Public Expressions of Religious Freedom: Should There Be Limits?

everal ultra-Orthodox Jewish men reportedly refused to sit in their assigned seats because those seats were located next to seats in which women sat aboard an airplane operated by Delta Air Lines as flight 468 on Saturday, December 20, 2014 from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv — with the commotion resulting in a delay of the departure of the flight by approximately 30 minutes.

Other passengers prolonged the delay by also refusing to swap seats with the men, according to this article in Hebrew by the Israel Broadcasting Authority; as well as this article written in English by Justin Jalil of The Times of Israel.

An American passenger reportedly finally resolved the dispute by offering to change seats.

Physical contact between men and women is forbidden in ultra-Orthodox Judaism — unless they are immediate relatives; or married to one another. I have personally witnessed this at Chassidic weddings such as those of the Lubavitch or Satmar sects, where the aisle separates the men from the women during the actual ceremony; and a mechitzah is used to keep the men separated from the women throughout the entire reception afterwards. The bride and groom are permitted to sit next to each other at many of these weddings — typically at their own table alone at the end of the mechitzah — and they are usually the only man and woman to sit next to each other in the room, which can be packed with hundreds of people. The bride and groom sometimes will dance with each other — if they are lifted in the air and they are connected using a napkin or some other object which they may hold.

These expressions of adhering to religious beliefs are perfectly fine in a private setting such as a wedding or in one’s home; but what about in a public setting — such as if you were one of the passengers on that flight who is attempting to get to your destination?

What if you were in an airport lounge working on your computer while awaiting your flight when a group of men enter the desk area of the lounge, take off their shoes, face Mecca and start praying, as I first asked in this article last year? Were the men behaving inappropriately in that airport lounge in Rome — especially when non-denominational chapels are found in many airports and the airport in Rome supposedly has rooms in which to pray?

The first thought which might occur to you is that those are two different scenarios: one directly affects other people; while the other is simply an expression of religion — but where is the line drawn?

These are very difficult questions to answer because of their subjectivity. For example, a man who devoutly practices Judaism will most likely wear a yarmulke — a cap worn on the head — at all times. I have never seen anyone offended by the mere wearing of a yarmulke — but what if the man faces the direction of the Western Wall in Israel and starts to daven, which is usually standing while rocking back and forth and praying?

No one is usually offended when a woman wears a necklace around her neck with a cross hanging from it — but what if she starts reciting a prayer from a Bible before she eats and thanks Jesus Christ for the food she is about to eat?

Slaughtering a chicken a certain way may be a widely accepted religious ritual in some places — but would it be appropriate in an airport lounge, or in a place where societal customs would find that practice unacceptable? You might think that that is a ridiculous example — but that may be akin to openly consuming beef in public to some people in India, as cows are considered sacred. What is considered normal to you may be strange and unknown to others; and vice versa.

Many people — except for those who practice atheism and agnosticism, to an extent — believe in the power of religion in some way, shape or form. Some are Orthodox in their beliefs; while others tend to be less strict. Some will follow their chosen religion to the very last letter; while others may pick and choose which parts of their religion in which they believe and which parts they do not believe.

Freedom of religion is an idealistic thought in which everyone has a right to practice their beliefs in any way they see fit. However, there are many different religions practiced in this world — and each religion has so many variations — that they may seem foreign or unusual to those not familiar with that religion. This can cause a harmless distraction at best — or intolerance which leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding which may be strong enough to lead to adversarial actions.

Therein lies the conundrum.

Some people would not be bothered at all by those men who started praying in that airport lounge — myself included — as long as they were quiet and not disruptive. However, others may believe that there is a more appropriate time and place for practicing religious beliefs — and the airport lounge may not be one of those places.

While I believe in the freedom of religion, I have always felt that differences in religions may cause more conflict and controversy rather than peace and harmony; that they may create more problems and issues than resolve them, as they are purportedly designed to do. Politics as well as religion are discussed with such passion and conviction that fierce and controversial debates usually erupt as a result, which is a reason why politics and religion are usually not allowed to be discussed in the public forums of FlyerTalk.

Then again — although I am not a religious person — I also believe that differences in religion can enhance a travel experience from which one can learn and admire. My recent trip report of the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest is one of many such examples in my years of travel experiences.

Spiritual beliefs are a personal and private matter — shared only when appropriate, in my opinion. I personally would not enter an airport lounge and start praying — but that is just me. You may not agree with what I believe, but that is all right — different belief systems make the world go ’round and add flavor to society, despite the potential shortcomings of religion in general. I believe that there is usually a time and place for everything — and even though I do not believe an airport lounge is a place to pray, that does not mean I believe it is the wrong thing to do, either. I certainly have absolutely no interest in attempting to restrict someone from freely practicing their religious beliefs. In fact, it would not bother me if I found myself in a situation where people started praying in a public area near me…

…but at the same time, what about other people who might be more sensitive and uncomfortable, leading them to feel intimidated?

Where is the threshold as to what is acceptable as opposed to what is inappropriate in terms of public expressions of religious freedom by people? As I said earlier, that is subjective and cannot be answered definitively.

Rather, I believe that it is more important to keep an open mind and be respectful and considerate to other people around you — whether it is you or someone else engaging in their religious beliefs.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

  1. If physical contact with the opposite sex is forbidden by their religion, there is always the alternative of buying the second seat to avoid contact with anyone. While expensive, it certainly seems more appropriate than disrupting/delaying the flight and/or expecting other passengers to switch seats to accommodate their religious beliefs. While tolerant of other religions, I believe it crosses the line when it disrupts others.

    1. The funny part is that that is the solution often recommended for obese passengers, Anne — but your thoughts would likely have solved the problem aboard that airplane operated by Delta Air Lines.

      Thank you for commenting.

  2. Let’s see…

    I am from the Lubavitch sect of hasidic judaism that you describe and indeed “danced” with my wife at our wedding in the fashion you described, standing on a table.connected by napkins tied together. Call me crazy and old fashioned, but not using electronics in any form every Sabbath is the only way I stay sane between blogging for more than 16 hours a day.

    At any rate, 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.

    My Judaism isn’t something that should bother anyone else. I may pray in a lounge, but it won’t be out loud or bothersome. At least nobody has ever told me it bothered them 😉
    This story is about a minority within a minority that in my opinion are taking things way too far.

    1. Good to see you commenting here, Dan. Please keep those deals coming! Thank you.

      I would think that an armrest would naturally double as a miniature mechitzah aboard an airplane — especially in the exit row or bulkhead where the armrest usually cannot be raised — and therefore suffice enough for a person to sit next to anyone no matter what are their religious beliefs.

      To veer off-topic for a moment, I had actually met Menachem Schneerson — the late Lubavitcher Rebbe — in person at the world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn…

  3. Heh, that’s actually a great idea for these folks, though not all exit rows/bulkheads have that type of armrest. Technically there’s no need for a mechitza unless there’s dancing or prayer, the only issue otherwise is touching a member of the opposite sex (aside from your spouse or close relative). I may suggest the bulkhead/exit row if I’m brave enough to start a firestorm on the issue on my site…

    Neat that you got to meet him. I met him at age 6, still remember the powerful look in his eyes. What brought you there?

    1. It was at a wedding. The reception was at the Brooklyn Jewish Center just down the street.

      What is ironic is that there are guys who wish they could touch the opposite sex during a flight but are woefully unsuccessful — probably because they might have used one of these 25 pick-up lines:

      As for me, I usually do not like to be touched by anyone during a flight…

  4. A plane ticket entitles you to travel to your destination. A boarding pass entitles you to a particular seat. That’s it. Someone is entitled to the personal practice of his religion, but no one is entitled to force his religion on another passenger.

    Acting disruptive before takeoff should get you booted instantly. It is not clear why the airline tolerated this behavior or delayed the flight. Fundamentalists (of any religion) surely know that any member of the public can purchase a seat on a plane. It is not clear why they expected any type of accommodation.

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