How My Pets Have Taught Me Compassion for All Beings by Ivy Helman

20171119_155520My cat is a hunter.  You can see it in her eyes.  She plays fetch considerably better than the dog and seems to enjoy playing with her “kill” – throwing it up in the air, batting it around and pouncing on it – long after it is “dead.”  If we forget to clean up her toys before bedtime, her prowess invades the night.  For such a tiny cat, she can meow at almost deafening volumes.

Typical with any hunter, she loves anything meaty and has recently even begun fighting for a share of the dog’s morning pate.  For the cat, if the dog gets pate, she should too.  It’s only fair.  After all, she takes medicine daily too. 

The dog, on the other hand, has become increasingly stubborn when it comes to her meals.  Because of her arthritis medication and kidney problems, she gets a small amount of pate mixed into dry dog food so we can hide the pills within it.  She won’t eat them unless they are (well-)hidden.  Now, it seems that she won’t eat any (dry) dog food unless some meat pate is added.  She has taken to crying at night trying to get us to add the pate to her dry dog food evening meal.  Mind you she’s 14, but seriously?

Returning to the cat (since I’ve already written here about the dog), I have to say that I am often speechless at how she hunts.  If you didn’t know that she’s 12 or (maybe) 13, then you’d think she was 6 months old.  She still plays like a kitten: she surely doesn’t act her age!  In fact, her running, jumping and leaping borders on crazy quite often. IMG-5240

Nowadays, the only thing that slows her down is her asthma.  Whenever an attack occurs, she wheezes and coughs and struggles mightily to breath. Sometimes I wonder if it’ll stop. It is to the point that, depending on the season, she has an attack every other play session or so. The huntress can’t hunt like she used to.

Their aging process and its accompanying ailments has also shown me just how much animals feel pain.  I was aware before, but seeing my loved ones suffer has deepened that awareness in ways I’m only just beginning to understand.

I look at my Jewish tradition now with new eyes. Jewish teachings on the treatment of animals, are quite contradictory (and filled with patriarchal notions of masculinity and meat eating as well as kingly, warrior gods and power-over, which is a topic for another blog).  I’m just going to mention a few of the teachings.  Ending the suffering of animals is a mitzvah.  Likewise, working animals should also rest on Shabbat.  In addition, the Torah teaches us that originally we were vegans (Genesis/Bereshit 1:29) and that that is the preferred lifestyle, but we’ve been given permission to eat meat (Genesis/Bereshit 9:3) as well as the proper instructions on what types of animals are kosher/acceptable (Duet./Devarim 14) and unacceptable forms of preparation (Exodus/Shemot 23:19).  The Torah even requires the slaughter of animals for personal atonement as well as ritual purposes in temple worship.  Luckily, since the temple doesn’t exist anymore, these rules don’t apply.  IMG-3290

In other words, we are permitted by the Holy One to kill healthy animals to eat.  In fact, Jewish tradition says it is only acceptable to eat the meat of healthy animals who would have lived for at least another year if we hadn’t killed them.  In a similar vein, many Jewish teachings suggest that ritual slaughter by slitting a fully conscious animal’s throat with a razor sharp knife devoid of nicks or imperfections is the most compassionate and humane way to kill animals for food.  It is important for those butchering the animals to see that they are fully conscious.  This is supposed to increase mindfulness of the task at hand – that one is ending a life.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when it comes to pets, Jewish tradition also permits us to operate out of compassion to end the lives of suffering animals.  In fact, it is a mitzvah to alleviate suffering.  For example, if you struck a deer with your car and there was no hope for its survival, then you should end its misery.  But when is suffering too much?  How do you know?

When I see my dog slide down the last two steps because her legs gave out again, does it mean her suffering is too much? When the cat has four asthma attacks in a day, is life unbearable? What gives me the right to decide these things for them?  Is it my duty? Is compassion and love a good enough reason to take a life?

Why we as Jews don’t follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve is beyond me.  Being vegan seems to be the correct path from a Jewish perspective, since when it comes to animals, we are called to compassion, love and ending suffering.  This would, it seems, require us to at the very least not kill or eat animals.  Yet, ideally, letting animals be free to live their own lives is even a further step down the moral path.

My pets teach me what it means to be compassionate.  They have shown me the path toward veganism as a Jewish response to that compassion.  I am immensely grateful.


Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

7 thoughts on “How My Pets Have Taught Me Compassion for All Beings by Ivy Helman”

  1. Thanks for this post, Ivy. I do believe fewer and fewer people are eating animals these days although we’ve a long, long way to go. There is a grass-roots movement (growing quickly) that advocates for an animal-free diet. I’m posting a link here to an essay I wrote a couple of years ago (on this FAR site) that references Dr. Kecia Ali’s essay in the “Journal of Religious Ethics” where she asserts that she believes all Muslims in the industrialized world ought to be meat-free. Social change happens at glacier speed.


  2. Thanks for sharing your love for your cat and dog and for your reflections on the teachings about and of animals. I am moved to share a poem about my late cat who was and is a soulmate.

    black cat’s song

    sometimes you have to be a cat
    to curl into the lap of the one you love

    in another life you might have been
    a mated pair of the same kind

    loving and fighting and breeding
    but what is that to this?

    a slow-blinking look, a hand stroking
    black fur, a low resonant purr

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve lived with cats for many years. Heisenberg (about age 16) is a Maine coon-tabby mix. Schroedinger (about 4 or 5 years old) is mostly Turkish Van. They’re both rescued cats, and I couldn’t live without them. Heisenberg is currently sleeping with me; he’s like a hot water bottle that purrs. Schroedinger is very independent, but she loves to be petted. I’ve had to make that awful decision several times when a cat’s quality of life is too awful. I have the ashes of at least three of my cats on one of my altars.


  4. Always interested in your posts, thanks Ivy. I don’t eat animals, can’t bear the thought. The link I’ve added above is a gorgeous picture of Georgia O’Keeffe — that is, with her cat, but her hands say so much about her personality and her respect for others. Your cat reminds me of the O’Keeffe photo. The cat’s presence is her presence, she’s not trying to say anything. And on the question is compassion good enough to take the cat’s life. Would it be good enough to take anyone’s life. Absolutely not.


  5. Always look forward to your posts, thanks Ivy. I linked my name here to a gorgeous photo of Georgia O’Keeffe with her cat. When you see O’Keeffe’s tender care of the cat, you get a sense of why O’Keefe’s paintings are so sensitive too.


  6. I think our pets keep us aware of and tuned into the rest of nature, of be-ing.
    My neighbour down the road also swears that “doggie kisses cure wrinkles”!


  7. Wonderful post, Ivy! I am a vegetarian and I take delight in pointing out to the Bible study group I lead that we were originally vegetarians, according to Genesis! I can’t bear the thought of eating animals. For me it is an issue of ethics.


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