A short-sighted approach to guide dogs in shul

With Pesach just two weeks away, one law I never thought would come to mind in connection with it is this: “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” (See Leviticus 19:14; we will read it in synagogues on May 11.)

As I often note here, the intent of this law is to prohibit misleading people — but it also means exactly what it says, and it is in that literal context that it came to mind.

A blind person with a guide dog recently was initially rebuffed when trying to make a reservation to attend a synagogue’s public seder because the guide dog was not allowed in the synagogue. Fortunately, when the rabbi heard of it, he reversed the decision. Still, there are many synagogues that would not welcome guide dogs into their midst for any reason, especially including attending services, or participating in a religious event, such as a seder.

There is no direct discussion of this issue in the codes, meaning that there is no direct prohibition against dogs of any kind being admitted, much less guide dogs. Nevertheless, there are a few rabbinic rulings referencing other laws to support this position. Perhaps the most notable one was issued (ironically, for me) by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, whose Haggadah Sh’lemah I rely on each year in preparing for Pesach.

In his voluminous Torah Sh’lemah commentary, Kasher cites Deuteronomy 23:18-19 as his prooftext. The verses state: “No Israelite woman shall be a cult prostitute, and no Israelite man shall be a cult prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute, or the pay of a dog, into the house of the Lord your God in fulfillment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the Lord your God.” Kasher reasoned that since it is forbidden to use money from the sale of a dog to purchase a Temple sacrifice, it certainly must be forbidden to bring the dog itself into the Temple. Thus, he said, one cannot bring a dog into a synagogue or other sacred space. (See his comment to the verse in his Torah Sh’lemah, Vol. 15.)

There is much wrong with this ruling, not the least of which is that “dog” in verse 19 may not refer to a real dog at all (although many commentators say it does). More likely, given the context, it is meant as a euphemism for a male prostitute. If it does refer to real dogs, however, as Nachmanides (the Ramban) explains, it refers to “brazen dogs that harm the public.” In that case, the Ramban continued, “the owners vow [to contribute] their value [to a cause they consider sacred], as an atonement for their soul.” In Ramban’s view, the reason for the prohibition is that the money being used for a sacred purpose was acquired “in a contemptible manner.” (The citation as quoted is found in Rabbi Charles Chavel’s translation.)

A guide dog is not a vicious animal in any respect. We have had one coming to our services for several years now, and no one has ever heard as much as a whimper from her. She just rests at the feet of her owner, even if someone pets her.

Kasher’s ruling received much criticism, including from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. In correspondence with Kasher, he referenced a principle put forth by Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rema) regarding whether women in their state of impurity should be allowed into a synagogue. The Rema (in his gloss to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 88) ruled that they should be admitted because not to do so would “cause them great pain for while others are praying they must remain outside.” By the same token, Schneerson wrote, to bar blind people with guide dogs would “cause them great pain for while others are praying they must remain outside.” (Schneerson’s comments can be found at www.chabad.org.)

Both the late Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Joseph Soloveitchik — who usually are on opposite sides of the halachic spectrum —also ruled positively on the issue.

Feinstein, in his ruling, referenced a comment in the Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 3:3 regarding a certain Rabbi Imi, who would “permit even a marginal scholar to enter the synagogue with his donkey and his tools,” and, presumably, with his clothes, as well. If a donkey was permitted in a synagogue, he ruled, certainly a guide dog should be allowed inside.

Feinstein acknowledged that some would object to bringing a dog into a synagogue because it could lead to creating a somewhat frivolous atmosphere in an otherwise sacred place. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 28a, for example, forbids frivolity in a sacred space. He dismissed the objection, however. Instead, he cited the immediately preceding discussion in JT Megillah 3:3, which states that “synagogues and study halls are built to be used by Talmud scholars,” including to eat and drink there.

What is remarkable about Feinstein using that text to support his argument is that he chose the Jerusalem Talmud’s opinion about eating and drinking over the Babylonian one, which specifically bans both. The Babylonian text bluntly states “one may not eat in them, nor may one drink in them.” (See Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim, 1:45.) It is as if he was bending over backwards to allow guide dogs into a synagogue.

As for Soloveitchik, we do not have a direct quote regarding his ruling. As is often the case where he is concerned, we must rely on hearsay, in this case from the recollection of his son-in-law, the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. This is how he explained Soloveitchik’s ruling in a lecture cited by Rabbi Howard Jachter in his Halachic Perspectives on Pets:

In BT Berachot 63a, the Talmud offers a standard for acceptable behavior in a synagogue: If a person would allow that behavior in his or her home, it is acceptable in a synagogue as well. According to Lichtenstein, says Jachter, Soloveitchik applied that standard to the guide dog. Because a person would allow a blind person with a guide dog into his or her home, so may a synagogue do so.

There are other supports for this position, the most important perhaps being that animals were allowed on the Temple grounds — and not just animals required for sacrifices. Mishnah Shekalim 7 refers to “money that is found [in the Temple precincts] in front of animal dealers,” which tells us that Jerusalem entrepreneurs would bring animals to that most sacred space to sell to those in need of sacrifices. If animals for sale could be brought onto Temple grounds, an animal required for a person’s well-being surely may be brought into a synagogue.

Bringing a pet dog into a synagogue, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Although there really does not exist any direct prohibition to doing so, guide dogs are well trained in remaining calm and even respectful of others, but such behavior cannot be assured of other pet dogs.

Frankly, though, there never should have been a debate over allowing guide dogs into synagogues. Barring them is nothing short of a chilul HaShem, a desecration of the God who described Himself as being “compassionate and gracious…, [and] abounding in kindness and faithfulness.” (See Exodus 34:6.) We are commanded by Him to “walk in My ways” (see Genesis 17:1). We fail to do so — and we fail Him — if we ourselves are not compassionate and gracious, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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