Airborne anti-Semitism

Why is it that as soon as we Jews get on a plane, one group is bound to make all of the others crimson with embarrassment?

Last week, approximately 100 yeshiva students were thrown off a plane before its scheduled flight from New York to Atlanta. The captain felt he had no choice other than to eject them, because the large group of teenagers, travelling on a school trip, wouldn’t sit down and turn their mobile phones off before take-off. To his mind, it had become a safety issue. A rabbi from the Yeshiva believed that the airline over-reacted.

This story brought back bad memories for me. Easyjet, a budget airline, flies between London and Israel and is often the cheapest way for my family and me to travel between the two countries. I remember waiting for ages on one Easyjet flight as the stewards and eventually the captain repeatedly urged passengers to take their seats and sit down. It was embarrassing. Then I heard one of the stewards saying, “It’s always like this on this flight.”

When flying to Paris, the passengers sit down when they’re told to. When flying to Dublin, the passengers sit down when they’re told to. When flying to Tel Aviv, they always have trouble.

If the air-steward, whose frustration I witnessed, wasn’t an anti-Semite to begin with, he was well on the way to becoming one. I was terribly embarrassed and I sought to be the very best passenger I could, in order to demonstrate that we’re not all like that.

Stories like this remind me of a troubling excerpt from the Talmud (Tractate Beitza 24b), an excerpt that almost sounds anti-Semitic itself: “It was taught in the name of Rabbi Meir: Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are impetuous.” Another source is cited that says, “Had the law not been given to Israel, no nation or tongue could withstand them.” According to this tradition, the Jews were not chosen to receive the Torah because of their merit; nor even because of the merit of their ancestors. Instead, the Jews were given the Torah because, if any people were in need of a Divinely written law book to keep them in check, it was this obstinate and stiff-necked nation, who would destroy the world if they weren’t reigned in.

I think of that teaching when I sit on a plane full of my fellow Jews making a scene – standing in the aisle when they’ve been asked to sit down before take-off; jumping up from their seats as soon as the plane has landed, much to the chagrin of the stewards who want everyone to remain seated as the aeroplane taxis to the terminal. And then I feel terrible for the anti-Semitism that I myself, a proud Jew, succumb to.

I don’t think that the ultra-Orthodox are necessarily any worse than the rest of us in these embarrassing situations, but they’re often more noticeable because they have their distinctive uniform, and they have such big families that fill so many consecutive seats. Their behaviour raises a question with the Talmudic tradition I just quoted. They, who are supposedly meticulous in their observance of Torah law, are just as impetuous, if not more, than the rest of us. If Rabbi Meir was right, what good did the Torah do us?

If anything, it is these situations that illustrate how demanding Torah observance really is. If the observance of the dry formulas of Jewish law doesn’t transform us from impetuous to holy, then we’re not keeping them properly.

We have to make a clear distinction. On the one hand, you can be a frum Jew – a mere sociological belonging, because you’re frum if you belong in the right group, wear the right clothes, observe the right outward practices and rituals – while on the other hand you can be a religious Jew, which, according to the Orthodox conception of religiosity, is what emerges when you calibrate your entire life to the commandments of God and allow that experience to transform you so that every moment you are conscious of your obligations to the world around you and to your creator, and you see the holiness that inheres in every corner of the world.

I’m not saying that such religiosity is necessary for behaving yourself on a plane; plenty of thoroughly secular Jews behave impeccably! All I’m saying is this: In those moments, when the Torah transforms you, it will be impossible for you to act inconsiderately to others. When a yeshiva student is being ejected from a plane because of anti-social behaviour, they may be frum, but in those moments, they are failing to be religious.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

Reuters