Orthodox Jewish Men May Sit Next to Women Aboard an Airplane: Resolution

A  resolution pertaining to the seating of Orthodox Jewish people next to a member of the opposite sex aboard an airplane was adopted through a direct vote by the Rabbinical Council of America on Wednesday, January 18, 2017 in an attempt to mitigate what is otherwise an uncomfortable situation which typically leads to flight delays and potential conflict.

Orthodox Jewish Men May Sit Next to Women Aboard an Airplane: Resolution

Almost two years ago, I reported in this article about how ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are reportedly increasingly delaying flights because of the seat to which they have been assigned if they find that a woman is seated next to it, resulting in them either hesitating — or outright absolutely refusing — to be seated until either he or the woman moves.

According to this article, the Rabbinical Council of America “declares that the proper norm, when in an airplane, is to comply with the ruling of leading decisors of Jewish law (including R. Moshe Feinstein; Iggerot Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 2:14) that Jews are permitted to sit next to a member of the opposite sex who is not a relative even when this unintentionally causes physical contact between them.”

Accordingly…

  1. One seeking to sit only next to members of one’s own sex should, prior to boarding, arrange for such seating among those in one’s travel party, purchase extra seats next to one’s own seat, or the like — just as anyone seeking other special seating accommodations on an airplane should do.
  2. One should avoid asking a person seated in an adjacent seat in a public venue to move because that person is a member of the opposite sex.
  3. If one is nonetheless asked to move for this reason, one may politely and firmly refuse, thereby reinforcing the proper behavioral norm between the sexes in such venues. One may also assent to such a request if it is made unobtrusively and courteously, according to one’s best judgment of the immediate situation.

Examples of Conflicts Aboard Airplanes Due to Religious Beliefs

The problem of religious men sitting next to women aboard airplanes has been ongoing for years, as demonstrated by the following few of many examples.

El Al Israel Airlines Limited had been charged with discrimination and sexism because a grandmother — who was 81 years of age at the time and a survivor of the Holocaust — was asked to change to a “better seat” when an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man did not want to sit next to her aboard an airplane operating as El Al Flight 028 from Newark to Tel Aviv back in December of 2015. No update to this case is available at this time.

Back in September of 2014, a flight operated by El-Al from New York to Tel Aviv became what some people consider to have been an ‘11-hour nightmare’ because ultra-Orthodox Jewish passengers refused to sit next to women.

In the most recent example which occurred on Monday, February 13, 2017, approximately 10 ultra-Orthodox Jewish men “caused absolute bedlam” on an airplane which operated as easyJet flight 2084 from Tel Aviv to London when they were said to have blocked the aisles for at least 15 minutes until some of the female passengers offered to move from their seats in order for the men to agree to sit down, according to this article written by Lee Harpin of The Jewish Chronicle. The police were reportedly called aboard the airplane upon arrival.

Judaism is not the only religion where potential conflicts can occur between passengers of the opposite sex sitting next to each other. A woman was told to switch seats due to the religious beliefs of two monks from Pakistan, who did not want to sit next to her aboard an airplane — which was operated by United Airlines, on which the woman had earned million miler status — being used for a flight from Santa Ana to Houston on Monday, September 26, 2016.

No Physical Contact With Members of the Opposite Sex Not Closely Related

Jewish law restricts people of the Jewish faith from most forms of physical contact with members of the opposite sex who are not closely related. This includes the bride and groom at weddings of some Orthodox sects, who typically hold a napkin or some other cloth to avoid touching each other whenever dancing with each other. A mechitzah — or a dividing wall of some type, typically temporary — is used to keep men and women separated at such events…

…so the hesitance to not sit next to a unknown person of the opposite sex aboard an airplane is understandable — a mere armrest may not suffice as a substitute for a mechitzah — but the circumstances which may result from it could be considered unrealistic in a secular world.

Summary

In response to this article which I first wrote on the topic of whether there should be limits on public expressions of freedom back on Tuesday, December 30, 2014, Daniel Eleff of Dans Deals posted this comment that “I’ve never had an issue with my seatmate and these stories horrify me. Unless you’re obese there’s no reason you should have to touch the person sitting next to you. And if you are obese-you should be buying 2 tickets or sitting in the pointy nose section of the plane.”

Well, Dan: apparently, the Rabbinical Council of America generally agrees with you — despite greater than two years elapsing until the organization finally reached its resolution.

Although religious beliefs of every individual should be respected, there are times where exceptions should be considered due to the limitations of a particular situation — such as traveling in the tight quarters of an airplane cabin when traveling as a passenger. Throwing into the volatile mix emotional support animals and people who are allergic to peanuts as two of many examples of passengers with special needs forces the conclusion that expecting every request to be accommodated for every passenger is virtually impossible.

In my opinion, the most serious issues — such as those which directly affect the health of passengers — should have priority.

Up to 20 hours in an airplane can feel like eternity; but unless a neighboring passenger is causing an unpleasant situation — such as committing sexual assault, which is apparently more prevalent than we may think — sitting next to someone who might be considered undesirable solely because of their gender, race, religion, age, dress code or other superficial factor does not warrant a disruption aboard the airplane. In fact, that can be perceived as offensive and discriminatory.

When compared to a lifetime, 20 hours is a mere drop in the bucket, so to speak. If the passenger seated in the adjacent seat is benign and not bothering anyone, there is no reason to request or demand a change of seats. Members of the flight crew already have other tasks for which they are responsible and should not have to deal with unnecessary extra work.

The resolution officially adapted by the Rabbinical Council of America will hopefully result in fewer flight delays — as well as mitigate situations which can potentially offend otherwise innocent people — and help to ease the discomfort of Orthodox Jewish airplane passengers who believe they are possibly violating Jewish law when they find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of sitting next to a fellow passenger of the opposite gender.

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

9 thoughts on “Orthodox Jewish Men May Sit Next to Women Aboard an Airplane: Resolution”

  1. RCA might be a Jewish body, that represent a small segment.

    Most ultra religious, Torah Jews and Hasidic will disagree with RCA on many topics including this one.

    Politely it should be asked for seating according the view without creating delays, fights and stigmas.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I absolutely agree, Elimeir Libersohn, Rabbi, as there is no one governing human authority for all of the sects of Judaism — but it is at least a step in the right direction.

  2. Robbo says:

    I just wish people would leave their religions at home or in their places of worship on a Sunday or whatever day. Our Islamic friends have made it so it’s in our faces everyday. In our faces. 24/7.

    I don’t give a shit about anyone else’s religion. Knock yourselves out. Just get it out of my face. We’re all sick of it.

    I’ll sit next to anyone on a plane. Black, white, pink, yellow, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, man, woman. Anyone, we’re all the bloody same. And if anyone is a bit “touchy-feely” about their religion and wants to discriminate against me because I am a man, that’s their problem. If you don’t want to sit next to a man or a Jewish friend or an Islamic dude on a plane or a bus or a train, because you’re over sensitive, that’s your issue.

    Like I said, I don’t give a shit. And the same with your sexuality. Who cares what you like to do behind closed doors. Bloke on bloke, girl on girl, or normal couple, just leave me out of it. Donald has it correct.

    We all need to stop worrying about what every one else is thinking, feeling, doing and get on with our own lives. We’re all sensitive.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Your comment caused me to think, Robbo: since I started traveling years ago, I cannot think of one single time where I asked a member of the flight crew to either change my seat or change the seat of the person next to me simply because I did not want to sit next to him or her.

  3. Scott says:

    Very well said Robbo. I couldn’t agree more.

  4. Tim says:

    Just an FYI, most Hasidic jews will just sit down & not make a commotion (or even a request). I’ve been on hundreds of flights with them & never had an issue. Just sayin

  5. Anton says:

    Notice the issue is always about Jewish men not wanting to sit next to non-jewish women. One never heas about Jewish women not wanting to sit next to non-jewish men! Hmmmm…There’s something there to learn!!

  6. kittkatt says:

    Thanks for your clear, concise, and well-written summary of this situation. Your column is always interesting because you have no boundaries and think outside of the box….as long as it has to do with travel!

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