The middle-aged chasidic man, sitting in a window seat, on an El Al flight from Tel Aviv to JFK, didn’t say a word to me when I took my aisle seat in the same row. The seat between us remained empty for a few minutes, and then the occupant appeared – a member of a Birthright Israel group returning to the States.
She was college-aged, attractive; and dressed very immodestly, by my – or the chasid’s – Orthodox standards. Shorts, halter-top.
The chasid said his first words to me: “Yesh baya,” there is a problem. More correctly, he had a problem.
By his accent, I judged him to be Israeli. The problem was the young woman’s garb, the little that she was wearing. You have to move, the chasid said to me, not introducing himself or elaborating, or speaking to the woman, simply pointing to the seat where the college student was about to sit for the next 11 hours. His problem had become my problem.
I had specifically requested, as always, an aisle seat; with long legs, I want to be able to stretch into the aisle when possible. For a pragmatic reason, and a matter of principle for the chasid’s lack of Derech Eretz (common courtesy), I was not about to move.
I didn’t know if the chasid spoke English, but I told the woman, in a voice intentionally loud enough for him to hear, “If he doesn’t want to sit next to you, that’s his problem. You don’t have to move. I am not moving. He can ask the stewardess [I am of the generation that has not accepted the unisex ‘flight attendant’ appellation] to find him another seat.”
Before the confrontation escalated, a male college student in the row behind us offered to exchange his middle seat with the young woman’s. She accepted; for the flight back to the States, our row was all male. The college kid was good company; the chasid never looked at me again or said another word to me.
It was an acceptable solution; as an Orthodox male who finds women attractive, I also did not wish to sit in such close quarters with the young woman. Who needs such temptations?
It would be chutzpah for me to tell the young woman, who was dressed as most of her contemporaries do, to move to accommodate my religious preference, or to tell another passenger to move.
I’m not usually so adamant, but the chasid’s attitude bothered me: I should move, I should sit next to the immodestly dressed woman? Since I am clean-shaven and outfitted in cargo pants when I travel, he apparently figured that I was “Modern,” at a lower spiritual level than he: I could sin with my eyes.
I think about this with the latest example of an “ultra-Orthodox” man offending a woman traveler now in the news — because he was offended by her clothing, or by her very gender. An 81-year-old woman, a Holocaust survivor, an attorney, a grandmother, “impeccably groomed” according to The New York Times, has filed a $75 million discrimination lawsuit against El Al after an encounter she found upsetting with a charedi man on an El Al flight.
Such episodes are not unusual. An Orthodox man who refused to sit next to a woman on a Delta flight. The result: at best, a delayed flight; at worst, upset passengers. Ditto on a Porter Airlines flight. Ditto, frequently, on El Al, which flies the largest number of charedim. Ditto, too many times to mention. As well as women bumped to the back of buses that serve the Orthodox community in this country and Israel.
Charedi hubris, to my distress, is on the rise.
It’s admittedly a minority of charedi men who commit such outrages, but a vocal one that pounces on an extreme interpretation of Jewish law and gives the wider Orthodox community a black eye, a reputation for being intolerant bigots.
I’ve heard of charedi men in Israel who paint over most of their eyeglasses, with only narrow slits remaining, to reduce the likelihood of seeing, on the streets, sights they don’t want to see. Extreme behavior, but they’re not hurting anyone’s feelings or telling anyone how to behave.
Having non-Orthodox female relatives who do not share my religious sensibilities, I realize that they do not accept my halachic concerns and are blissfully unaware of how unsettling their minimally covered appearance can be for heterosexual male eyes.
Like any male, I can simply avert my gaze.
Congregation Shearith Israel’s Rabbi Marc Angel, in a recent blog post, wrote about this topic in terms of the difference between a “rabbi” and a “hakham.” (A chacham, the Hebrew word’s usual spelling, is a scholar; in Sephardic nomenclature, it’s a spiritual leader, what Ashkenazim call a rabbi.)
“The ‘Hakham’ is not less devoted to the Torah” than the “rabbi,” “and not less religious in any way,” Rabbi Angel wrote. “Yet, the Hakham is part of a tradition that promotes a natural, courteous and congenial way of life. He would consider it a terrible sin to embarrass a woman by asking her to move away, as though she were an impure or contaminated being. He would feel comfortable sitting next to any decent person, male or female.”
I have learned in my yeshiva studies a fundamental principle of Jewish behavior: Derech Eretz kodma l’Torah. Common courtesy comes before [performance of fastidious acts of] Torah.
This principle, unfortunately, is increasingly ignored in many parts of my Orthodox community.
There is no easy solution.
El Al is not at fault. El Al is not Mea Shearim. An airline, even an Israeli one, cannot set or enforce a dress code. It cannot tell women how to act or men how to react. Its priority is getting flights off the ground on schedule.
El Al can begin its own charedi-men-only section on each flight. In the back of the plane. It would be called the Rosa Parks Section.
My suggestion: make it clear that the airline’s seats are open to the general flying public, however he or she – barring outright nudity or other clearly, agreed-upon inappropriate garb – is dressed. Someone offended by a fellow passenger’s clothing choices can pay for a seat in business class or first class, where the seats are not touching each other. Or buy two adjoining seats for himself.
Or, if that is not possible, deplane … and rebook on a future flight, at his expense.
This is what I would have told the chasid on my flight last year, had he been willing to discuss instead of demand.
Someone with heightened religious sensibilities has choices.
He can stay home.
He can bury his head in a book.
Or he can act like a mensch.