Today, the question of whether Jews dislike domestic pets may seem preposterous. After all, this is the age of the "bark mitzvah," in which dogs and cats are cherished members of many Jewish households. But for years, the idea that Jews have a fraught relationship with animals--often dogs, specifically--has circulated through the culture.
Literature is filled with references that underscore this ambivalent relationship. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is anguished at being considered as lowly as a dog: "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine," cries the moneylender. Much later, S.Y. Agnon, the towering figure of 20th-century Hebrew literature, wrote about a stray dog in his 1945 novel Only Yesterday. By the end of the story, the animal turns into a monstrous creature, biting the book's protagonist to death. And Yiddish sayings--one metric of popular sentiment--invoked a distaste for dogs, including an epithet for an immoral person: a hunt mit di oyern, or "a dog with ears."
Fear of dogs may be tied to cultural touchstones embedded in the collective Jewish consciousness. "Many Jews who came from Europe have a hang-up about dogs," says Natan Slain, an Orthodox rabbi noted for his work on the Torah, zoology and science. The Nazi obsession with dogs, for one, may have contributed to an inherited anxiety High-ranking German officers were often accompanied by dogs trained to brutalize prisoners; Kurt Franz, the sadistic commander of Treblinka, owned a dog named Bari that was trained to attack inmates' genitals. Hitler himself was famously devoted to Biondi, his German Shepherd. (Biondi met her end in April of 1945, when Hitler, realizing the war was nearing its end, tested his cyanide capsules on her.)
The tenuous connection between Jews and animals has biblical roots. "We don't have a lot of texts that speak about the relationship between humans and animals," says Robin Nafshi, a Reform rabbi in New Hampshire. "In biblical times, animals were there for working--it's a very different relationship than we have today." Some canonical texts, though, espouse the importance of animals; a line in the Book of Proverbs declares "A righteous person takes heed of the life of his beast," and the Talmud exhorts that "A person must not eat before feeding his animal."
Rabbinic law isn't unanimous in its affection for animals, though. In 1992, prominent Orthodox rabbi Howard Jachter published a...