Friday, May 02, 2008

Praying and Swaying on the Plane

The removal of an Orthodox Jew from a United Airlines flight because he ignored instructions to be seated while davening Shmoneh Esreh (the Amidah or standing prayer) before the plane took off raises the linked and yet somewhat separate questions of what accommodations to their distinct practices religious persons may request or expect from others and, secondly, the extent to which other persons or entities are obligated to accommodate these practices.

From newspaper accounts, neither party to the incident was crowned in glory. The passenger was doubtlessly sincere and yet it is doubtful that it was necessary for him to daven at that moment. Why not earlier? I believe that in view of clearly stated halachic or religious legal teachings regarding exigencies during prayer, he could have acceded to the request to be seated.

The fact that he could have acted differently doesn’t necessarily get United off the hook. I have witnessed gratuitous insensitivity on airlines toward religious Jews by flight personnel. Although the passenger had no right to expect accommodation, would it have been difficult for the airline to accommodate? Was the plane that close to take-off?

The issue of prayer on a plane is not mere curiosity about the exotic behavior of people who are different. Religious Jews, as well as members of some other religious groups, are required to pray during set time periods and this inevitably means that on long flights they must calculate when they can fulfill this obligation. At times, this is a tough challenge for we Orthodox who may be praying and swaying while the plane is swaying.

Most often, flight personnel are tolerant, even if they aren’t always pleased. On ordinary flights which typically have few or no Orthodox, there isn’t much of an issue. El Al is a different story, as I trust most readers know. There is the added determination of certain Orthodox to daven with a minyan, for it results in critical liturgical advantages. The favorite gathering place for the group is adjacent to the lavatories where there is standing space, an unappetizing arrangement because other passengers have difficult access, the roar of the engines restricts the ability to hear the prayer leader, the likely proximity to persons who are dressed immodestly and the prospect of unpleasant odors. Yet, these circumstances do not deter the minyaneers.

My firm practice is to daven alone, at my seat or nearby if space is available and there are many Orthodox who do likewise.

Air travel is but a tiny slice of the accommodation conundrum. Deeply religious folks, such as Orthodox Jews and Muslims, are apt to have truckloads of requirements that do not accord with the way things are conducted in the larger society. As the outside world becomes more permissive, religious obligations may generate additional zones of desired accommodation. The list includes dress and other forms of religious appearance, hospital and burial requirements, food issues and workplace arrangements.

For all of the American ethos of tolerance, a desideratum exalted by secular Jews, there is much reluctance to accommodate religious persons, even when to do so entails little sweat. Animus toward religion trumps principle. I have for four decades worked for workplace protection of Sabbath observers against discrimination, a crusade that has received little support from secular Jews and, in recent years, from Orthodox organizations that see more fruitful public relations benefits through other activity.

The reluctance to accommodate religious Jewish sensibilities even when others are not inconvenienced was on display years ago in the celebrated Yale dormitory case when this university that is infused with tolerance refused to accommodate several Orthodox undergraduates who refused to avail themselves of the coeducational dormitory facilities that students must pay for. This shameful episode should be contrasted with Harvard’s recent decision to alter the schedule for its swimming facilities to accommodate Muslim women who out of modesty do not want to be in the same pool with male students. That entailed a direct inconvenience to other students, raising the question of whether liberal institutions are more keen to the sensibilities of Islamic students than to those sincerely articulated by religious Jews.

Another illustration is provided by Noah Feldman, greatly gifted and hypocritical, who went to court to oppose an Erev in Tenafly that would have inconvenienced no one and now is a staunch advocate of Shariah or Islamic religious law.

Although I advocate accommodation, I believe that there are limits, they being when inconvenience to others is significant and also when accommodation means that other people will have to act in accordance with our religious practices. There is a vast difference between not being able to use a coeducational pool – so you don’t swim! – and losing a job because of the inability to work on Shabbos. Alas, the former generates greater support from secularists.

More than a decade ago, I parted company with much of the Orthodox establishment on the so-called Get Law that requires persons married in a religious ceremony to arrange for a Get or religious divorce before their marriage can be undone in a civil proceeding. I felt that we must not require others to embrace our religious practices. My further point was that the Get Law, earnestly promoted as an antidote to the Agunah problem, would be a feeble instrumentality against recalcitrant religious spouses. Time has proven me right.