Since 1993, Israeli law mandates that public places allow access to guide dogs
unless they impinge on the “essence” of the place. In 2009, Western Wall Rabbi
Shmuel Rabinowitz prohibited guide dogs in the lower plaza, engendering a
controversy that warrants review of the relevant literature.
Avraham Steinberg has documented, several biblical narratives reveal the
hardship of blindness, including the stories of Isaac and Eli. The sages even
asserted that “blindness is like death” which, as the medieval Tosafists
explained, was a plea for increased societal compassion. Far from mere
sentimentalism, the Torah commands us to protect the blind from danger: “Do not
place a stumbling block before the blind.” Consequently, the sages prohibited
clearing rocks to the sides of pathways where the visually impaired would
regularly walk. On this basis, some contemporary scholars have supported public
accessibility legislation as following the spirit – and possibly the letter – of
Fully aware of the cognizant capabilities of the blind, the
majority of Talmudic sages asserted that the blind remain obligated in
commandments, albeit with certain exceptions imposed by their circumstances.
They were exempted, for example, from donning a tallit or making festival Temple
pilgrimages because the Torah stresses visualization in its depiction of these
commandments. The Torah also prohibited blind kohanim, along with others with
physical disabilities, from serving in the Temple.
person called up to the Torah for an aliya chanted the portion himself; if
unable, he was required to recite it quietly along with the public reader. As
such, some medieval authorities asserted that the blind cannot receive an aliya.
The halachic consensus, however, follows the position of Rabbi Moshe Isserles,
who asserted that visual reading from the Torah scroll was no longer mandated
since contemporary practice allows other people to chant the Torah reading. The
blind may serve as prayer leaders.
The popular use of guide dogs
developed in the 1920s to provide assistance to veterans returning from World
War I and spread to wider use in the following decades. In 1953, Rabbi Pinchas
Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey, asked Rabbi Moshe Feinstein about the propriety
of a blind congregant entering the synagogue with a guide dog. As a general
rule, Jewish law prohibits within a synagogue any form of non-ritual behavior
like eating, let alone frivolity. This would prohibit the entrance of animals,
especially dogs, which Jewish tradition has long scorned because of the terror
it instills in many people.
Feinstein permitted the guide dog, although
he suggested that the blind worshiper and dog sit in an area that would cause
the least amount of distraction. He noted that synagogues and study halls in the
Diaspora are conditionally built to allow for some recreational use by its
regular users, including eating and drinking, and argued that a story in the
Jerusalem Talmud indicates that this dispensation includes bringing in animals
(in that case, a riding donkey). He further suggested that this dispensation may
not be necessary, since the entry of the guide dog may constitute actions
necessary for ritual use and not recreational activity. As Prof. Aviad Hacohen
has noted, Feinstein explicitly states that he sought to prevent unnecessary
anguish caused by the exclusion of blind worshipers.
This responsum drew
sharp criticism from Rabbi Yaakov Breisch of Zurich, who argued that the Talmud
never allowed for any recreational behavior, and certainly the entrance of an
animal, in the midst of prayer services – which would only contribute to the
growing irreverence within synagogue services. He further argued that fellow
worshipers would gladly assist the blind person, even as some might retort that
such dependence impinges upon the confidence and independence of the blind. This
stringent position was supported by Rabbis Menachem Kasher and Shlomo Braun,
with the latter adding that he could not countenance such sacrileges when
churches and mosques did not allow for similar dispensations. Others have
retorted that the latter consideration is at best irrelevant, and that at the
beginning of the 21st century we would only glorify Judaism’s international
stature by displaying increased sensitivity to the blind.
In any case,
Rabinowitz, supported by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, sided with Breisch. He argued that
Feinstein’s dispensation would not apply to the Western Wall, which demands
amplified and constant reverence, and that its general disorderliness and
crowdedness would be exacerbated by the distraction of guide dogs. This position
was criticized by Rabbi Benny Lau, who praised Feinstein’s sensitive
judiciousness and argued that a special path for blind visitors would ensure
their safe access to the Western Wall and prevent their guide dogs from
distracting worshipers fearful of canines.
However this dispute gets
resolved, one hopes that it will only raise awareness and sensitivity to
increasing the accessibility of blind people to other public spaces. The
writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars and is a
junior scholar in the Judaism and Human Rights project at the Israel Democracy
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