El Al recently reiterated its policy that anyone who refuses to sit in his or her assigned seat will be compelled to leave its airplanes. On a recent trip to Israel, my wife and I observed a scene involving the type of person that Israel’s airline is targeting. That it didn’t concern a seat or occur on an airplane doesn’t matter.
I watched as a man dressed in traditional hasidic garb, who was detained momentarily at the departure gate over an issue with his documentation, very deliberately, and most obviously, refuse to look at the agent, a middle-aged woman who was dressed relatively modestly. When she tried to return his passport and boarding pass, he insisted she put them down on the counter rather than hand them to him directly. My wife and I were somewhat amused and a little embarrassed as we watched this incident. The Hasid was exhibiting an extreme type of behaviour that we, and most Orthodox Jews, do not subscribe to.
We boarded the plane and settled in for a long flight. I took advantage of the opportunity to study Torah and relax without being disturbed by the phone calls, texts, emails and other interruptions that normally occur when my phone is not on airplane mode. Dinner was served and I searched for something on the tiny screen in front of me to watch while I ate. Normally, I would have selected something related to current events or a documentary, but a collection of early Beatles hits caught my interest. The boys from Liverpool were a big part of my childhood and I couldn’t resist the temptation to hear, “Ya, Ya, Ya,” once again after all these years. Nostalgia won out over the pursuit of knowledge.
As I listened to the songs, I thought about how Beatles tunes evolved over the course of just a few short years and, together with them, pop music and society in general. When the Fab Four first hit the scene, the lyrics of their tunes and the ideas expressed in them were relatively tame. Think, Please Mr. Postman, I Saw Her Standing There or I Want to Hold Your Hand.
As time passed, some of the words in The Beatles songs became coarser and the topics more controversial. Think, Get Back and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. Today, of course, when it comes to pop and rock music, almost anything goes. I am therefore one of the many Orthodox Jews who no longer listens to most contemporary tunes.
In a way, this self-censorship makes me like the Hasid in the airport. He was guarding his eyes; I protect my ears. The common misconception is that some ultra-Orthodox men refuse to look at women because they view them as second-class citizens. That’s not the case. In reality, it’s their way of trying to prevent inappropriate thoughts and ensure faithfulness to their own wives. Other religious people may agree that these are noble goals, but find the methods somewhat extreme.
But, aren’t we’re all like that Hasid? Setting personal boundaries is not the sole domain of the fervently religious. Most people impose restrictions on themselves – and their children – in terms of what they will look at, or listen to. They may steer clear of what they consider violent, pornographic or otherwise unhealthy for their minds or souls.
So, why are we bothered by the behaviour of the people we see as zealots? I think that it’s human nature to judge others by our own standards. As a result, limitations that may seem reasonable to one individual may be considered extreme or fanatical to another. Perhaps if we took the time to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes, we would better understand where they’re coming from and realize that they are different than us only in degree, not in kind.