Blessing of the Animals: A Personal History
In September, I started taking "The 'R' Word: Writing About Religion," a grad-level journalism class at NYU. As soon as I learned that one assignment would require me to go to a house of worship and interview clergy of a faith other than my own, I knew that I would choose the St. Francis of Assisi blessing of the animals. The timing worked out perfectly. By the end of September, I was attending multiple events as part of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi's "Francis Week," which commemorated the 800-year anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan Order. During the first weekend in October, I went to two churches' blessing of the animals ceremonies. I submitted my article in late October, and it is currently under consideration for publication.
Shortly before I handed in my article about Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies, I learned that Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York would be having a Jewish blessing of the animals ceremony on Shabbat Noach. I had heard about a Virginia shul that considered having one, but to the best of my knowledge, it had never come to fruition. As someone who had run a Jewish blog about animal issues for four-plus years and had attended Christian blessing of the animals ceremonies for several years, I was under the impression that there had never been a Jewish blessing of the animals. I was unable to attend Congregation Beth Simchat Torah's blessing of the animals, but I asked questions of the shul's assistant to the rabbi. I began a herculean effort to connect the dots and find out if Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies were more widespread. I wound up devoting my final project for "The 'R' Word: Writing About Religion" to Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies, and I discovered that at least 21 synagogues or other Jewish groups in 10 states have had blessing of the animals ceremonies. Click here to read my feature article, click here to read its accompanying sidebar, and click here to read an interview with a Jewish vegetarian who was quoted in the article.
Following all my exposure to this topic, both in Christianity and Judaism, there have been numerous issues that have come to mind. This is my opportunity to reflect on some of them.
Are blessing of the animals ceremonies suitable environments for animal attendees?
This depends on the individual animal and the specifics of the ceremony. Many guardians take their companion animals without adequately considering their best interests. An eHow article advises, "Make sure your animal will be comfortable with the other creatures. Everything from horses to dogs attend these blessings, and you don't want your furry friend to feel uncomfortable. If you feel your animal will be too nervous, don't bring him." In Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (2008), Laura Hobgood-Oster wrote, "One might also question whether keeping animals in a large room full of the smells of incense, shouts of human voices, and presence of thousands of other creatures for over two hours is a good experience for the animals."
Are blessing of the animals ceremonies "an unachieved ideal in the midst of a less-than-utopian real"?
Hobgood-Oster wrote, "[A]lthough the procession of animals is impressive and speaks to the centrality of animals ... there remains something overly idealistic and removed from reality. So, for instance, a beautiful, small cow processes into the sanctuary, yet the realities of factory farming in the United States go without mention. Many purebred dogs enter the cathedral; yet [New York City] kills over twenty-eight thousand homeless dogs each year. These issues are indicative of the blessing ritual as an unachieved ideal in the midst of a less-than-utopian real."
Can blessing of the animals ceremonies be used to promote the adoption of companion animals?
Numerous events promote animal adoption. Hobgood-Oster wrote that numerous pet adoption and advocacy agencies "set up areas to distribute information and hope for adoptions of some of these homeless animals." I also found several examples of this at Jewish blessing of the animals ceremonies.
Can blessing of the animals ceremonies be used to promote vegetarianism?
In general, I don't like the idea of encroaching on people's houses of worship to target them with an outside message when they're looking to pray. However, some circumstances are better than others. This past summer, Mercy For Animals (MFA) opened up a New York office, which is located in the basement of a church. The church invited MFA to distribute literature at its blessing of the animals event in October. MFA volunteer Pamela Pensock explained:
Outreach about vegetarianism and the cruelties of factory farming is a big part of our mission. We don't target religious groups in particular, but we certainly don't avoid them either -- we are happy to get our message out to all kinds of audiences. Yesterday, we set up a table outside of the church doors, that held an array of our literature. MFA does not have any brochures that are targeted to religious groups. We focused our message to being one of expanding the circle of compassion to include all animals. The reaction was positive. Since we were invited guests, we did not encounter any kind of unfriendliness or hostility. I talked to people who were already vegans and vegetarians, and others who "loved animals" but felt that going vegan was too much work. There were many people who while they supported our group in theory, did not want to take literature, or talk much about the issue of factory farming, because doing so was too painful for them. I would love to find a way of reaching those people.Did anything you read in your research miss the mark so much that you couldn't help but laugh?
In 1997, following the first documented Jewish blessing of the animals ceremony in the U.S., Matt Nesvisky wrote an article for The Jerusalem Post in which he strongly criticized the new ritual. I take issue with much of what he says, but I'd like to quote from it anyway:
Sure, we should be kind to our critterly companions - Israelis especially still have a lot to learn in that regard. But making blessings over their heads? Nah. Not unless we're about to prepare them for the table. Or for sacrifice. That's the Jewish way.
And where could it all lead, this Jewish Dr. Doolittling? Next thing you know, there will be a move to count animals in your minyan. And it won't stop there. Egalitarians will demand mixed seating - you know, my lion sharing a bench with your lamb. An elephant demands an aliya. A moose seeks membership in the Men's Club, a seal joins the sisterhood, a beaver runs for election to the governing board. And how long before the beasts seek pulpits of their own?
I'm getting visions of something like George Orwell's Animal Shul. "Two legs treif, four legs kosher." And once the animals seize control of the kashrut cartel, it won't be long before we're all condemned to vegetarianism. Forget about the chicken soup and pot roast on Friday night. Get ready for the tofu cholent on Shabbat. Ridiculous? I agree. Likewise with the blessing of the animals.