Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pope Francis, (l'havdil), the Rambam, and our parsha on whether pets go to heaven

The NY Times thought it worthy of front page headlines last month when it reported that Pope Francis said that even animals can make it to heaven.  What’s the big deal?  Because the "traditional" Aristotelian view, also adopted by the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (III:17), is that there is no concept of reward and punishment for animals.  According to the Rambam, only humans merit hashgacha pratis and individual reward/punishment, but Fido and Rover are no different than rocks, plants, cars or robots. 

Animal rights activists’ celebration was short-lived, as the NY Times later rewrote and updated the story (see the editor’s note at the end of the article) with an admission that it basically reported a myth as news without bothering to fact-check first (I know – shocking.)  Reuters quoted Vatican’s deputy spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini as putting it this way: ““There is a fundamental rule in journalism. That is double-checking, and in this case it was not done.”
The Rambam writes that there is no source that would contradict his view, but the Torah Temimah, unlike the NY Times, did some fact checking and was not convinced.  The pasuk in our parsha (11:7) relates that on the night of Pesach no dogs barked in the neighborhood of Bnei Yisrael.  The Mechilta comments that the dogs received reward for their silence, as the Torah later writes that a person who has treifa meat should throw it to the dogs.  The Yalkut (187) writes that in the merit of their not barking the dogs were rewarded with the ability to singing shirah and their excrement is used to tan hides that are used for tefillin, mezuzos, and sifrei Torah. Don’t these sources indicate, asks theTorah Temimah, that G-d does reward (and potentially punishes) even animals?! 

The Torah Temimah answers that all we see from these Midrashim is that the dogs received some reward in this world for their good deeds.  That doesn’t mean that Fido would go to heaven, as the NY Times thought. 
Once you accept the underlying logic of the Rambam, I don’t see how that distinction works.  If animals are not subject to reward/punishment because they lack the ability to choose right from wrong, then what difference does it make whether the reward/punishment is given in this world or the next?  Furthermore, the Ramban in Parshas Noach (ch 9) takes the Rambam’s position a step further and writes that punishment is not given to animals even in this world:

תמה אני, אם הדרישה כמשמעה, מיד החיה כמו מיד האדם להיות עונש בדבר, ואין בחיה דעת שתיענש או שתקבל שכר. ואולי יהיה כן בעניין דם האדם לבדו, שכל החיה שתטרוף אותו תיטרף כי גזרת מלך היא, וזה טעם סקול יסקל השור ולא יאכל את בשרו

The Ramban has to explain that the punishment given to a shor haniskal is a “gezeiras melech,” but if not for that special gezeirah, a shor or any other animal would not be subject to punishment even in this world.
R’ Noson Gestetner gives a simpler answer to the T”T’s question. The Rambam himself writes that while Hashem does not have hashgacha pratis on individual animals, he does have hashgacha on the “min,” the species.  We say every day that G-d is “masbi’a l’kol chai ratzon.”  Hashgacha may not dictate that this particular lion will catch this particular gazelle for lunch today, but G-d does ensure that  lions in general have food to eat and what we call nature continues on its course.  In a similar vein, when the Midrash promises reward to the dogs for their silence, it does not mean this or that particular dog got a reward – it means the species of dog as a whole received a reward.  What’s the difference between rewarding the species and rewarding the individual creature?  R’ Gestetner suggests that the “min” of dog or other creature is governed by an angelic “sar” that can make choices and therefore can receive reward.

Perhaps there is another possible model we can use to explain how animals can receive reward/punishment.  Rav Dessler frequently speaks about accruing reward by serving as a “kli” for someone else’s advancement in avodah.  For example, when Reuvain prays for Shimon to recover from an illness, Shimon may not have made any choice that would warrant his earning a reprieve from punishment, but since Reuvain has made a positive choice to daven based on Shimon’s condition, Shimon’s spiritual stock goes up as well.  Dogs may not have the ability to choose right from wrong, but perhaps by virtue of the fact that they served to highlight G-d’s hashgacha over the houses of Bnei Yisrael and were a kli for kedushas Hashem, they therefore deserved to be rewarded.

1 comment:

  1. Mark Twain, l'havdil, said that the difference between a man and a dog is that if you feed a starving dog, he will never bite you. Dogs deserve schar just for teaching that lesson.