Last week I called my brother Leon, who lives in Jerusalem, to wish him a happy birthday. As soon as he answered the phone, I knew something was wrong.
"Is everything all right?" I asked.
"Not really," he murmured in response. "I had to put Lyle to sleep."
Named for the Texas country singer Lyle Lovett, the dog had been Leon's companion in Israel since the time he made aliyah 15 years ago. I didn't know quite what to say, other than, "I'm so sorry. I know how you're feeling." Because I did: I had lost my dog Max after 13 years of friendship.
In "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," Milan Kundera writes:
The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he usurped for himself over the cow and the horse.
Clearly, this doesn't sound like a Jewish view on the subject, at least not a traditional Jewish view. But Kundera goes on to say, "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test ... consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals." This view is actually quite Jewish.
The Bible contains many laws that mandate compassion for animals. For example, an ox is not to be muzzled when threshing in a field of corn (Deuteronomy 25:4). A farmer should not plow with an ox and ass together -- so that the weaker animal does not suffer trying to keep up with the stronger one (Deuteronomy 22:10). And in addition to people, animals must also be allowed to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10). Rabbinic law goes even further, suggesting that a person not eat or drink before first providing for his or her animals. Perhaps the overarching Jewish view is best summarized in Proverbs 12:10, which provides, "The righteous person regards the life of his beast," meaning that in Judaism, one who is cruel to animals can never be considered righteous. (Thankfully for Michael Vick, atonement is available.)
But more compelling than how we treat animals, which still implies dominion or control, is how we genuinely integrate them into our lives as virtual family. I've often thought that there's no better reflection of the human capacity (and perhaps need) for love than that evidenced in our relationships with pets. We enter these relationships, investing not just time and money, but emotion -- forging deep connections -- knowing that we will outlive our animal friends, thus resulting in our having to experience grief at the inevitable loss. Why? The common answer is that pets -- dogs, in particular -- provide unconditional affection. And to a large degree, I suppose that's right. But I am convinced that we benefit in other ways, as well -- or at least we can, if we heed the canine call.
In her remarkable book "Animals in Translation," autistic author Temple Grandin explains how her condition provides her with unique insights into the way animals perceive and thus behave. Grandin has written hundreds of scientific articles, and half of all the cattle in North America are kept in more humane pens that she has designed. As part of her work, Grandin literally climbs into areas where cows are kept in order to see what they see, things that non-autistics simply do not observe. Animals, it seems, notice minute details that most of us miss, such as shadows on the ground that most people either ignore or don't even see as sufficient to cause huge steer to stand still, frozen in fright. According to Grandin, unlike humans, animals don't see what they want to see; they see the world and their environment as they actually are.
An author with a very different condition, alcoholism, also writes of animal perceptions -- or lack thereof. In "Pack of Two," Caroline Knapp describes how she regained control of her life through the companionship provided by a puppy named Lucille. "Dogs don't judge us. They are oblivious to the standards [people] use to assess one another -- appearance and social status, color and class and profession." Unlike us, dogs are always honest, without reference to what others might think, which is why they bark and jump with excitement when we return home -- because they act the way they feel, and they feel without pretense: "My [other] relationships have characteristically been about withholding -- keeping parts of me shut down, or held back, or under wraps, protected against disappointment or vulnerability," Knapp writes, but "my relationship with Lucille is about giving, an unrestrained, fearless, expressive kind of giving that's brand new to me, and it makes me feel human."
In the end, I'll never forget the amusement and the annoyance my dog Max caused. Born without siblings, this mixed shepherd was both the pride and runt in his litter. Once, he caused a UPS delivery man to climb a tree; another time, he crashed through a plate-glass window going after a garbage truck; and frequently, he devoured chocolate cake and kosher brisket that my mother hadn't intended for him. But the Master of Disaster passionately lived and genuinely loved. And those are life lessons that books alone cannot teach.
(For Phoebe, who's fighting cancer with great courage.)