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The unfriendly skies
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The unfriendly skies

Whenever my wife and I fly, I take the aisle seat. Unless she wants to sit across the aisle from me, this forces my wife into the middle seat. I am not hugely proud of this, but I take up about twice as much space as she does, and I have a hard time sitting still for even the shortest flights. 

Last week The New York Times, on its front page yet, reported on a couple in a similar situation. He took the aisle, she took the middle seat. And the fervently Orthodox man assigned to the window seat asked that she and her husband switch, so that he wouldn’t have his religious sensibilities disturbed by having to sit next to a woman.

Laura Heywood explained to a reporter that she refused to give up the middle seat because she “found the reason to be sexist.” And beyond the principle of the thing, she knows her husband prefers the aisle. “I wasn’t going to put [the Orthodox passenger’s] comfort for no good reason above my husband’s,” she said.

How you feel about her decision — in fact, how you feel about a front-page story about haredi men who refuse to sit next to strange women on commercial airline flights — is a pretty good test of how you manage difference in a diverse society. Some see the haredi man’s request as reasonable within limits, and might gladly switch seats to accommodate his faith, just as I have switched seats to help a family sit together. 

Others see such requests as insulting and intolerant, no different from a racist asking not to be seated next to a person of color. 

Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky, an associate professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University, puts his finger on the dilemma. “Multiculturalism,” he tells the Times, “creates a moral language where a group can say, ‘You have to respect my values.’” He elaborated on this idea on his Facebook page, suggesting that “multiculturalism is no longer the best way to think about managing differences (if it ever was), and we need instead to think about shared civic culture, including in spaces that are both public and private (like airplanes).”

It’s not enough to say, “Why can’t we all get along?” Inevitably, in a free and diverse society, there will be clashes between my values and yours. 

Reasonable people like to think such clashes can be negotiated in good faith. Assuming it’s no great sacrifice, why wouldn’t you give up your seat to accommodate a religious person? 

You’ve heard a similar argument from supporters of Religious Freedom Restoration legislation in Indiana and North Carolina. The legislation doesn’t condone discrimination, they say; rather, it merely accommodates the liberty of someone with a deeply held set of religious beliefs. The argument is being played out on constitutional grounds, but also as a personal appeal to civic conscience: “I’m not asking you to condone discrimination; I’m asking you to respect my religious beliefs.” 

But many of us, as much as we respect religion and may even be religious ourselves, feel there are limits to accommodation. Religious beliefs shouldn’t trump modern medicine, for example, especially when it comes to children. They shouldn’t trump science, not if they endanger public health or the environment. And they shouldn’t take precedence over human and civil rights, especially as they relate to historically oppressed classes, including women and gays.

Orthodox friends will argue that the enforced separation between men and women in Orthodoxy is not “sexist” as understood in the West. They’ll describe it instead as a statement of modesty, an acknowledgement of real difference, and, if anything, a protest against the hyper-sexualization of the broader culture — something a feminist might appreciate. It’s not that women have a lesser role within Judaism, or an inferior role outside it; rather, men and women have different roles.

That may be true, but it doesn’t appease a woman from outside of that culture who doesn’t appreciate being singled out for her gender. Those raised in our Western culture — whether they are secular, or religious and egalitarian — are insulted by a request that suggests they are somehow impure, literally untouchable, or so sexually tempting that they must be kept at bay. It is the very definition of objectification. 

And such “political” principles are no less important than religious beliefs.

So a fervently Orthodox man should not be surprised or insulted if a woman refuses to give up her seat. He had a right to ask, and a considerate person might say yes. But others have a right to say no. (And no one has the right to hold up a flight or ignore the directives of a flight attendant.) 

Jewish law has figured out thousands of ways to accommodate modern developments, from electricity to heart transplants. Surely fervently Orthodox leaders can find a way to preserve their followers’ modesty within the confines of an airplane seat. And if they can’t, they might suggest purchasing two seats. Or getting together with like-minded travelers and chartering a private flight.

If it were me and someone asked me to help out a fellow Jew, I’d probably consider it. But not if it meant giving up the aisle seat. We all have our limits.

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