Blind to the Rights of the Disabled

Why Guide Dogs Should be Allowed at the Western Wall

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In an article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau calls on religious authorities who hold human rights dear to find a way to allow people with disabilities to have access to the Western Wall plaza.

Recently, 60 blind people with guide dogs toured the Old City of Jerusalem. Despite the eternal darkness they experience, they were flooded with light. Touching the stones of the Jewish Quarter brought tears to their sightless eyes. However, they could not approach the prayer site sanctified by a myriad of Jewish tears over the millennia, since Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall, has ruled that the Western Wall plaza is off limits to all types of animals—guide dogs included.

When a similar issue arose over sixty years ago, the renowned decisor Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permitted guide dogs to enter the synagogue so that blind people could participate in services. His attentiveness to the needs of people with disabilities who lose their independence without their dogs, is especially noteworthy:

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. There are also days when anguish will be very great, such as the High Holidays and the like, when the masses assemble. These are sufficient grounds to permit a blind person, who always needs a guide dog alongside, to enter the synagogue to pray, hear the Torah reading, and the like.

Rabbi Rabinowitz is familiar with Rabbi Feinstein's responsum, but preferred to rely on the ruling of Rabbi Yaakov Breisch of Zurich, who forbade guide dogs from entering the synagogue. Rabbi Breisch felt that consideration for the needs of the blind would detract from religious decorum, which was of greater value in his eyes, and held that an alternative solution must be found that would not undermine the sanctity of the synagogue.

Why did the Western Wall Rabbi prefer to issue a stringent ruling when he could have issued a lenient one? Rabbi Rabinowitz reasons that since animals are excluded from all civilized places, how much more so should they be barred from entering synagogues and the Western Wall. I believe, however, that Rabbi Rabinowitz's argument should be inverted. Under Israeli law, all public places and cultural venues must allow blind people to enter with their guide dogs. Can the Torah be less considerate of human needs than the rules of secular culture?

Rabbi Rabinowitz further maintains that since holy sites the world over bar animals, permitting dogs to enter Jewish holy sites would be a desecration of God's name. This assertion, too, is far from true. Religious leaders the world over allow guide dogs to enter churches. Judaism, like all religions, must adapt to evolving social norms while adhering to tradition. Therefore, on the contrary—allowing guide dogs to enter Jewish holy sites would sanctify God's name.

Finally, Rabbi Rabinowitz is concerned that permitting guide dogs to enter the Western Wall plaza would disturb the worshippers. It is true that if worshippers see guide dogs as something unusual, they may be distracted from their prayers, even if the dogs are sitting quietly beside their blind owners. However, if more blind people see the Western Wall as their "home," this situation will become commonplace. It is therefore important to create a sympathetic environment at the Western Wall that enables people with guide dogs to have the unique spiritual experience that sighted people have. The public will quickly adjust.

It is sad that in the State of Israel, at the site most sacred to the Jewish people, religious arguments are used to exclude believers from participating in public prayer because of their physical disability. The eyes of the entire Jewish people turn to the Western Wall—including those of the blind. Western society has accepted responsibility for integrating people with disabilities, including those with guide dogs. This has been mandated by international convention and by Knesset legislation. The honor and glory of the Torah will increase if we allow blind people to enter synagogues—and especially the Western Wall plaza—on their own, accompanied by their guide dogs.

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 and sisters.

For a more in-depth analysis of this topic, read Rabbi Lau's responsum
"Access of People with Guide Dogs to the Western Wall Prayer Plaza.

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin "Benny" Lau heads IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project and is the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. His activities at IDI are supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation

This article was first published in The Jewish Week on October 1, 2013.