This post was submitted by a member of the DCA Think Tank, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the Cardozo Academy.
Recently yet another opportunity for Hareidi-bashing appeared, with the news that an 81 year-old woman is suing El Al after being forced to switch seats because a Hareidi man refused to sit next to her.
Rabbi Marc Angel commented on the incident in a short article, “Thoughts on the Scandal on an El Al Airplane.” He writes:
The Hareidi passenger who caused the female passenger to be moved thought he was within his Torah-true rights. He must have assumed that all the other men in the plane who were sitting next to women (other than their wives) were sinners. It did not occur to him that many of those men were … not less scrupulous in their religious observance, but more scrupulous. Whereas this Hareidi has brought great shame on Torah through his sexually-fixated worldview, the pious men and women who sat next to each other naturally and comfortably and respectfully brought honor to Torah.
Playing by the rules
First, let me say that I strongly believe that it is perhaps somewhat rude for a man to have asked a woman to move seats, if there was somewhere viable, by his rules, for him to move himself.
However, if there was nowhere viable under his rules for him to move to, and he asked the woman respectfully to move, I actually have no objection: “Excuse me, I wonder if you would be willing to move seats. Of course I would move if I could, and I realize that you have absolutely no obligation to do so, but under my interpretation of Jewish law, I am not allowed to sit next to a woman, and there is no seat available that does not put me next to a woman. This is not a reflection of your moral values, etc. If you do not wish to move, you have every right to stay where you are, of course.” Or something like that. No problem.
I understand that this is probably not what happened, but I think it’s important to state that in principle, this would be OK. I would absolutely not object if someone of another religion said to me, “Excuse me, given my understanding of the world, it would be forbidden for me to sit next to you if your cup was filled with an orange liquid. If you don’t mind not asking for orange juice when the steward comes around, I would be most grateful, but, of course, if you have been looking forward to orange juice, then that is absolutely your right and I will have to find my own solution.”
The straw man argument
In the airplane scenario, it makes no difference if I agree with the offending man’s particular interpretation of Jewish law or not. However, Rabbi Angel uses a straw man argument to mock the Hareidi man who asked the 81 year old woman to move. He says, “If he was so sexually aroused by this 81 year old woman as to be unable to maintain his composure during the flight, he could simply have asked the stewardess to find him another seat.”
What Rabbi Angel misses here is that for the Hareidi man, the age of the woman and his ability or inability to maintain his composure is absolutely not the point. I find this refreshing! It’s not age-ist! The point is not that the woman is or is not beyond an age to sexually attract another person but that, in his mind, there is a halacha that says that he can’t sit next to a woman! Any woman. Her status as a woman does not depend on whether he in particular finds her sexually attractive or not! (If the woman in question has a partner, I hope her partner finds her attractive, even if Rabbi Angel cannot imagine that being the case.) The notion that only young women are are to be avoided, in other words that only young women count as women, is a chauvinist concept that I am delighted not to see in Judaism.
Married women do not stop covering their hair at any age, including those that think that they are covering it because hair is erva. (Again, whether you agree with this reasoning or not.) We do not, and should not, mock them for thinking that they have to cover their hair even though they are not nubile young women. We don’t make fun of women who cover their hair for thinking that men would be “unable to maintain their composure” around them. And we should not! These women cover their hair because they think it is the halacha, not because any particular man may or may not find their hair attractive. The way they follow halacha does not depend on the subjective experience of random men. And the way the Hareidi man in question follows halacha shouldn’t either. The woman he asked to move is a woman. It doesn’t matter who finds her attractive, and making fun of him on the assumption that he finds her attractive is rude to both of them.
Critique, yes, but for the right reasons
It is too easy for us to target Hareidim and we should stop doing so except when our arguments are sound (and then only respectfully). Rabbi Angel says that the man in the plane should have been the one to move. Maybe this man is an absolute jerk who believes that he is the center of the universe and that women don’t count as human beings. But maybe not. Maybe he would happily have been the one to move, but there was no seat in the cabin available next to a man. Who knows? No news accounts mocking this man clarify the matter, as far as I have read. We are just taking the opportunity to do some fun Hareidi bashing.
I have no problem criticizing Hareidim for legitimate reasons. This may or may not be one of them.
Click here to read “Hareidi-Bashing, Modesty, and Normative Values: A response to Yael Valier” by Think Tank member E.S.