In past columns, you've expressed a deep love of animals. Recently, I read about a California church struggling with an aging, declining membership, whose pastor instituted a 30-minute service for dogs. The intent was to "reinvigorate the church's connection with the community, provide solace to elderly members and, possibly, attract new worshippers who are as crazy about God as they are about their four-legged friends." The article cited a survey by a religion professor which found that more than 500 churches nationwide conducted blessings for animals. The article noted a growing number of Christian churches are challenging the notion that only humans have souls. Is there some prohibition in Judaism against blessing animals? If not, what are your thoughts about this?
- M., via e-mail
Jews don't bless dogs. I wish it were otherwise, but we don't. I always wait with special anticipation for the annual St. Francis Day blessing of the animals at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in New York City. The sight of dogs and cats, camels and yaks, llamas and macaws processing up the aisle is provocative, hilarious and deeply moving. This blessing of animals helps us reflect on our moral and spiritual obligations to be good stewards of Earth and its animals.
The torture of pets and the miserable way we treat animals in food factories are sins, even if animals have no souls.
As a "puppy walker" for guide dogs and a grandson of a zookeeper, I'm deeply aware of the debt we owe to animals and the ways animals bring comfort and hope to the broken and lonely among us.
However, faith is about boundaries as much as openness. If animals have souls, there are some uncomfortable spiritual conclusions we must draw. First, we can't eat them. If animals have souls, then what the vegans say is true: "Meat is murder." I respect their point of view but don't embrace it, and neither do Judaism and Christianity because we don't believe animals have souls.
Perhaps Aristotle had an answer. He thought there were three levels of ensoulment: vegetative souls, which give plants the ability to grow; animal souls, which give them the ability to move and grow; and human souls, which give us the ability to grow, move and reason.
Seeing ensoulment as a kind of spiritual scale leading up to humans, who are made in the image of God, might provide both the limits and compassion that make faith real. We could say animals do have souls - but not souls like ours. I believe that. I'll close with a confession. Some years ago, a family with a 13-year-old dog that was dying and children with learning disabilities asked me to bless their pet. I did, performing a "Bark Mitzvah." And I'd do it again . . . maybe.