QUESTION: When our beloved family dog died, our young son asked if we would go to Heaven. I didn’t know what to answer. Do animals have souls, according to Judaism, and is there a correct way to dispose of their bodies?
Rabbi Brawer: The mainstream view in Judaism is that animals do not have immortal souls.
Ecclesiastes Rabbah (3:18) asserts animals do not have an afterlife.
Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed 3:17) was of the view that animals are not rewarded in the afterlife. He bases this on the fact that there is no support for such a view in the Talmud.
Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a leading mystic in 16th-century Safed, recognises that animals do have a spiritual energy, which he calls nefesh heyuni, which animates them, but that it is not a soul in the conventional sense. Once the animal dies and its body decomposes, the energy — or as he calls it — light of the nefesh hiyuni simply goes out.
It was Rabbi Isaac Luria, a younger contemporary of Moses Cordovero and the founder of a new system of Kabbalah, who probably contributed more than anyone to the notion of souls in animals. This is the outcome of his idea of transmigration of souls, known as gilgul neshamot. Simply put, he taught that a human soul may rebirthed many times in different bodies.
Sometimes a human soul may even come back trapped as it were, in an animal body for the purpose of some rectification. And so the issue is not whether the animal has a soul of its own, but rather whether a particular animal may be housing the soul of a human. Rabbi Luria’s doctrine influenced the early Chasidic movement in their scrupulousness over ritual slaughter. It was believed that since a human soul might be trapped in the animal about to be slaughtered, it was crucial the ritual act be of the highest religious standard in order to release the trapped soul so it can ascend back to its source in heaven.
Finally, the term “animal soul” appears in the classic Chasidic work of the first Chabad Rebbe, the Tanya. But there it is not referring to the soul inside an animal but rather the animalistic soul that co-resides in a human alongside a divine soul. The tension between these two souls is the central axis on which this classic Chasidic work revolves.
Drawing all of this together, I would say your dog does not have a soul in the sense that we apply the term to humans. However, its existence was no less part of the miracle of life. As such it should be laid to rest with dignity.
Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation
Rabbi Romain: This seems a very specific question, but it opens up vast areas, as much depends on what we think happens to human souls. Are they separate from our body? Do they live on or die with it? If they carry on, where do they go? If they do go to heaven, do they maintain a separate identity or merge away — perhaps like drops of rain that fall into a puddle, they are there but no longer distinguishable?
It might be tempting to assure him that your pet is running around happily in a doggy heaven
It is to the great credit of Judaism that it has always been honest enough to say “We don’t know”. The rabbis preferred to concentrate on this world, declaring that what occurs next is speculation. We want to know, but cannot, and will have to wait until the time comes.
It might be wise to adopt the same pragmatic approach with your son, telling him that we are not sure (parents can say that without losing authority) and all we know is that we had a wonderful time with the dog while he was alive, that he is not with us anymore and it is right that we miss him and cry, but also smile as we remember those good times together.
It might be tempting to assure him that your pet is running around happily in a doggy heaven, but it is important we do not tell children things that they will unlearn later, with the result that they will then challenge everything else that went with it.
A more matter-of-fact attitude is also helpful in preparing him to deal with human mortality, especially losses in the family, so he understands that death is natural and normative, not a punishment or something to be feared as a ghastly journey into the unknown.
If you have a garden, the dog can be buried there — or the vet can cremate and you can scatter the ashes by his favourite walk — along with a short service in which you talk about him and particular antics you recall fondly.
Why not also say Kaddish and link it into your Jewish life? Covering the body up and making a marker are helpful physical acts — very much in keeping with the Jewish way of expressing moments and feelings through concrete actions. The key question is not whether the dog has a soul, but have you helped your son to mourn.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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