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.