His big brown eyes look up at mine with perfect trust and loyalty. He’s a comfort to me whenever I’m sick, his big furry body cuddled against mine as he tries to protect me and help me feel better. I never fear intruders because I know they’ll prefer a house that doesn’t have him waiting behind the door.
He’s not my husband…he’s my dog, Sam.
I grew up with dogs, living on a farm. My older brothers were so much older than me that dogs were my most common companions and playmates. My husband, however, raised as an Orthodox Jew, had no experience with dogs at all beyond occasionally petting or playing with a non-Jewish friend’s dog. He was open to the idea of a dog, but didn’t really understand my strong desire for one.
Jews have a complicated relationship with canines, it seems.
The Torah rarely speaks of dogs. I once was curious if there was a famous dog in the Torah that I could bless my dog by on Shabbat. After all, there seemed to be a blessing for everything else, why not my buddy? No, not a single dog is called by name. There is one positive mention of dogs, that of the dogs in Egypt not barking at the Hebrews as they fled during the Exodus. It still didn’t seem right to bless Sam by Egyptian dogs. Surely he’s better than that. Besides, his ancestors were in the snowy alps and Belgium, not Egypt.
The Talmud speaks more about dogs, but it’s not nearly as flattering. They’re non-kosher animals and apparently considered pretty dirty. There are laws for treating all your animals humanely, but dogs in particular seem to be looked down on. In a book I’m reading about a specific area of law I need to study, dogs are even used as an example of something tamei, meaning in Hebrew, ritually impure. There’s even some disagreement among different Rabbis whether a dog is mutzik (not allowed to be touched because they’d lead to breaking Shabbos, due to their fur coming loose).
And all this is even before we get to the common negative views of dogs caused by so many centuries of persecution by non-Jews that did often involve attack dogs.
So…it’s pretty easy to say that my husband and I had very different feelings about four legs and a tail, but given that we were kind of at a point where the choice was really more a puppy or another child and he was hoping for a break, he opened his mind to the idea of a puppy and we eventually found Sam. I can say now that he’s just as attached as I am to our furry friend and Sam is solidly a part of the family.
It does make me wonder, though, as I absentmindedly pet my furry shadow, is everything that is impure “bad?” I can definitely conceive of where a dog physically would become tamei. Dogs, as much as I love them, are not the cleanest creatures and they often love things dearly that I find revolting. Similarly, they live in the moment, not really thinking through their actions much. I can understand the idea of a dog lacking the same sort of soul as a human in that they pretty much live their lives reacting to the moment in a combination of instinct and training, rather than having the same free will we do.
And yet, I also feel like there is so much to admire and learn from a dog.
Dogs devote themselves to each moment fully. There is no joy quite like that of a dog whose owner just came home. Dogs really don’t lie, their outer world matches their inner world without conflict. They show with complete honesty how they feel and they can be capable of great empathy and loyalty to their families. These are all wonderful qualities and remind me of some parts of how our relationship to G-d is when it is at its best. That level of trust and loyalty and honesty…is inspiring!
I can also remember the moments I’ve had with dogs growing up that were sad and stark reminders of their animal nefesh, or soul. I once had a dog as a child that decided a litter of kittens would be a great snack. I was absolutely heartbroken and so enraged at the dog. I felt betrayed! My best friend had done something so awful and horrible, I didn’t know if I could ever love her again. She was a cold blooded killer. No, even worse! She was a predator who had thoroughly enjoyed her kill. I remember sobbing as my mother tried to explain that my dog had only done what dogs are meant to do. She had followed her instincts to hunt. She tried to explain to me that this was how nature worked and that my dog wasn’t to blame.
It still took me quite a while to forgive and to look at my dog the same way again.
I imagine it might be similar when we humans give in to our lesser natures. It could be G-d looks at us with similar anger and sadness and feels betrayed, even as He realizes that this, too is a part of us. The difference is that as humans we can choose to act against that lesser part of our nature.
We choose to keep a dog in our family, beyond just his companionship, for lessons like these also. He can teach us about the better part of our own nature and following it as well as through his shortcomings. He can teach us to love something imperfect and to care for someone even after they’ve eaten a favorite toy. He brings joy and richness to our lives and, one day, he will also teach us about loss, leaving about a 100lb hole in our lives when his short life comes to a close.
In sum, I feel it’s worth having to explain to other Jews why we would want such a crazy, huge, shedding creature in our lives because our lives simply wouldn’t be the same without him.