Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Minyans on a Plane!

Back in 2005, my husband and I were flying to Israel for the second time to visit his family. The interesting thing about flying to or from Israel is that there is a much higher percentage of Jews around than just about anywhere else you might be, except in Israel itself (duh). What’s nice about this is that at the appropriate times of day, the religious men on the plane gather in a convenient place to pray whichever prayer service it is time for. On the plane, or in the airport, they have the advantage of being able to gather 10 Jewish men easily, thereby collecting a “minyan,” the minimum number of people required to recite certain prayers, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish*.

Every time I’ve been in a place where there are informally at least 10 Jewish men around (as opposed to in services, where it’s planned that way), it’s been amazing for me to watch the men gather in a loose bunch, whip out their prayer books (or these days, their iPhones or Blackberrys when it isn’t Shabbat!), and daven (pray) the morning, afternoon, or evening service, roughly together.

So, back to the plane on the way to Israel in 2005.

When the men began gathering to pray the morning service, a woman on the plane stood up and gravitated toward the group of praying men, bringing with her a tallit* bag so that she could don her prayer accouterments and daven with the men. We assumed that she was a Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist rabbinical student flying to Israel to study. We don’t actually know, but she fit the profile. Anyway. The men didn’t want her to pray with them, and she got miffed and was complaining about being asked to pray somewhere else.

We watched this drama unfold somewhat bemusedly. It illustrates so well the struggle many American women from the less traditional movements have. We women want to pray, too! We want to wear the tallit and the tefillin and the kippah, join the minyan, and daven the morning service. We want the privileges that the men get by default.

But see, if you’re Orthodox, there are two problems with this philosophy. First of all, women don’t need to wear tallit, kippah, and tefillin. Thus, a woman doing so makes an Orthodox man uncomfortable. Second, though a Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist well-meaning woman wants to pray with the men, in a traditional Orthodox arena, women and men do not intermingle while they pray.

So, on the one hand, the woman on the plane had a right to be miffed. She had a right to want to wear the tallit and kippah and pray with the men. But on the other hand, the men had a right to be uncomfortable with her standing with them, and to request that she pray elsewhere on the plane.

Now, notice, they didn’t ask that she not pray. They asked that she not pray standing next to them. Whether they were in a plane, at the airport, in the middle of Jerusalem, or in a synagogue, they would not have wanted her or any woman to stand next to them while they prayed. It’s simply not proper. And no matter what, she wouldn’t count in their minyan.

If she wanted to pray her way, she needed a congregation or gathering of like-minded Jews, men or women, who do count women in the minyan and encourage them to wear tallit and kippah and tefillin. But it wasn’t really fair of her to insist on davening with a bunch of Orthodox men on their way to Israel. There, it became an issue of respect.

I think it’s interesting, too, that the men were respectful enough of her not to ask that she not pray in the way she wanted, but she was not respectful enough of them to know that she shouldn’t try to pray with them to begin with.

I run into this a lot, where what I want to do is in direct contradiction to my religious friends’ beliefs. For example, I drive and carry on Shabbat. We haven’t reached the point where we keep all of the laws of Shabbat. But I know that it is disrespectful to my more religious friends to make a big deal of it, so I make an effort not to carry or drive on Shabbat around them. They don’t watch me arrive or leave, and I try not to bring anything in or out of their house (except my kids and my keys). They insist on my using their diapers and wipes, on providing changes of clothes if my kids get dirty, and so on, so that I wouldn’t have had to carry anything with me. And on the flip side, if they want to give me something, they would never give it to me on Shabbat, because then I would have to carry it home. And I know not to ask.

In this same vein, the woman on the plane should have known already that she would not be welcome, and instead of trying to make a martyr of herself, or get upset about it, or stage a mini-protest, she should have respected that they were not of a mind with her, and she should have chosen a different part of the plane to daven.

* Tallit, tefillin, and kippah are the prayer shawl, leather strips and boxes placed on the head and arms, and the yarmulke or skull cap worn during the morning prayers. I’m not going to go into the significance or religious meaning of any of these items now, but Wikipedia has an article accompanied by pictures, if you’re curious what it looks like. (Men wear a kippah all the time.) Traditionally, women do not wear kippah, tallit, or tefillin, ever.

* The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners. Traditionally, one says Kaddish for a parent, spouse, child, or sibling who died within the past 11 months, and also on the yahrzeit, the anniversary, of their death. The Mourner’s Kaddish can only be said in the presence of a minyan, 10 Jewish men who are all praying together.

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