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What the rabbi learned from his dogs

When my publisher suggested I wrote about dogs, I wanted to express not just my personal love for the species, but my abhorrence of cruelty and my respect for what so many carefully trained, faithful dogs do for humanity.

    Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and his dog, Mitzpah
    Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and his dog, Mitzpah

    After much debate — suggestions varied from K9 to an inappropriately irreverent play on dog and what it spells backwards — it was decided to call my new book Things My Dog Has Taught Me, with the subtitle About Being A Better Human. Ben Zoma famously defined wisdom as the readiness to learn from all people. There’s also much to be learnt, emotionally and spiritually, from animals, dogs especially. It’s surely no accident that the Hebrew for dog, celev, can be subdivided into the prefix “ce” and the noun “lev”, meaning “like the heart”.

    Vie arrived at our house one sunny summer afternoon for a month’s stay before moving to her ultimate destination in Israel. She was to be no ordinary new immigrant; she was a puppy en route to Beit Oved, where Israel’s outstanding guide-dog training centre was established in 1991.

    When my publisher suggested I wrote about dogs, I wanted to express not just my personal love for the species, but my abhorrence of cruelty and my respect for what so many carefully trained, faithful dogs do for humanity.Of course, dogs are exempt from the mitzvot. But they obey many commandments and perform numerous good deeds to help those humans fortunate enough to have their company. As well as guide dogs for blind people, there are hearing dogs, medical support dogs and assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

    I visited Canine Partners in Sussex and watched a dog learn how to unload a washing machine and help her future owner, a wheelchair user, undress for bed. At Medical Detection Dogs I learnt how dogs are trained to sniff the presence of certain cancers and detect potentially dangerous rises and falls in sugar levels in people with diabetes.

    All this suggests a very different relationship with dogs from what we find in most of the classic Jewish sources. The Torah contains only two explicit references: that no dog barked on the night of the Exodus, and that treif meat be thrown to the dogs, a reward for their former forbearance on the night of the great escape.

    Dogs were clearly part of life in the world of the Mishnah and Talmud. Thus, the middle watch of the night was marked by dogs barking. But they weren’t viewed as the affectionate companions we regard them as today. They were often dangerous. They were used for guarding, especially along borders, and there was always the risk that they might be rabid. It was a particular offence to allow one’s dog to frighten away beggars, depriving them of food and support.

    In recent times, the use of dogs by the Nazis has had a profound negative effect on their image among Jews. Some dogs became as notorious as their sadistic masters. In the Plaszow camp, outside Krakow, Commandant Amon Göth’s dogs, Rolf and Ralf, were trained to tear inmates to death, vicious projections of their owner’s savagery.

    I’ve met many people who, understandably, can’t overcome their aversion to Alsatians; the fault, though, lies not with the animals but with those who put them to such vicious and abusive purposes.

    Today, however, many Jewish families own pets, both in Israel and abroad, as a stroll along Tel Aviv beach, or even a walk past the gates of a North London Jewish school at going-home time proves. A dog in a Jewish home has probably fallen on its feet; the great majority no doubt (unhealthily) enjoy their Friday- night challah and participate in the culinary dimensions of each festival.

    Our dogs become part of our values, especially the practice of chesed — loving-kindness. I recently had an email from a congregant reminding me that he and his dog were registered for Pet Therapy visits; Read 2 Dog, and going to care homes and day centres. I’ve taken my own dogs to hospices and witnessed the solace they bring.

    Dogs offer us many emotional and spiritual benefits. They’re wonderful listeners, sitting patiently by our side, never interrupting with, “Oh, the same thing happened to me, only worse”. Their confidentiality is beyond dispute. But their deepest skill lies not in understanding every word we say, (they don’t), but in intuiting so much of what we don’t say. They sense our feelings and their very presence brings comfort. As a recently bereaved friend told me: “The dog helped us through. He got us out of bed in the morning; he was always there with his love.”

    My dog is a spiritual companion, too. He makes me see and appreciate the world; he leads me on moonlit walks and guides me to places of meditation. He reminds me that we belong together, all living beings, human and animal, and even the trees. We are all part of creation, through which God’s sacred spirit flows.


    ‘Things My Dog Has Taught Me’ is published this week by Hodder and Stoughton