The People and the Book: Learning from dogs

Our canine friends have much to offer us.

Dog sketch  (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Dog sketch
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
“DOES HE come to shul with you?” “Yes, almost always,” I reply, failing to alleviate my interlocutor’s ill ease. People don’t expect a rabbi to have a dog. But there are more of us than you might think. My Orthodox colleague around the corner also has a dog; occasionally we walk them together. I have several dog-loving Reform colleagues.
Perhaps it’s a post-denominational phenomenon.
It’s certainly a modern turn. Dogs do not have a happy place in Jewish history or texts. The Torah mentions dogs explicitly only twice; first, when no dog barked as the Children of Israel left Egypt, and second, in the injunction to throw terefa meat to the dogs, viewed by the rabbis as God’s reward to them for their good behavior on the night of the Exodus.
Dogs are present in the world of the Talmud; the sign that the second division of the night has begun is “when the dogs bark” (Berachot 3a). But keeping the beasts was not recommended.
“Rabbi Eliezer the Great says that he who breeds dogs is like he who breeds swine.
What is the practical bearing of this comparison? That he be declared cursed.” (Bava Kama 83a) However, in recent decades, more and more Jews have dogs. It is part of a rising awareness of what dogs have to offer human beings. It’s not only guide dogs for blind people. There are hearing dogs and care dogs There are medical detection dogs, able to smell the presence of certain cancers, and sense when someone suffering from diabetes is about to have a hypo. In the police and army, dogs are trained to sniff out drugs and explosives.
It is that realization of what dogs give to us which led me to write my book “Things My Dog Has Taught Me: About Being A Better Human.” I wanted to express how immeasurably enriched I have been by the dogs who have owned me. I wanted to focus especially on what I have learned from them emotionally and spiritually as a rabbi (though my editors wisely rejected any whiff of theology in the title, such as “Thou shalt love the lord thy dog.”) I have learned how to listen from my dogs. I don’t believe that dogs “understand every word you say.” That is a sentimental exaggeration. But they do have the ability to comprehend much of what you don’t say.
When I go to the home of a family in mourning, or when someone in pain comes to see me, I tell myself: be as present as possible; make yourself as small as possible. The kabbalists coined the term tzimtzum, contraction. Though generally used in a metaphysical context to describe how the infinite God created a finite world, it can also be used regarding the human self.
To me it means silencing my thoughts, disciplining myself to ignore distractions and enabling my heart to be alert to the unvoiced feelings within and beyond the words which are spoken. I frequently fail. Dogs, it seems to me, often succeed. They have a natural aptitude for perceiving our hearts’ aches.
Dogs have other advantages over human beings, as good listeners, too. Their confidentiality is beyond question, and they never put their paw in it by saying the wrong thing, or offering trite advice or unhelpful platitudes. They have the gift of simply being there, body and soul.
A similar capacity for presence has helped me in prayer. Dogs are focussed. Multitasking may often be a necessity for humans, but I sometimes think it’s an overrated virtue: a third of one’s mind is on what someone is saying, a third on one’s computer screen and a third on the falafel one’s trying to eat without spilling the humus. The result is an incessant state of distraction, of low-grade mental dysfunction. Prayer requires the opposite, attention.
There’s a special art to doing just one thing, at one time, with the whole of one’s self. To appreciate what that looks like, all one has to do is watch a dog staring at a biscuit.
Every facet of its being, the alignment of its head, the gaze of its eyes, the poise of its posture are all directed at that small but infinitely desirable object.
HEBREW HAS a word for such concentration, kavana. It literally means direction, or focus. To do something with kavana means to give the deed one’s full attention.
It’s particularly important in the context of prayer. “Prayer without kavana,” wrote the American rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is like a body without a soul.” Maybe that’s why I sometimes sit down next to the dog and spread my black and white prayer shawl over his head and mine. Then he, intuitively understanding that this is something sacred, something to which silence and stillness pertain, lies next to me without stirring. The two of us form a small but warmhearted unit, a fractal of the great at-oneness, which animates and embraces all living things.
My dogs have helped me to pray in other ways too. They notice the world, and teach me to notice it too. They have their Mizmor Letoda, their Psalm of Thanksgiving: they express it in the way they trot off every morning with undiminished eagerness, sniff scents, run, relish the simple joy of their lives. Mitzpah, my second dog, even has the strange habit of dancing when let off the lead, spinning round in circles like an entranced dervish, rejoicing in his freedom.
“Ma rabu ma’asekha! How manifold are your works, O God!” Jews say every morning. My dogs have enabled me to see more. Had I not heeded their pleading for just one more last outing at eleven at night, I wouldn’t have walked through the dark woods where the trees commune in their midnight minyan. I wouldn’t have watched the moon fade while the harbinger birds sang to the dawn, because Mitzpah roused me at 4:00 a.m. with an urgent whisper in my ear, “Kumi lakh ra’yati!” [Get up my friend, you’re missing out on life.] Not least, the dogs have taught me about consolation. “Asher bekha yerucham yatom,” says the prophet Hosea in praise of God, “through you the orphan is comforted.”
I’m repeatedly aware, as I reflect on the pain of mourning which I encounter so often in my community, that it feels as if there is so little we can do. Only God has the capacity to reach into the heart and begin to cauterize its bleeding wounds. But dogs, I’ve realized, can be part of God’s medicine chest.
Maybe that’s why dogs are usually such welcome visitors at hospices. They bring their love with them and the touch of their fur is simpler than words. During the years when I was part of the chaplaincy team at my local hospice, I would observe how the dog was always included on a client’s family tree. Often when I went to visit a patient in his or her room, the dog would be there, quietly keeping an affectionate watch.
One lady told me how, while her husband was terminally ill, she took the dog to see him every day. The animal didn’t beg for her usual long walks or bark like her habitual boisterous self when someone knocked on the door. Instead, she sat peacefully by the bed, watching steadfastly hour after hour.
By then her husband was so weak that he rarely felt like speaking. But, the lady explained, from time to time he would reach down with his hand until it found the dog’s head. He let it rest there, as if in a gesture of blessing, and the dog would look steadily up at him with full, unblinking eyes, as if she understood.
Dogs aren’t good at words; instead they offer something deeper – a gift for transforming silence into love.
Perhaps, then, when I’m asked whether I take the dog to prayers I should really answer, “Actually, it’s the dog who often takes me.” He leads me to places of the spirit, which I might otherwise never have accessed.
In truth, Mitzpah really does love going to synagogue. All I have to do in the morning is call out “shacharit” and he’s up in a flash, waiting for me to put on his lead. I only wish such a simple appeal would work so effectively with more of the two-legged members of my congregation. But I have to admit that he prefers the walk over the liturgy. How, after all, can thirty pages of obscure Hebrew read at speed ever equal the wonder of the scents and shadows of God’s world?
Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK. His book ‘Things My Dog Has Taught Me’ is being published by Hodder & Stoughton in Britain this month