the hope that they were spiritually worthy of the awesome metaphysical responsibility that they bore.

Hasidic folklore told bloodcurdling tales about the dreadful punishments that awaited negligent slaughterers in the next world, such as the one who was doomed to spend the afterlife standing on a rooftop, slashing his own throat until he dropped to the earth, and then rising again and repeating the bloody pattern for all eternity.

Reprinted with permission of the author from the Jewish Free Press (June 6, 2002).

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