Thursday, July 07, 2011

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

In the Summer Issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Rabbis Aaron Alexander and Daniel Greyber wrote a commentary on two incidents that had happened over the past year and a half in which Jews praying on planes with tefillin aroused suspicion and worry, causing in one case, for the plane to be diverted and in the second, for the plane to be met at LAX by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel, and police.

Greyber and Alexander express this as the outcome of the blessing and tension of "unparalleled freedom of religious expression," and ask how, given that tension, Jews (and other people of faith) can navigate the responsibilities that come with that freedom. They review the halacha - that it is not necessary to pray on the plane with tefillin, but can put off the wearing of tefillin until later in the day, and that if one cannot avoid praying on the plane, that one is permitted to pray while seated. Their conclusion?

We believe it is best to pray quietly before the flight or, if necessary, when you are seated, where you can focus and not disturb others. If you can arrange with airline staff and fellow travelers to pray undisturbed – and without disturbing others – great. Until then, best to put on tefillin later, not in flight.

While I agree that it might be best to pray in one's seat so as not to inconvenience the flight crew (although I can't see why one couldn't just as well stand at one's seat to stay out of the aisles), Greyber and Alexander are missing something in their take on thee two incidents: these two incidents have probably done more to publicize the Jewish practice of tefillin than any campaign that any organization has ever had - and not just to non-Jews, but to Jews as well.

What if, instead of scaring the flight attendants, before getting on the plane, the Jew who planned to put on tefillin and pray went to the check-in desk, introduced themselves, told the flight attendant what they were going to do, and asked them to let the other flight attendants know. What if they gave a little flyer to them explaining what was in the tefillin? There are all kinds of possible ways to handle the situation with scaring or inconveniencing people - and which have the added benefit of letting the people around us know a little bit about Jewish customs.

The idea I disagree with in Alexander/Greyber's post is that we should hide ourselves so as not to scare people, but that's not going to be successful. If it isn't tefillin on a plane, it will be shofarot in customs (as actually happened to me some years ago). It's better for people to understand what they're looking at - they may even come to see the beauty in it that we do, instead of being frightened. Granted one doesn't want to make a nuisance out of oneself in the aisles, but I think that their middle ground, isn't actually in the middle - it's simply at a different "end," one which reminds me of our ghetto days - but we don't live there anymore. There's nothing for us to fear - or for anyone else to fear, either.

1 comment:

Reb Barry said...

Somehow I don't see many people handing out flyers and discussing it with the staff ahead of time. Except maybe you! :-)