CCAR RESPONSA COMMITTEE
Burial of an Animal in a Jewish Cemetery
An elderly, lonely woman has a small service dog with which she has an emotional as well as functional relationship. She has requested that the dog be buried with her at her passing. Aside from the logistics and timing, I'm asking about how tradition and modern sensibilities can be reckoned into a judicious balance on this issue. I have read Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof’s responsum on the subject, “Burial of a Pet Animal,” which concludes with a prohibition. I realize that we must balance larger communal standards with individual need, but I wonder if there have been any discussions more recent than Freehof’s responsum. (Rabbi Daniel Weiner, Seattle, WA)
Rabbi Freehof takes an unequivocal position in the responsum you cite, which opens with the words: “No question of this sort was ever asked in any of the traditional Jewish legal literature, and it is certain that if such a question had been asked, it would have been dismissed with derision.” Much of the text of his ruling is taken up with a survey of our tradition’s negative attitude toward dogs, in particular, an attitude that stretches back to the Bible and continues pretty much unabated until relatively recent times. Rabbi Freehof acknowledges that popular attitudes have changed. There is today “a great love for dogs” that “represents a dramatic reversal of the sentiments of the biblical and the Jewish past.” This, however, would not have swayed the authors of our sacred texts; the question of animal burial “could not come up because the very thought would be too horrid to contemplate.” Rabbi Freehof concludes: “Therefore, while modern sentiment has changed perhaps for the better with regard to these animals, the whole mood of tradition is against (burying them in a Jewish cemetery).”
You ask, essentially, whether our position has changed since Rabbi Freehof penned his t’shuvah. On the one hand, it is obvious that our attitude toward animals as pets, to say nothing of service animals such as the one of which you speak, continues to be much more positive and accepting than that reflected in our sources. Many of us have pets, and we have experienced the deep bonds of affection that unite us to them. Our more recent responsa emphasize our duty to care for our animals and to protect them from cruel treatment. Yet we do not dissent from Rabbi Freehof’s ruling. Our opposition to cemetery burial for dogs and other animals is not based upon any sort of contempt for them but upon the fact that there exists in Jewish ritual practice a clear and indelible distinction between animals and human beings. This distinction is real and relevant for us today; it explains, at least in part, our ongoing instrumental orientation toward our animals. It also explains why, although we may consider our pets as “part of the family,” they are not members of our religious community. It is precisely because we are capable of affectionate relationships with animals that we need explicitly to insist upon this distinction: for all our love for our animals, we do not count them in the minyan, we do not put their names on the Kaddish list, and we do not bury them in cemeteries consecrated for the interment of human beings.
This last point deserves some emphasis; our disinclination to bury animals in our Jewish cemeteries does not mean that we would oppose reserving ground away from the cemetery for the burial of pets and service animals. We do experience grief upon the death of these animals, and it is entirely proper for rabbis and congregations to explore means by which their members might express that grief. There are fitting ways in which we might, as you put it, “balance larger communal standards with individual need.” We should not try to achieve that balance, however, by way of symbols and rituals with which we mark the passing of human beings.
For these reasons, we continue to hold with Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof that pets and service animals should not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
1. Current Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: HUC Press, 1969), no. 41, pp. 165-169.
2. See Deuteronomy 23:19, I Samuel 17:43, II Kings 8:13, and Ecclesiastes 9:4.
3. On the prohibition against raising dogs see M. Bava Kama 7:7, B. Bava Kama 82a, Rambam in Yad, Nizkei Mamon 5:9, and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 409:3. In all of these texts, the prohibition is waived if one lives “close to the border,” that is, in an area where danger threatens and dogs are a necessary measure for security.
4. Freehof cites Isserles’ comment to Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 409:3: since “people nowadays raise dogs anyway… we might as well bow to their actions.” This, however, is a most grudging concession. Isserles in fact says that “nowadays, when we live among the Gentiles, the raising of dogs is permitted in all cases.” As explained by R. Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna (Bi’ur HaGRA ad loc., no. 2), our situation “nowadays,” when we live among the Gentiles, is similar to that of living “close to the border”: we are always in danger, and dogs are permitted for that reason. Dogs may be kept for their utility, much like other domesticated animals. But nothing in these texts suggests a more accepting attitude toward animals kept as pets.
5. See our responsum “Responsibility Toward Pets,” New American Reform Responsa (New York: CCAR Press, 1992), no. 240, pp. 391-393, http://ccarnet.org/responsa/narr-391-393 .
6. “Dissection and Cruelty to Animals,” CCAR Responsa no. 5769.7, http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5769-7.
7. That is to say, despite our more positive attitude toward animals, we continue to utilize them for such legitimate human purposes as work, food, medical experimentation, and the like. This obviously raises the question of what constitutes a legitimate human purpose that might override, say, the prohibition against causing “undue” suffering to animals (tza`ar ba`aleri chayim); see our responsum no. 5769.7 (preceding note). It is a very good question, but it is a subject for another time.
8. This is the essential difference between animals and those inanimate objects that are properly buried with the dead (a tallit; earth from Eretz Yisrael, etc.).