When I was a teenager, a long, long time ago, I felt self-conscious about praying in public places like airports. On at least one occasion I entered a phone booth (remember those?) while awaiting a flight, closed the door (yes, they had doors) and spoke to the Creator of the universe through the telephone mouthpiece. (In its own strange way, it enhanced the experience.)
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that praying was nothing of which to be ashamed. And in subsequent years, when there was no other option, I performed my share of religious devotions, even with tallit and tefillin, in an assortment of public places. When on a plane, though – and this has been my practice since well before 2001 – I engage my seatmate in some conversation first, to try to establish my normalcy credentials, and then explain what I am about to do.
Caleb Leibowitz, the young man whose tefillin-donning inadvertently caused the diversion of a flight from New York to Louisville, Kentucky a few weeks ago, acted in a similar responsible way. Seated nearby was his sister; presumably she knew what he was doing. And, according to the boy’s father, quoted in the January 25 daily Hamodia, when a flight attendant inquired about the leather straps and the small boxes on the boy’s arm and head, he politely explained to her that it was a religious ritual.
Some have sought to blame the attendant for then reporting the still-suspicious-to-her goings-on to the captain. But while most experienced attendants have probably seen tefillin, there are surely neophytes who haven’t, and she may well have been one of them. (Agudath Israel of America has tried to sensitize the Transportation Security Administration to the religious practices of Orthodox Jews, and has reached out to airlines as well, offering a brochure explaining Orthodox laws and customs.)
In any event, security protocol apparently required the pilot to land the plane at the next available airport, in this case, Philadelphia, and the rest was history – or, at least, a few days of grist for news organizations, which posted the story of the suspect tefillin before the plane had even landed.
(There was considerable amusement value in some news reports too. A Philadelphia law enforcement official soberly informed television viewers how the “devices” worn by Mr. Leibowitz were called “olfactories.”)
Although the halachic parameters of what constitutes Kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of G-d’s name,” are complex, the term is colloquially used to mean a Jew’s act that impresses others and generates positive feelings. That is not to say, though, that any act resulting in such feelings is a Kiddush Hashem – or, conversely, that an act resulting in negative feelings in others cannot be proper, and even a Kiddush Hashem.
For an example of the latter, we need look no further than a few weeks hence, when the Book of Esther will be publicly read on Purim. It describes how Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. The Midrash explains that the Purim villain wore an idol around his neck, the reason for Mordechai’s refusal. Many Jews at the time were disapproving of Mordechai’s decision – after all, they argued, it will only stoke Haman’s hatred and render all Jews even more vulnerable! Nevertheless, it was the right decision, whether or not it was a popular one. Haman’s hatred was indeed stoked, but in the end it led to his downfall.
Caleb Leibowitz did something right, too, on the plane that morning. He donned tefillin with pride and explained politely what he was doing. And most people recognized that Mr. Leibowitz was a shining example of an observant Jew, an example only reiterated when law enforcement personnel described him as “completely cooperative” throughout. And if his tefillin-donning frightened a flight attendant or bothered others, or if the image of a young Jewish man kneeling on a tarmac in handcuffs brought anyone to think of Mr. Leibowitz as some wrongdoer, that’s unfortunate. But no amount of misguided disapproval can change the fact that G-d’s name was sanctified by his performance of a mitzvah.
It was a Kiddush Hashem with ramifications, too, a gift that kept on giving. As the New York Jewish Week reported recently, an annual program among the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs that encouraged members to don tefillin experienced a huge surge of interest in the wake of the phylactery fiasco. A movement spokesperson noted that the international “World Wide Wrap” event “had 5000 participants the first years and the number has been consistent ever since.”
This year, though, he added, nearly 9000 men had pledged their participation.
May Caleb’s gift continue to give.
© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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