The Tense State of Judaism
The headline read: A Holocaust Survivor Suing El Al over Seat Change Request. I was initially shocked by the audacity of a Jewish airline treating an 81 year old Holocaust survivor with disdain and humiliation. Unfortunately, I jumped to a conclusion that was far from the truth. The lady who was sitting in the business class section was asked by the flight attendant if it was ok with her to move her seat to accommodate the needs of an ultra-orthodox customer who didn’t want to sit next to a woman. (According to the reports she was offered a better seat).
I have no intention of condemning a survivor who, regardless of the situation, has the right to stand up for herself. However, this incident is an everyday occurrence and I don’t believe it is newsworthy. On many flights I, too, have been asked to change my seat and never contemplated filing a lawsuit. It seems that her situation was exploited by a radical left leaning organization to further their political agenda. They found an opportunity to ignite a flame of antagonism in what should have been a non-issue. Commentaries on this week’s torah portion express an alternative understanding for the words: lo t’vaaru esh b’chol moshvoteichem – do not kindle a flame in all your habitations on the Sabbath day. Whatever space you inhabit, one should be cognizant of their responsibility not to inflame the situation and try to promote a Shabbat atmosphere of serenity and tranquility.
Yet, the question still has to be addressed. Is there a fundamental religious principle that would prohibit the genders from sitting next to each other? Or is this a new practice that has nothing to do with authentic Judaism? I recently viewed pre-1948 footage of the kotel, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It showed men and women intently praying side by side. If truth be told, the Kotel area has never been consecrated as a synagogue and until 1967 never required gender separation. Today, the sanctity of the Kotel has been transformed into a political quagmire endangering its solemnity.
However, even if there is no actual reason to sit separately, couldn’t airlines offer exclusive same-gender seats as an upgrade? They charge for other extras already, why not just add it to the list? On the other hand, demanding that your religious principles should override the comfort of another passenger makes a mockery of Judaism. Modesty is primarily about how one interacts with others and has less to do with how we dress and who we sit next to. Those who seek to elevate their sanctity should read the words in this week’s portion: do not kindle a fire on the sabbath day. Do not allow your piety to be a catalyst in igniting anger, hostility, and anti-religious sentiments. While their passion may be laudable, the price may be too steep to justify.
Personally, I don’t believe that adding restrictions and new customs are beneficial for the future of Judaism. I find that selective rigidity undermines the achdut of klal Yisrael because it is divisive rather than inclusive. Instead of valuing the laws of the Torah, by embellishing new found customs as Godly, it negates the significance of authentic biblical law. In all my life, I have not seen anyone that was truly pious and free from sin. Therefore, I would suggest that instead of worrying about laws that are not required, let’s focus on what unites us. Instead of hyperventilating when placed next to someone not to your liking, why not imagine that Hashem placed that person next you intentionally. Instead of imagining He wants you to distance yourself, what He really desires is that you follow the dictates of His Torah. And remember that when the Ten Commandments states, “love your fellow man,” the word man is gender neutral and refers to all genders.
Rabbi Jack Engel