What’s up with these men — my brothers — who refuse to sit next to women — my sisters — on planes and trains, buses and light rails?
The situations of frum men refusing to sit next to women lend themselves to a kind of grade-school snickering. Methinks the man doth protest too much, way too much. In fact, one imagines a gap between what they are thinking and what they are saying — something like, “I can’t (but desperately really want to) sit next to you” The woman might be thinking the same thing or the opposite “I am insulted and also glad that you don’t want to sit next to me, thank you very much.” Beneath the oppressive humor though there may be serious matters at stake.
As everyone knows, much of the hubbub and hullabaloo has formed around a prominent Orthodox feminist whose flight from Israel to the United States was delayed by a man who insisted that he did not have to sit next to her — a woman — for religious reasons. The woman rather than just “take it” protested loudly calling it an insult akin to racism and published an article about it. In a separate incident reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, a number of “ultra-orthodox” men delayed a flight to Israel, causing “chaos and panic in the aisles” because they did not want to sit next to women.
Everyone has had the miserable experience of having a flight delayed for seemingly gratuitous reasons. We shrug and forget about it as soon as the plane takes off and lands safely. But this one was different. How dare these men make a fuss? It’s annoying, even enraging to be sure, but I wonder why should the issue boil up now? For decades ultra-Orthodox men have been flying and presumably trying to arrange seating to their preference, yet only now does this issue generate such attention and passion with comments rocketing into the many hundreds on some sites.
If we are to accept the story at face value, (I don’t know anyone who was there) it was a clash of the very best and very worst of what we hold dear as Jews: restraint, rightful protest, questioning, soul-searching, legal torturing and gymnastics. Comments seemed to fall along familiar lines: Was he right to ask not to sit next to a woman. Should she be insulted? What contract does a person enter into when he buys a ticket on a transatlantic flight? However, lost in all this well-worn thinking is the knowledge that religion has changed for our generation.
In fact, it would appear that the incidents have crystallized something about the dynamic nature of Jewish life and belief. Namely, that religion and customs do change over time. And that change can be painful.
What has changed?
Time was that a recognizably Orthodox person in public transport was seen as a curio: a remnant from the Old World. He (most often a he) represented a sentiment, a gesture, perhaps holy or pious or quaint. In the face of the thickness of this identity, members of the public would, if not out of total belief, then out of sentiment, recede, sometimes with affection sometimes without, as in, “that guy doesn’t want to sit next to me — a woman? That’s interesting! He must be a holy man.” But now it seems that is no longer so.
There was a kind of silent agreement among all Jews of the last century for observant folk to soften hard issues of doctrine and belief in the face of general custom and sentiment and for the less observant to soften and respect them as well. An Orthodox man might shake hands with a woman, if that were the custom or might not, but it would not be an occasion for either party to militantly protest. A pious man would certainly not obstruct a bus, train or plane over something like this. A pious man would not be prevented from talking to God or studying his Talmud or reciting his Tehillim on the subway.
Parallel to observance of the law, there was a profound ethic of modesty and menschlicheit inherited from his forebears in the sense of being attuned to the world outside — a belief perhaps that human existence in a civil society was a serious matter that in some ways had to live side by side with doctrine. There was finally an easy oscillation between being both narrow and broad, worldly and parochial. The Jew was finally alone, but still tried very much connected with the world.
No more. Today, customs and sentiment have disappeared and hardened into rigid belief. For some of us, one is either “allowed” or not “allowed” to sit next to a woman. One is expected to quote this halachic source or other to support his view. Alternatively, the “laws” of feminisim clamor and compete for parity through equal claim on rectitude. A man is not “allowed” to not sit next to a woman. It is an “insult” on par with racism and it is not to be tolerated. It is all chapter and verse and no spirit.
But of course, is anyone really to blame? Has there been a hundred year upheaval comparable this in all of history? A world where which relentlessly makes universalist claims on small cloistered groups of people: on men who may be in deep conflict about the “world” but at the same time admirably hew to the faith of the fathers as they know it. Moreover, can you blame an “enlightened” Orthodox woman who has correctly diagnosed and identified the centuries of neglect and disenfranchisement of women in the name of religion for refusing to countenance this insult? These clashes are inevitable as they are painful.
About 25 years ago I had the occasion to take one of my teachers to the airport. He was traveling to lsrael for Passover. I accompanied him to the gate. Just as we were about to part, a middle-aged Hasid came over excitedly and said in Yiddish, “Can I sit next to you? I don’t want to sit next to a woman!” My rabbi turned to me in a whisper and said, “Can you find a way politely to get rid of this guy? He’s going to be a noodge and he is going to hok mir a kup de gantze flug. It would be far better for me to sit next to a woman as long as I can get my work done. I have a shiur to prepare! People are waiting to hear it when I get to Israel.”
I don’t know what happened to the nervous Hasid. He probably found a way to avoid sitting next to a woman. But my rebbi prepared a beautiful Talmudic lecture. He taught me something: he could tell from a mile away that this man although pious was empty. He had no life. His only goal was to not sit next to a woman. Such a man was only going to be trouble.