There was an interesting blurb in last week’s Mishpacha about a p’sak (Halachic decision) by Rav Elyashiv.
When candidate Barack Obama visited Israel in 2008, he wanted to visit the Kotel and asked that he be given access in the early morning hours so as to avoid the crowds. The Kotel Rabbi, R’ Shumel Rabinowitz, felt that bringing a U.S. Presidential candidate, his entourage, and the attendant crush of media people would be disruptive to those who daven k’vosekin – praying at sunrise. So he asked R’ Elyashiv whether he should accommodate his request.
R’ Elyashiv said that candidate Obama should absolutely be allowed to visit the Kotel at his convenience. Since (then) Senator Obama represented the United States – a Malchus Shel Chesed (‘kingdom of kindness’) – he was deserving of the utmost respect.
Would that all of Jewry have this attitude. Unfortunately there are some of us who have a slightly different approach. While not really the same thing, I can’t help contrasting this attitude with what has to be the latest example of Judaism made to look stupid… all in the name of Torah observance.
There is a picture of a Haredi-looking individual in flight wrapped up in a plastic bag. This picture has gone viral… as has a video of some young people ridiculing it on an online TV program.
What people like this fellow have accomplished over the years is to create an atmosphere whereby their extremism in the cause of humra (stringency) has brought ridicule upon us. The humra of this generation is tznius. I need not go into how far some of these extremes have taken us into the area of ridicule. Just to mention one example – the time where the Haredi mayor of Beitar Illit was reprimanded because he forgot to photoshop his wife out a picture of a group of people surrounding a snowman they built!
The young pundits on this program thought he covered himself up in a plastic bag because he wanted to avoid contact with the women on the plane. That reaction was no doubt generated by constant barrage of ‘tznius extremism’ by extremist Haredim brought to public attention by the media. Not an unreasonable conclusion. But it was immediately made clear that that was not his motivation. He was a Kohen and sought to protect himself from tumah – spiritual contamination.
Although there are a few exceptions we no longer practice these laws. But Kohanim (those who descend from the priestly line of the first Kohen, the biblical Aaron) – do. A Kohen must avoid any contact that would make him spiritually unclean. In most cases this means avoiding corpses. There are various ways that they go about this. The laws are very complex. One of those ways is by avoiding being in the same room with a corpse or passing over a grave site. Tumah rises straight up in the open air (it does not spread sideways) and fills up any enclosed area.
This fellow probably feared that there was a corpse on board. (That is occasionally the case as many people who wish to be buried in Israel after they die are transported as cargo on board commercial flights). One of the ways a Kohen can be protected is by being in his own enclosure. That will prevent the tumah from entering and contaminating him spiritually. My guess is that this was his goal.
In a vacuum I have no problem with him doing that. But on a commercial fight where normal people are on board, this can only bring ridicule upon our people. It was not necessary for him to do that. There are better ways for a Kohen to avoid tumah. Not being a Kohen myself, I am not the one to advise him. But I don’t think there is a single Kohen who has ever wrapped himself up in a plastic bag. And they all take flights. They find ways which are normal to avoid a problem that is specific to them.
Obviously this fellow didn’t care what people said about him. Frankly neither do I. But I do care what people say about the Jewish people.
When a gadol says that we must honor a political leader in the U.S. because he represents the United States, that is a kiddush HaShem. When a Jew who appears to the world as the most religious among us acts like a fool that is a hilul HaShem. That this fellow doesn’t realize what he has done with his foolishness – or worse, doesn’t care – is why I constantly criticize it when it happens.
I wish I didn’t have to. But unfortunately this kind of behavior seems to be on the increase. Why is this so? I’ve said this before. The insularity in which they live breeds both ignorance of the outside world and contempt for it. In these circles non-Jews are at best tolerated. But they are looked down upon. Or worse seen as anti-Semites. The attitude I often hear them express about “goyim” is that they hate us anyway so why bother being decent to them?! They hide their contempt when they seek public benefits. The condescension to non-Jews is expressed only among themselves. Trouble is that it is not only wrong but only a ignoramus born of insularity would ever think that they can keep this attitude private.
So now once again, I am forced to disavow and protest that this fellow’s behavior very loudly. It has nothing to do with normative Jewish behavior. No matter what his motive was.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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