In 1993 Israel passed legislation mandating that all public places allow access for guide dogs, unless the dogs disturb the “essence” of the place. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz prohibited guide dogs from the lower plaza of the Western Wall, in 2009, citing that the dogs impinged upon the “essence” of the Kotel. Recently, unfortunately, a tour group of 60 blind Jews who traveled to the Western Wall were turned away because of Rabbi Rabinowitz’s ruling.
Blindness is already an incredible challenge, one the rabbis equated with death. Why should we deny one who is visually impaired, who relies upon the guidance of a dog, the opportunity to pray because it may cause a slight distraction to another?
While terms such as “low vision” have no standard meaning, the blind and visually impaired usually include those who, even with the best possible correction, have 20/200 or worse vision according to the Snellen scale (i.e., unable to even read the first line of an eye chart). It is estimated that in 2011 there were more than 6.6 million Americans with significant vision loss requiring some kind of assistance, usually a cane or a seeing eye dog.
These Americans face enormous difficulties with daily life. Consider how many activities now require the use of a computer, cell phone, or other visual media devices in order to work or communicate with family and friends. Is it any wonder that more than 4.2 million of those with a visual disability have less than a high school education, 1.8 million are unemployed, and more than 1 million live below the poverty line (31 percent)? These statistics are shocking and reveal the tragic consequences that millions of Americans suffering from visual impairment must endure.
Federal laws covering seeing eye dogs were only enacted in the mid-1980s, guaranteeing some rights in terms of airline travel, housing, and work. There are also many state laws offering different levels of protection above what the federal government guarantees.
The United States could do much more to help. For example, in the United States, all paper currency tends to be the same size, so a blind person must ask someone to make sure what the denomination is before, commonly, deciding to fold each bill in a unique pattern for future recognition. Meanwhile, in the European Union, different denominations of the paper currency (the Euro) are different sizes, so a blind person can learn the size of each. In Canada, paper currency has a small Braille patch that blind people can use to determine the denomination. While these changes might be costly, there are other simple changes that could be undertaken with minimal expense. For example, in the Zürich, Switzerland railroad station, there is a small groove that leads from the entrance to the train platforms, which a blind person can use to easily follow to the area where their train will depart.
A seeing eye dog can be an additional help and great resource, especially in cities where traffic may move at a high rate of speed and listening may not be enough to cross a street safely. These extraordinary animals have an interesting history. Formal use of dogs to aid the blind came about in Germany after World War I, to serve the many veterans who had been blinded by poison gas. By 1929, the first formal training program for guide dogs was established in the United States. Since then, the Seeing Eye, a foundation dedicated to promoting the use of trained dogs, has trained and provided more than 15,000 guide dogs to the visually impaired, including more than 1,700 active guide dogs as of 2012.
A recent story from New York City may help to elucidate the importance of guide dogs to their owners. On Tuesday, December 17th Cecil Williams, a blind man, suffered a fainting spell and tumbled onto subway tracks in Harlem. Orlando, Mr. Williams’, guide dog leaped onto the tracks and attempted to rouse his owner by licking his face, to no avail. With the train rapidly approaching Orlando took up a protective position between Mr. Williams and the train. A transit worker witnessing the event shouted to Mr. Williams to lower his head to the ground, which the man did and only then did Orlando lay down as well. Miraculously, the train passed over the man and his loyal guide dog inflicting only minor injury to Mr. Williams and no injury to Orlando. This incredible story demonstrates the life-saving roles that guide dogs play, on a daily basis, to their owners.
In Israel, the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, founded in 1991, works to provide visually impaired Israelis with guide dogs. The organization trains dogs to respond to commands in Hebrew and negotiate the physically challenging situations typical within Israel; thus far the Center had provided 250 guide dogs to Israelis. One barrier to greater numbers is the time and cost (about $25,000) to train one dog. Since there are 27,000 registered blind people in Israel, including wounded veterans, the need is great.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked if a seeing-eye dog could come into synagogue. Normally it is not permitted for an animal to enter the sanctuary but Rav Moshe allowed for guide dogs. The rabbi even mentioned a Talmudic story that shows that donkeys came into sanctuaries. “And there is no greater emergency than this, since if we do not permit it, the person will forever miss public prayer and the public reading of the Torah and Megillah.”
Let us follow the path of Israeli Rabbi Benny Lau:
Life in a sovereign Jewish democracy should open the eyes of decisors to the enormous potential for mutual enrichment between the human rights doctrine and the Jewish tradition. Decisors who hold human rights dear will find a way to allow people with disabilities to have access to every place. As this dispute revolves around the edifice comprised of “stones with a human heart,” it is my hope that those supervising the Western Wall plaza will soon find their hearts and minds open to the needs of our sightless brothers.
The Torah commands that we “do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” We must ensure that we build a society that protects and empowers those living with visual impairment. Surely accommodating the blind and their guide dogs at places of worship, including the holiest site for prayer in the Jewish religion, is an aspect of creating a just society.Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the founder & president of Uri L’Tzedek, the founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of books on Jewish ethics, most recently “The Soul of Jewish Social Justices.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”
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