Ask the Rabbi: May guide dogs enter the Western Wall plaza?

Since 1993, Israeli law mandates that public places allow access to guide dogs unless they impinge on the “essence” of the place.

Dogs 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Kineret Rozen-Edelman)
Dogs 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of Kineret Rozen-Edelman)
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.
As Prof. 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 Jewish law.
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.
Historically, the 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 Institute.