Monday, March 12, 2018

On Being Asked to Change Your Seat on an Airplane

Image for illustration purposes only (Huffington Post)
I have to admit that I had mixed feelings when I read this story. Perhaps it is a flaw in me.

Laura Ben-David tells us of her recent experience aboard an El-Al flight. Her story is not unfamiliar to anyone paying attention to interactions between the sexes as it applies to Orthodox Jews.  Here is what she says: 
On a full El Al plane to New York, I had just gotten settled in my hard-won aisle seat when two Hasidic men, one visually impaired, approached my row. The other, who was clearly looking out for both of them, glanced toward the two empty seats next to me with apparent dismay. 
He double-checked that those were indeed their seats, and right away asked a man in a nearby aisle of the middle section if he would switch with me, which he consented to do. I felt bad, but I really prefer the window section, even if I’m in an aisle seat so I declined to move. 
What happened next however actually remedied the situation for all concerned: 
He accepted my response politely and went and found a gentleman a few rows back in an equivalent seat to my own, who was also willing to move. He then asked me again. I agreed immediately and moved. 
The moral of the story is that when everyone can be accommodated, why not accommodate everyone? The Gemarah calls this ‘Zeh Nehena - V’ Zeh Lo Chaser’. Everybody wins. That is precisely what happened here.

But despite this happy ending (...and I applaud the way it was ultimately handled by all concerned) I still have mixed feelings about it. What is it exactly that bothered me? I think it is because I believe it is unfair when people whose religious standards I consider extreme ask for special favors at the expense of others.

In this case it worked out well even though the initial request did not consider that Laura would be inconvenienced. But that is not always the case. In just about every other instance of this kind I have read about - those asking for special favors seem to care little about the inconvenience they are asking others to put up with. Either that or they are so self absorbed that they don’t even realize they are inconveniencing anyone. And in some cases it is an actual Chilul HaShem as was the case last December (as reported in the Huffington Post).

Most people of good will agree will agree to change their seats in order to accommodate another passenger’s requests.  Sometimes even if it inconveniences them. But I wonder how many privately resent the intrusion by the person asking for it. To the person asking  – it might seem like a reasonable request. For them it is the normal observance of the rules by which they live their daily lives. But to the vast majority of the civilized world (including most Orthodox Jews), those rules are extreme.

True, it is nobody’s business how extreme anyone else’s religious beliefs or observances are. Everyone has the right to their own standards. But that only works when it doesn’t inconvenience anyone else. Asking someone to switch seats does exactly that. It inconveniences people.

That is why I am uncomfortable with this whole story, despite the happy ending. There are a lot of very nice people that are willing and even happy to accommodate the religious beliefs of others. Especially when it doesn't really inconvenience them. Laura is one of those people. 

I think I would do the exactly same thing Laura did under similar circumstances. Although I might feel guilty about it, I would not move to an inferior seat. On the other hand I would move to an equivalent seat if asked. But I would not feel happy about it. 

Deep down I think it would bother me to be even asked to do something to accommodate what I consider an extremist version of Jewish law. And then there is the ‘little matter’ of the potential for a Chilul HaShem in cases where the individual requesting it cannot take no for an answer.

Is that a flaw in my character? Am I just an intolerant individual? Perhaps both of those things are true. But I can’t help the way feel.

Just being honest. A little introspection never hurts. Even if it means baring my soul in public.