April 10, 2024
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A Service Dog in Shul? At Shaarei Orah This Past Shabbat!

As surprising as it sounds, there was a service dog inside the sanctuary of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, this past Shabbat. Among the overflow crowd attending the joyous bar mitzvah of Ezzy Douek was a woman who required the company of a service dog.

Ample halachic evidence supports permitting a guide dog or service dog to enter a Beit Knesset. When I was student at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1983, a dog had wandered into Rav Lichtenstein’s shiur room, which prompted this great rav to relate how a synagogue in Boston refused a blind individual entry with his guide dog. The man subsequently sued the synagogue and the judge presiding over the case called Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, asking the stance of Jewish law regarding a guide dog accompanying a blind individual into the Beit Knesset. Rav Lichtenstein recounted that Rav Soloveitchik replied that it is permissible based on a passage recorded in Berachot 63a. The Talmud there states that just as one would not permit the use of his house as a shortcut, so too one is forbidden to use the synagogue as a shortcut. However, just as one would allow a guest to enter his home and not require him to remove his shoes, so too one is not required to remove his shoes when he enters a synagogue. Similarly, argued Rav Soloveitchik, just as one would certainly permit a blind person to enter his home with his seeing-eye dog, so too a blind person is permitted to enter the synagogue with his guide dog.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim, I, 45) in response to a question sent to him by the legendary Rav Pinchas Teitz, also permitted a guide dog to enter the synagogue with his guide dog. Rav Moshe cites the Jerusalem Talmud (III, 3) which states:

Rabi Yehoshua Ben Levi states that synagogues and study halls are built to be used by Talmud scholars [to eat and drink there]… Rabi Imi instructed the teachers of youngsters [who were present in the synagogue during the course of the day] to permit even a marginal scholar to enter the synagogue with his donkey and his tools [or clothes].

Accordingly, the Jerusalem Talmud regards permitting an animal to enter a synagogue or study hall to be no more disrespectful to the sanctity of these places than eating or drinking in them. Hence, argues Rav Feinstein, just as the practice has developed to permit eating and drinking in the synagogue, at the very least in case of urgent need, so too an animal should be permitted to enter the synagogue in case of urgent need. Even though these actions constitute disrespect for the synagogue they are permitted since synagogues outside of Israel are built on the condition that their sanctity does not forbid their use for mundane purposes in case of urgent need. Enabling a blind person to attend the synagogue most certainly constitutes urgent need, insists Rav Feinstein, and, accordingly, a guide dog may be brought by its blind master into the synagogue.

Rav Feinstein also suggests (although he expresses some hesitation concerning this line of reasoning) that bringing an animal into the synagogue for mundane purposes (such as protecting the animal from theft) undoubtedly constitutes an expression of dishonor to the sanctity of the synagogue. However, when an animal is brought into the synagogue to enable a blind person to pray with the community, no disrespect is shown toward the holiness of the synagogue.

However, two other prominent rabbis argue that a guide dog may not be brought into the synagogue. Rav Yaakov Breisch (Helkat Yaakov Orah Haim 34) and Rav Shlomo Braun (Shearim Metzuyanim B’Halacha 13:2) cite Chatam Sofer’s assertion (Orah Haim 31) that if non-Jews forbid a particular activity in their place of worship, then if Jews were to permit that activity it would constitute a desecration of God’s name. Hence, they argue, since non-Jews do not permit animals in their houses of worship, it would be a desecration of God’s name to permit a guide dog in the synagogue. Regardless of the merits of this argument, it appears to be factually incorrect. In fact, the various Christian denominations in this country do not have a policy forbidding a blind person to enter their houses of worship with a guide dog. This was confirmed in conversations I conducted in 1992 with the National Council of Churches, The Chancery of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York, and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. I called Rav Braun (Rav Breisch was already deceased at the time) who told me that he was unaware that Church policy had changed to permit guide dogs to enter their houses of worship.

Rav Breisch’s other criticisms of Rav Feinstein’s responsum include concern that a guide dog will disrupt prayer services. However, those familiar with seeing-eye dogs report that these animals are well trained and are very unlikely to cause a disruption. Rav Breisch also writes that he cannot imagine why there is no alternate means of enabling a blind person to attend the synagogue. The fact is, however, that there is a training period in which the dog and the blind individual must be together at all times. Though Rav Breisch has other criticisms of Rav Moshe’s responsum, Rav Feinstein’s argument appears far more persuasive than that of Rav Breisch.

In the case of Shaarei Orah, we base much of our practice on the rulings of Rav Ovadia Yosef. As such it was important for us to discover that Hacham Ovadia’s grandson, Hacham Yaakov Sasoon, writes (Halacha Yomit August 27, 2008) that one may rely on the ruling of Rav Feinstein. This is hardly surprising in light of the fact that Rav Yosef had enormous respect for the halachic approach of Rav Moshe Feinstein.

Conclusion

We at Shaarei Orah were very pleased that Halacha permitted us to extend a traditional Sephardic warm welcoming to our guest who brought a service dog. Everyone was exceedingly impressed with the devotion and great discipline of the service dog, which did not in the least detract from the beautiful Shaarei Orah tefillah. Our special guest added another layer of joy to a wonderful simha. May Hashem send us more and more beautiful, happy occasions at Shaarei Orah!

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.

 

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