What would you do if you were a Shabbat observer on a delayed flight late Friday afternoon and it became increasingly unlikley you’d get to your destination before sundown? Ask to get off the plane, or stick it out and hope for the best?
Maybe you shouldn’t have been on the flight in the first place.
That’s the consensus of people with whom I’ve discussed this week’s fascinating Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine, which featured that dilemma, presented by a woman whose husband and son were passengers on the plane. It seems that on that particular flight, a family described by the letter writer as "devout Jewish" asked to get off and their request was granted, ultimately causing the cancellation of the flight and great inconvenience to the other passengers and the crew.
I have my doubts that the incident took place as described. Everything I have seen firsthand, read and heard about airline operations suggests that returning to the gate after the cabin is sealed and the plane is on the runway, an extremely expensive proposition, will only happen in the case of a health, safety or security emergency. People get jitters all the time about flying, have second thoughts about the trip or suddenly remember they left their car on the wrong side of the street. If exits were granted on request it would cause chaos for airlines and airports alike.
But it is possible that a sympathetic captain, perhaps a religious person his or herself, granted the request against airline policy.
The Times columnist, Ariel Kaminer, who assumes the pilot was male, said "he went out of his way to accommodate the family’s urgent need. He should not have done so."
Clearly, the pilot did overlook the most basic of ethical principles: That the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Kaminer, like everyone whose opinion on this I sought, points out that the family knew what they were getting into when they boarded the plane after four p.m., knowing there were already extensive delays (the flight was scheduled for 11:29 a.m. and left close to 5 p.m.) The time to stick to your religious guns is at the terminal as the clock ticks into the afternoon, not on the runway.
It’s a 90 minute flight from New York to Milwaukee. We have no way of knowing what time of year this took place, but even in summer when sundown is latest, leaving at 4 p.m. and expecting to get through baggage claim and from the airport during rush hour to your destination by 8 p.m. is cutting it extremely close. If it was another time of year, it would be even more ridiculous that they boarded the plane.
Almost any Orthodox rabbi would say that, once they were on the flight, the family was halachically obligated to do everything they could to avoid flying on Shabbat. But this is where prioritizing principles comes in. Asked his opinion by Kaminer, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of many books on Jewish observance, said the situation pitted two Jewish ethics against one another: Honoring God’s commandments and not dishonoring Judaism in the public eye, which is known as Chillul Hashem.
Of course, not that he or she would necessarily know it, but the pilot could have solved the problem for that family in another way: By refusing the request. If the family had no choice in the matter, and exhausted their efforts to get off the plane, they could no more be held responsible for violating Shabbat than someone who puts on a light by accident.
Then, all they’d have to worry about is finding Shabbat meals and a minyan at the Milwaukee airport.