Afterlife for Animals?

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

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

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.

animal afterlifeNevertheless, 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.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.