Refusing to sit next to a woman on a plane isn’t devout, it’s disgraceful

When flying gets complicated.
When flying gets complicated.
Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun
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I was raised in a Jewish modern Orthodox community in the United States. I wear pants and sleeveless shirts, and to the average passerby, look like a secular woman. But I also keep the Sabbath, and I pray at least once a day. I make blessings before consuming food, as well as after. I consider myself religious, even though I may not look it.

While attending university in Canada, I traveled quite a bit between home and school. There was a direct Hasidic bus line servicing the communities of each place. Each time I had to travel, I would weigh the pros and cons of the Hasidic bus over Greyhound.

Pros: The Hasidic bus takes half the time the Greyhound does, and border control is fast. Cons: There are usually crying babies, women sit in the back, and there is a dress code. To travel you need to be dressed modestly and cover your body (women as well as men). I abided by these rules, but I usually wore pants or leggings, technically covering myself but not fully adhering to the dress code.

One time, as I dropped my sister off at the bus after a visit. I was wearing a sleeveless dress without a bra. When I got on to the bus to help my sister find a seat, the woman who oversees payment and seating asked me sternly, “Are you traveling tonight?”

I told her I wasn’t.

“Please don’t ever come back on this bus dressed like that,” she snapped.

At first, I was enraged. Who was she to dictate my clothing choices when I wasn’t even a ticketed passenger? Over time, however, I’ve come to realize that I was in the wrong. I knew that interacting with this Hasidic bus entails dressing modestly, and I should have at least put a cardigan over my dress when I dropped off my sister.

This experience comes to mind whenever I read or hear stories about ultra-Orthodox men asking and even forcing women—both Jewish and gentile—to change seats on airplanes. Orthodox doctrine stipulates that men and women cannot exchange physical contact unless married—a law known as negiah.

When purchasing a ticket for a flight, or a bus ride, you need to respect the rules of the space, which in this case means sitting in the seat printed on your ticket. Just like I needed to follow the rules in the Hasidic bus setting when I chose to travel that way, the ultra-Orthodox men boarding planes owned by secular companies, with tickets they consciously reserved, must respect the rules of the airline and the communities it serves.

According to Jewish law, when one is living in a country, it is a mitzvah (commandment) to follow its laws (“dina demalchuta dina” translated as “the law of the land is the law”). By extension, when purchasing an airline ticket, one is required to follow the rules of the airline.

In order to contextualize the refusal of ultra-Orthodox men to sit next to women we need to acknowledge that they are coming from communities where an intense and all-encompassing gender separation starts at a very early age. It is likely that men who try to switch seats are doing so in order to match the high standard of modesty that is practiced in their home environments and communities. This makes sense when you hear of stories where ultra-Orthodox men are frantically and nervously trying to make seat rearrangements. If this is where it’s coming from, then this issue should not be confused as an issue of the denigration of women.

El Al airplanes are seen on the runway at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv.
El Al airplanes are seen on the runway at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv.
Image: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

However, I am critical when it comes to the stories where an ultra-Orthodox man insists on a seat change, as if it is his right, and subsequently causes flight delays. The feminist in me believes the individuals who are demanding women change their seats are entrenched in patriarchal notions and are rigid and entitled individualists. As an essay for Jezebel by Anna Merlan points out, why aren’t these men searching themselves for a seat that better suits their preferences? Why do some insist that the women find new seats? Why are most ultra-Orthodox women not demanding the same of their opposite gender seatmates? The ultra-Orthodox men that insist on seat changes seem to me to be extremist dogmatists and are not representative of the community.

According to Jewish law, it is not forbidden for men to sit next to women. Rav Moshe Feinstein, commonly regarded as the leading halachic (religious law) authority of his time, says that as long as men are not deriving sexual pleasure from the experience of sitting next to women, it is not objectionable. If sexual thoughts do arise, men should think of words of Torah to distract themselves. If they are unable, they should refrain from traveling on public transit altogether. It is possible to live in accordance with halakha and respect others in the secular world.

Being brought up in an extremely sheltered community where no outside or secular contact is made, people are unaware of their obligations towards others in a culturally pluralistic space. It gets complicated when you are required to negotiate what is expected of you socially and what you believe is expected of you religiously. I have seen ultra-Orthodox men managing a cash register hand (and touch!) a secular woman her change instead of putting the change on the counter, taking care not to offend her. Obviously, the ultra-Orthodox men in these delayed airplane stories have not figured out how to balance the tensions of interacting with the secular world and upholding their religiosity.

I urge the rabbis of ultra-Orthodox communities to make clear that it is not against halakha to sit next to women on public transit, and that in maintaining resistance to sitting next to women and causing transit delays, they are committing a chillul Hashem—disgrace to G-d’s name and the Jewish people.

If you cannot control your sexual thoughts or refrain from traveling, why not buy the seat next to you as well so that you have control over the situation? That way there is no need for last minute seat rearrangements and subsequent flight delays. The battle with thoughts is an internal one, and it should remain so.