The issue I want to talk about today may be controversial, but I know that you are not afraid to be challenged. It is, in any case, a question that is very dear to my heart. This question has been posed by many over the years, and I feel it is important that I give a serious and considered answer.
Can a dog have a bar mitzvah?
Last year, the ultra-Orthodox Israeli member of the Knesset, Stav Shafir, rebuked progressive Jews by saying “go bar mitzvah your dogs!” I will be honest with you. I didn’t have much of a desire to carry out such a ceremony, but after that outburst, I really did. There was just something about the way he said it that made my contrary spirit think: I can’t wait to get the chance.
To the best of my knowledge, no such ceremony has ever been performed in a synagogue of any variety. There are, however, documented cases of such celebrations taking place in Jewish homes. These simchas have been lovingly dubbed “bark mitzvahs”. As I understand it, these usually take place when the dog turns 13 in dog years, which is at around their 3rd birthday in human years.
But what does it mean to conduct such a ceremony, and why did the idea make Stav Shafir so angry? Surely he must know that, throughout history, dogs have been quite friendly to the Jewish people. According to the Exodus narrative, no dog barked as we were leaving Egypt, so we were able to sneak away in silence.
Perhaps, within Orthodoxy, the idea is risible. Orthodox Judaism is primarily concerned with ritual observance and adherence to halachah. In Orthodoxy, the term “bar mitzvah” is interpreted to mean “liable for the commandments”. To them, becoming bar mitzvah is taking on responsibility for the 613 statutes codified by Maimonides. So we need to know whether a puppy that came of age could engage in such pursuits.
Could a dog switch to a kosher diet? Certainly. There are plenty of kosher meats. In fact, every year, London’s Orthodox Beit Din publishes a list of approved pet foods. There are even brands dedicated to providing such snacks. Unsurprisingly, their price increases significantly around Pesach. According to this list, one can not only have a kashrut-observant chihuahua, but also a halachic hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, rat, goldfish, cat or budgerigar. Dr Dolittle would have no problem maintaining a kosher kitchen after all.
But could our canine friends observe any of the other traditional mitzvot? A Jack Russell terrier could not light shabbat candles. With the best will in the world, that is a task that requires opposable thumbs. Now, some dogs might be able to handle tefillin. The head tefillin could certainly fit on a Doberman, but can you imagine trying to place an arm tefillin on a Dachshund?
A dog might even be able to join in with traditional davening. I once led a Friday night service in East London that was attended by a Giant Schnauzer. When everyone rose for the Amidah, he rose too. When we sat for the psalms, he sat too. When we got up and bowed in Lecha Dodi to welcome the sabbath, yes, the dog bowed. He even covered his eyes when it came to the Shem’a. By the time we were reciting Aleinu, I realised that the dog was mumbling along to the prayers, following along in the Koren Sacks. I said to his owner: “this is incredible. Your dog could be a rabbi!” She said: “Tell that to him. He wants to be a taxi driver!”
If following commands is what it takes to lead a normatively Jewish life, surely that’s what dogs are best at. I am concerned, however, that even if a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel could be trained to follow most of the rules by command, she still would not be able to fulfil the mitzvah of transmitting these teachings to her puppies.
Enough speculation. I clearly do not have the necessary skills to assess a Dalmatian’s suitability for being called up to the Torah. I need to turn to our textual tradition. Thankfully, a book has already been written on this subject. In 2007, the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary published their definitive guide, ‘How to Raise a Jewish Dog’.
I had hoped that this would answer the important theological questions I am posing. As it quickly became apparent, however, this text was only applicable to the specific minhag of coastal North American Ashkenazi secular Jews. It advises dog owners, instead of saying no to your dog, ask him: “how can you do this to me? What did I do to deserve this? Is this my fault? Go on, you can tell me.” When your dog errs, the book suggests, remind him of everything you’ve done for him – and this is the thanks you get! And, of course, as a proud parent of a Jewish dog, you must make sure your pet knows not to mumble when he barks, cover his mouth when he sneezes and not to whine. Either ask for something or be quiet.
The truth is, however, that neither the secular approach nor the Orthodox one will help us ascertain whether any progressive British synagogue will have a Maltese poodle giving sermons from the bimah any time soon. For that, we have to understand what a bar mitzvah means in our own specific context.
When I first sit down to teach bat mitzvah students, I always begin by asking them: what do you think you need to do to become bat mitzvah? Usually, they will answer that they need to learn Hebrew, read from the Torah, give a drash, and learn the prayers. No, I say. She does not need to do any of these things. All she needs to do to become bat mitzvah in a progressive synagogue is turn 13. So, why then, do we spend with them a year learning Hebrew, Bible, theology, ethics, interpretation and how to politely gossip about the rest of the congregation?
Because, a progressive Jewish bat mitzvah is, first and foremost about choice. It is a young adult’s choice to make informed choices about what being Jewish means to them. They learn all this because they are becoming adults, and adults need to make decisions. They will need to decide how they read the Torah, how often they go to synagogue, what being part of a community means to them, and what role they want to play.
Above all else, our tradition teaches them how to make moral choices about participating in the modern world. Yes, Judaism speaks to the concerns of our society today. This week’s parashah contains a slogan that so perfectly summarises our values it may well be the international strapline for Progressive Judaism: tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice, you shall pursue. Not the justice that can be blindly followed by adherence to commandments. Not the justice that you can achieve solely through creating culture. No. The Torah teaches that we must pursue the type of justice that needs to be reasoned, debated and pursued based on conscientious conviction.
I teach a regular cheder class. Recently, I overheard the students, unprompted, discussing whether they would participate in the Youth Climate Strike. Across the country, school students have been leaving school to protest against the destruction of our planet by corporate greed and government inaction. Their debates were informed and wise. They each discussed the respective attitudes of their schools, parents and peers. They talked about the repercussions if they participated and the possible consequences if they did not. They shared their best understanding of the scientific, moral and political concerns involved.
And I marvelled. No dog could ever have such a conversation. Most 12 year olds would not engage like this. Whatever conclusions these students came to, only a religion school that centred informed choice and civic conscience could generate such discussions. This is our Judaism. And that is why, no matter what criticisms Stav Shafir wants to throw at us, I am proud to be a progressive Jew.
I gave this sermon at Three Counties Liberal Judaism for Parashat Shoftim on 7th September 2019.
 Ex 11:7
 Deut 16:20