Q. A friend passed away, and we can't find anyone interested in adopting his dog. Would it be an act of compassion for me to take the animal in with me? I wasn't really looking for a dog, but I do like them and could provide a good home.

A. When we want to find the approach of Judaism to a particular aspect of life, we should look at two distinct sources:

1. The Biblical story of creation, together with the explanations of Jewish tradition, displays the world as God meant it to be, including the ideal state of relations among people, and between human beings and nature. Yet we know that mankind was not able to maintain this ideal, and showed ethical deterioration with the sin of Adam, Cain and Abel, the generation of Noah and so on.

2. The commandments of the Torah teach us how the Jewish people, in our current non-ideal world, are meant to lead humanity back to an ideal, Garden of Eden existence. Kant asserted that every person should act according to principles he would favor for an ideal world, but the Torah recognizes that given the current imperfect state of humanity, we need to adopt an educational approach which relates constructively to man's imperfection even as it slowly restores him to perfection.

We saw an example of this in last week's column. The ideal situation is for all to return lost objects. But when we live in jungle society where "finders keepers" is the norm, adopting such an attitude is a recipe for exploitation. In order to keep this ethical ideal alive, the Torah commands Jews to return lost objects among themselves; in order to make this an example for mankind, we have the commandment to be "good and straight" according to what is practical in any given society. In an enlightened society, the ideal situation of universal return of lost objects will prevail among all humans.

Let us apply this insight to man's relationship to animals. In the Garden of Eden, man's relationship to the animal kingdom was one of fellowship. Of course only man was created in God's image, and so the human race is dominant; the Torah tells us that man was created to "rule over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the sky, and all of the animals which swarm on the earth." (Genesis 1:28.) But this domination is not an exploitative one. At that stage, man was not permitted to eat animals, as we learn from the very next verse which limits the first man's diet to plants. And we had no need for animals for labor, since labor was unnecessary until after the sin of Adam and Eve, when man was sentenced to live by the "sweat of his brow". (Genesis 3:19)

It would seem that man's relationship to animals was similar to that of a pet owner, who has a friendly relationship, yet the human remains the master. The Torah tells us that man gave names to all the animals, but was unable to find a true soul mate from among them (Genesis 2:19). Our Sages infer that Adam sought such an intimate relationship with his animal companions, but found that he could not achieve it. (1)

However, this ideal relationship was not sustainable for man's imperfect state. Unfortunately, adopting such an enlightened attitude towards animals had the side effect of eroding the ethical sensitivity towards people. We find a hint of this in the story of Cain and Abel. The Torah tells us that Cain brought an offering to God from "the fruit of the land", while Abel brought "from the first-born of his flock". (Genesis 4:3-4) Cain seems to be displaying a higher ethical sensitivity. How can Abel slaughter his fellow creatures as an offering to God? Yet we see that the outcome of this ideological confrontation is that Cain murders his own brother. We find today also that among those who promote an admirable enlightened sensitivity towards animals, there are a few who go too far and put this obligation before our obligations to our fellow man. Not long ago I was at an ethics conference in which one scholar explicitly affirmed that in her opinion a person's responsibility to rescue a pet could legitimately come before the responsibility to rescue a neighbor.

This tension between the ideal state of fellowship with animals and the threat of diminished sensitivity to people shapes the attitude of Jewish law towards animals. After the flood, meat was permitted to mankind, as the far lesser of two evils. (Genesis 9:3-4.) Animal sacrifices in the Torah are permitted and in many cases mandatory. This is the relationship to animals dictated by mankind's current imperfect state. However, the Torah is also meant to guide us back to the ideal situation of fellowship with animals, and as a result we are commanded to treat animals in a humane way, and we are restricted in our eating of meat. In practice only domestic species are eaten, and only after ritual slaughter which reminds us of the seriousness of our acts and also is meant to ensure a humane slaughter.

The same tension in our relationships toward animals is also found in the various rulings made about pets. Some authorities took a very negative attitude towards pets. (2) This approach was no doubt colored by the living example of many European nobles of their time who cared for their dogs better than they cared for their serfs. This skepticism towards pet ownership is a rational acknowledgment of the potential danger of adopting ethical imperatives which are actually beyond our current ethical level.

However, the Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) doesn't mention any particular restrictions on having pets.(3) And the sages of the Talmud and the Talmudic era continue to acknowledge the unique connection that exists between an animal and its owner. In one place, the Talmud acknowledges the unique canine characteristic of loyalty to the master. (4) Elsewhere, we learn that animals can absorb the sensitivity to holiness displayed by a righteous master. For example, we learn that the donkey of the renowned saint Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair refused to eat untithed produce, leading the Talmud to comment "the Holy One blessed by He doesn't make the animal of a righteous person an [ethical] obstacle." The Midrash tells of a cow that became accustomed to resting on Shabbat and refused to work on that day even after being sold to a non-Jew, until its former owner gently explained that the new master was not obligated to provide a day of rest. (6)

And all authorities, including those who disapproved of pet ownership, acknowledge that household animals must be treated in a humane fashion. (2)

These sources should provide guidance for your situation. Sadly, for some people, a connection forged with an animal can evolve into an unfortunate substitute for caring for other people. Having a pet makes them more self-centered than before. If you are concerned that this may happen to you, you are better off bringing the dog to the pound.

For others, acquiring a pet creates a constant reminder of the necessity and the rewards of performing acts of loving-kindness (chesed). As a result of their gratifying fellowship with beasts, they are motivated to increase their ethical sensitivity towards their fellow man. If you think that acquiring a pet will have this impact on you, then adopting a dog is a wonderful way to cultivate your best qualities and provides an opportunity to emulate God, Who provides for all His creatures.

(Additional sources and insights are found in previous columns on fur [LINK 25/12/2005] and on animal burial [LINK 20/1/02].)

SOURCES: (1) Rashi's commentary on Genesis 2:23. (2) See e.g. Sheilat Yaavetz 17. (3) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 409:3. (4) Babylonian Talmud Horayot 13a. (5) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 7a-b. (6) Midrash Pesikta Rabati 14.

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