Mixed seating on airplanes — an unlikely battleground in the Jewish gender wars — has finally been rabbinically endorsed.
Following several scandals involving an ultra-Orthodox man asking that his seat be changed because he was seated next to a woman, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinical association, released a resolution last week advising Orthodox men to stay put.
“Jews are permitted to sit next to a member of the opposite sex who is not a relative even when this unintentionally causes physical contact between them,” the resolution reads. Though Jewish law regularly “restricts Jews from most forms of physical contact with members of the opposite sex who are not closely related … One should avoid asking a person seated in an adjacent seat in a public venue to move.”
The resolution goes on to say that if one is asked to move, “one may politely and firmly refuse.”
According to RCA Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, the organization decided to pen a resolution about the matter because “there was concern about the very negative publicity this issue brings to Orthodox Jews.”
Indeed in past years, incidents of ultra-Orthodox men requesting that their seats be moved have resulted in more than flight delays. Several flights, primarily from New York to Israel, have been disrupted over the issue, igniting social media outrage, a protest initiative against on-flight “gender segregation,” an online petition (“Stop bullying, intimidation, and discrimination against women on El Al flights!”) and even a spoof safety video recommending that ultra-Orthodox men don full-body safety vests to protect themselves from potential contact with a member of the opposite sex.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a right-wing advocacy organization, agreed with the RCA’s resolution. Though Agudath Israel usually boasts a very conservative agenda, Rabbi Shafran, speaking as an individual and not for the organization, said that “stringent levels of modesty” should not be prioritized ahead of “derech eretz” — common decency.
“Our sages say that [derech eretz] is a necessary precursor to being an observant Jew,” he said. “According to basic Jewish law, a man is allowed to sit next to a woman on a plane.”
The RCA resolution, written in strictly legalistic jargon, did not evade some Facebook sport.
“We can sit next to men on a plane … but can we be studying Gemara and halakha en route?” the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance posted on its Facebook page, jibing right-wing Orthodox rabbis who discourage women’s Talmud study. (In August 2015 Rabbi Mordechai Willig, a member of the RCA and a leading rabbi at Yeshiva University, questioned the widespread practice of women learning Talmud.) “Can we make use of said knowledge?”