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Of Canines and Commandments

By Mark Levenson

Last year I moved back to New York City from a long sojourn out West and, as I try to mix in the Jewish circles of my Upper West Side neighborhood, I have been dogged by a secret. But I've lived in the closet as long as I can and, for better or worse, am now outing myself on the Internet.

My secret: I have dogs.

They're a pair of Pembroke Welsh Corgis, Benny and Mollie, so cute they leave behind a wake of smiles as we negotiate the crowded sidewalks of Manhattan. But reasons practical, theological and sociological conspire to put a divide as big as the one in the Sea of Reeds between traditional Jews and dogs. To many of my co-religionists, the stray dog-hair on my jacket could just as well be a stain of bacon fat for the doubt it raises about my fidelity to Jewish law.

Jewish antipathy to dogs is longstanding, as Rabbi Judah Elijah Schochet points out in "Animal Life in Jewish Tradition," (KTAV, 1984):

"The dog is one of the few animals almost invariably spoken of in negative and derogatory terms [in Jewish Scripture]. There apparently was little personal relationship between biblical man and the dog.. Dogs are described as being noisy [Psalms 59:7-14], greedy [Isaiah 56:11], stupid [Isaiah 56:10], filthy [Proverbs 26:11].... The term "dog" is applied as an insult to humans [I Kings 22:38]. Furthermore, "dog" appears to have been a derogatory designation for male prostitutes [Deuteronomy 23:19]."

Schochet argues that this treatment is a result of the position in which biblical man found himself viz the dog in particular and animals in general. Dogs were worshipped by Egyptians and Caananites, as were other animals. It is one of the triumphs of Torah that it made clear to biblical man that God and God alone was worthy of worship, and that man's role was to be a respectful steward over creation, including animals. The exultation of the dog was incompatible with this concern.

And there are practical reasons for Jews to be less than dog's best friend, particularly in the cramped quarters of a New York apartment. Jewish law requires an absolute separation of the pots, pans, dishes and utensils used for meat and for dairy. Homes in which the dietary laws of kashrut are kept thus maintain separate meat and dairy sections. My apartment has three: meat, dairy and -- in a counter and shelf never used for the preparation of human food - canine, so that the non-kosher dog food can't contaminate the rest of the kitchen, rendering it, too, non-kosher. Then, on Passover, the requirements multiply as the prohibition against a Jew owning or using leavened products renders most - but not all - commercial dog foods illegal under Jewish law, even when they're acceptable the rest of the year. It's possible to juggle these requirements, but easy for others to assume that I am cutting corners on kashrut for the sake of my canines.

Beyond theology and practicality, there are visceral reasons for Jews to be anti-dog. From the Crusades to the Pogroms to the Holocaust, the relationship between Jews and dogs have mostly seen the former fleeing the business ends of the latter, set on them by anti-Semitic persecutors. If Jews have a racial memory of dogs, it's not a happy one.

And yet, there are particularly Jewish reasons for Jews to regard dogs with affection. In Torah, when God informs Moses of the imminent tenth plague on Egypt, the slaying of the first born, He says: "There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt, such as there has never been and such as there shall never be again. But against all the Children of Israel, no dog shall whet its tongue, against neither man nor beast, so that you shall know that the Lord will have differentiated between Egypt and Israel" [Exodus, 11:6-7]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could only conceive of a single dog doing nothing in the night-time but Torah gives us an entire nation of them. Not a dog barks or howls against the Jews, signifying the tranquility they enjoy while the Egyptians are suffering the horrors of the ultimate plague. Once the Jews gain their freedom to worship God, the dog is singled out for reward throughout the generations for its show of restraint on that terrible night: "People of holiness shall you be to Me; you shall not eat flesh of an animal that was torn in the field; to the dog shall you throw it. [Exodus, 22:30-31].

Meat torn from a live animal, rather than slaughtered according to Jewish law, is non-kosher and unfit for Jewish consumption. Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator, attributes this command of throwing such meat to dogs to the gratitude we must show to the dog, just as God does not let any good deed go unrewarded. Thus, this command contains an ethical inculcation as well.

This positive regard for the dog, rare in Jewish Scripture, blossomed during the Rabbinic period (200-500 C.E.), when animal worship was more a thing of the past and the Sages were free to re-mythologize animals, to derive moral and ethical lessons from the animal kingdom in general and the dog in particular. One example:

"The Jerusalem Talmud [Schochet writes] cites as one of Rabbi Meir's fables the story of a dog who observed a serpent poisoning the curdled milk of its master. The dog barked frantically, but to no avail, as its master failed to heed its warnings and set out to partake of the milk. The desperate dog hastened to consume the food itself, thereby dying an agonizing death while saving the lives of its master and his fellow shepherds. The grateful shepherds buried the faithful dog with funerary honors and erected a monument to its memory."

So Talmud anticipates "Greyfriar's Bobby" and "A Dog of Flanders" by 1,500 years. This positive tone becomes a running thread through writings of medieval commentators, Kabbalists and others. However, one of the tenderest depictions of the dog and its bond to humanity, to my mind, again comes from the Sages. In an elaboration of the book of Genesis called Genesis Rabba (22:12) they deal with the apparently ignominious mark of Cain, bestowed after Cain kills Abel and is condemned to lonely exile. Since the mark of Cain is never described in Torah, it leaves the Sages free to speculate as to its nature. The Talmudic figure Rav does just this, suggesting that the mark was actually a dog that God gave to Cain to keep him company in his solitude.

When Jews show tenderness to dogs, they are thus acting on lessons first taught in Torah and implementing Torah's requirement to be a holy people. Also, they are conveying a crucial ethical lesson: if the dog, a servant and tool of man, is worthy of kindness, how much more so are our fellow human beings -- creatures created in the image of God -- worthy of such kindness.

Now, if only I could get my fellow Jews to remember that when they see me taking a Sabbath stroll with my little, furry friends.

Mark Levenson is a New York writer.

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