(Pinchas Landau is an economist and writer, living in Jerusalem.)
Thanks, even congratulations, are warranted for the forthright manner in which Rabbi Angel raised several issues arising from the news item regarding the elderly female El Al passenger who is reportedly suing the airline after being asked to move from her seat, to accommodate the refusal of a Haredi man to occupy the seat next to her.
However, it is entirely insufficient for us, his readers, to make do with a nod and a cluck of agreement with his comments – before moving on to the next item of internet-derived reading items, while congratulating ourselves "shalom alai nafshi": good for us, we are moral, upright and firmly on the side of truth and justice.
The story in question is an everyday occurrence, one which most readers will have witnessed first-hand. However, the central feature of the story – which Rabbi Angel highlights, without using this terminology – is that the behavior of the male Haredi towards the female non-Haredi passenger in a public place constitutes a chillul Hashem. This creates an extreme halachic situation, in which many rules that normally apply -- don't.
Most particularly, the normal guidelines regarding the permissibility or desirability of becoming involved in a row/ruckus/ public argument, and even of causing embarrassment or shame to another person – especially an apparently 'honorable' rabbinic persona – may not apply. Indeed, there may not even be an option of remaining aloof. If your intervention could prevent the chillul Hashem, or even mitigate its extent, you are considered compliant and culpable. Indeed, you may bear primary culpability, even though you did nothing – BECAUSE you did nothing.
This is a generalization relating to chillul Hashem, not the specific case under discussion. I am certainly not delivering or even suggesting clear-cut halachic decisions (for which I am not qualified). But the literature on the topic of chillul Hashem is frighteningly clear – starting with the famous story of Kamtsa and Bar-Kamtsa, which every kid knows and in which, from the Gemara's viewpoint, the villains are not the protagonists, but rather the rabbis who sat by and did nothing while an innocent Jew was publicly shamed.
The question therefore becomes not whose side we are on when we read Rabbi Angel's thoughts on the incident from the comfort of our homes and hearths, but what we can, should and must do next time we witness first-hand an incident of this sort. Between Clark Kent and Superman -- pretending to meekly ignore what is happening, or surging into action, punching the offender on the nose and gallantly restoring the offended lady to her seat – there is a wide spectrum of possibilities.
The time and place to consider these possibilities is in the calm and quiet of your home, or perhaps in the relative calm of a public shiur in a synagogue – where the scenario is still theoretical and where a reasoned discussion, based on halachic and aggadic sources buttressed by a large dollop of common sense, can take place. Certainly not in the cramped, noisy and extremely stressful environment of economy class on an El Al plane…
Another, perhaps even better, forum for this discussion is this blog. I would therefore hope that my response to Rabbi Angel's thoughts will help trigger this much-needed discussion.
I will just note that one important facet of the incident as reported, and of similar incidents that occur regularly, is that they only take place on El Al flights. The same Haredi male, finding himself next to a female on a flight of Delta, British, Turkish or any other non-Jewish airline, would adopt entirely different tactics. The chances of his asking the flight attendants to move the woman passenger are close to zero.
He might, instead, ask the cabin crew for their help in finding HIM an alternative seat to move to – which is, of course, an entirely different proposition: although it could also be construed as "bringing great shame on Torah through his sexually-fixated worldview…" (Rabbi Angel's words), it is difficult to see how an outsider could intervene in this situation, other than by simply talking to him and trying to get him to see the situation through other people's eyes.