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 th
Dropping my voice a couple octaves to project the requisite gravitas, I asked how I might be of help. As spokesman for a major national Jewish organization, 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 TV 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 why proponents of abortion on demand, which 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 terminating him or her.
Ethicist Peter Singer has gone a significant step further, making the case for the killing of already-born babies who are severely disabled. He has written, pointedly, that infants are
“neither rational nor self-conscious” and so “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.
In the realm of intimacy, too, the incremental abandonment of morality – of the Torah, that is, and subsequent systems based on its teachings – has led to a similar strange place. If the imperative of a man-woman union is, as sadly is the case, no longer accepted by much of society, why limit ourselves to the human realm altogether? That would constitute “speciesism.”
Indeed, one gentleman has already testified before a Maine legislative committee that proponents of a ban on animal sexual abuse are “trying to force morality on a minority”; he has also asked a judge to allow his “significant other” – who is of the canine persuasion – to sit by his side during a court case. The petitioner had been told that he needed special permission, he said, because, “my wife is not human.”
Professor Singer is supportive of jettisoning morality here too. The only conceivable reason for considering human-animal intimate relations to be unworthy of societal sanction, he cogently observes, is the belief that human beings are inherently superior. That, indeed, is the position of Judaism, and the professor rejects it summarily. “We are,” he maintains, “animals.”
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 non-human 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 sexuality, 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 to film the segment. I have no idea how
many, if any, of my comments made it into the program that was broadcast (I don’t own a television), but I hope that what I had come to recognize as a truly important opportunity to raise an important point wasn’t squandered, that at least a phrase or two of mine survived the cutting room floor.
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.
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