Thursday evening the Kunis household experienced quite a trauma. I was working on my laptop at the kitchen table when a strange whimper came from our 14-year-old dog Joseph sitting at my feet. I called Cheryl over and we watched as he took in his last breath and passed away. We held each other and cried.
The shock and grief that come with the loss of a pet are real and profound. Others may not empathize with the depth of the relationship one has with a pet, but that doesn’t diminish it. Our pets are family and we love them and they love us just as much or even more. Joseph was almost always at Cheryl’s or my feet wherever we went. He slept at our feet until he was no longer able to jump on the bed. He played with us with his special Georgia Bulldog doll nudging us to toss it so he could run and get it again, again and again. He was always at the dinner table hoping to get a morsel or 2. He allowed to grandchildren to step on him and pull his hair without complaint. Sweet sweet Joey.
Today’s Torah reading reviews the laws of Kashrut: which animals can be slaughtered for food and which cannot. Thinking about the death of animals at a time like this one might ask: Does an animal’s soul live on? When we lose a loved one we are comforted by the understanding that their soul does not die and they live on with Gd in Heaven. But do dogs go to heaven?
In 1989 Hollywood released a cute animated movie called, “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” Pope Francis—who took his papal name from the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi—made it official. He told a little boy, upset about the death of his dog that his dog’s soul was now in heaven as he said, “Paradise is open to all of Gd’s creatures.” I guess there’s a certain comfort knowing that our Joey is now begging for table scraps in the next world. But do animals really go to heaven? What about sinful dogs, dogs that bite? Do pit bulls go to heaven?
Every now and then I get a request from someone to add their dog or cat to the Mishebeyrach prayer list for the sick we read in shul each week. I say “no,” but I do offer to say a private prayer for their dog with them. This question reminds me of others I’ve been asked over the years: “Can I say Kaddish for my hamster?” “Can we celebrate my dog’s 13th birthday with a Bark Mitzvah?” “Can our dogs walk up the aisle with our rings attached to their leaches at our wedding?” Since the couple asking that last question met while walking their dogs I didn’t see any harm to it. But I had to say “no” to the Kaddish and Bark Mitzvah because what’s next? Counting Fido in the minyan?
Rabbi Michael Gold, in answering some of these questions points out: There’s a fundamental teaching in the Torah regarding the status of animals. Animals are Gd’s creatures but they’re not human beings. Humans are fundamentally different from animals. Humans are created b’Tzelem Elokim, “in the image of Gd;” animals are not. Humans have both a Yeytzer Tov and a Yeytzer Ra (good and evil inclinations); animals have only one inclination—their basic instincts. Humans can obey or disobey commandments; animals cannot. Humans cannot be property; animals can be property. Humans own their animals and their pets; they do not own their children.
Today, this notion of the difference between humans and animals is under attack. There are legal attempts to give complete personhood to animals. This would mean that animals and humans would become exactly the same in the eyes of the law. Eating meat would be illegal, as would animal experimentation to develop new drugs to save human lives. Circuses that use animals and theme parks such as Sea World would have to close. One might wonder if owning pets would be allowed.
Even if the passage of such a law is unlikely, the influence of extreme animal rights proponents is very strong. Philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation, introduced the term speciesism—the favoring of humans over animals. He compares this to racism, the favoring of one race over another. Singer’s ideas have influenced groups like P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who have called the killing of 6 billion chickens for food a Holocaust. The danger of going down this path is quite obvious.
The Torah is emphatic: Tzar baaley chayim—any kind of cruelty to animals—is wrong. But in their essence, animals are different from human beings. Dennis Prager often asks groups of young people if you see your dog and a person you don’t know drowning and you could save one of them, who would you save? What would you do? Prager writes: For 40 years I have received the same results: 1/3 vote for their dog, 1/3 for the stranger and 1/3 don’t know what they would do…We need to teach—as we did throughout American history until the 1960s—that human beings are created in Gd’s image and animals are not. That is the only compelling reason to save a human being you don’t love before the dog you do love.
But do dogs go to heaven? If you’re asking whether there’s some sort of “dog heaven” in which there are cute puppies running around a special section of paradise, then, although I hate to be the one to disappoint you, the answer is “no.” However, if you mean “heaven” in the broader celestial sense, then “yes.”
Kabbalah speaks about 5 levels of the soul. Humans have a neshama, literally “the breath of Gd,” which is eternal. Humans can reach an even higher level of soul known as Chaya—literally “life.” Animals have a much lower level of the soul known as nefesh, from the Hebrew “to rest.” Gd’s presence rests within them. According to some, higher level mammals such as dogs have a higher level of soul known as ruach—literally spirit.
All of these levels of the soul encompass a basic consciousness, an awareness or sense of self. And Kabbalah teaches that all these levels of soul, upon death, return to Gd. However, unlike a human’s afterlife, in which the souls “bask and delight in Gd’s glory,” the animal soul returns to its source (the supernal world of Tohu) in an elevated state, but not with a sense of consciousness (Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharash p. 92).
So according to Kabbalah, Pope Francis is right. Both a dog’s ruach and the human neshama return to Gd. All dogs do go to heaven and it is my hope and prayer that Joey’s sweet nature will be a gift that Gd in Heaven will cherish. Amen!