On Tuesday, Israeli journalist Neria Kraus posted to X (formerly Twitter) that she was humiliated by a crew member on a United Airlines flight from New York to Tel Aviv when she refused to switch seats and accommodate an ultra-Orthodox male passenger refusing to sit next to a woman.
The story was quickly picked up by the media, but early Wednesday morning, her claims came under scrutiny, as footage emerged of the man seen in Kraus’ original post explaining that he had asked politely, before taking off his cap to reveal his kippah, causing her to become enraged and make false claims of discrimination.
Unfortunately those of us who travel frequently are quite familiar with the following scene: delayed departures as the cabin crew attempts to accommodate passengers who refuse to sit next to women, claiming Jewish law does not allow for it.
But is it prohibited for a man to sit next to a woman according to Jewish law?
It is prohibited for a man to touch a woman who is forbidden to him. In the context of forbidden relationships, the Torah instructs: “…Do not come close to uncovering ervah [nakedness]” (Lev. 18:6). According to Rambam, it is a Torah prohibition to even “come close,” through affectionate touching (Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 21:1; Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh no. 353). Ramban disagrees, and concludes that the nature of this prohibition is only Rabbinic; a “fence around the Torah” to prevent sin (Commentary to Sefer Hamitzvot, ad loc.).
However, the type of touching that is prohibited is limited to touching out of affection or desire; touching which provides gratification (Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah, Ibid. See also Shach, Yoreh De’ah 157:10).
Unintentional or incidental contact is not prohibited.
Asked if one may travel on a crowded subway or bus during rush hour, when men and women are pressed up against one another and physical contact is unavoidable, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled it is indeed permissible as “this is not the way of desire and affection” (Igrot Moshe, Even ha-Ezer 2:14). Rabbi Feinstein continues and advises those concerned that the unavoidable contact may lead them to impure thoughts to fill their minds with Torah thoughts instead.
Similar rulings are found in the responsa of Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya (Yaskil Avdi, Even ha-Ezer 5:23) and Rabbi Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halakhot 4:186).
In a 2011 interview, when asked about Mehadrin bus lines, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, former Chief Rabbi of Holon, called the separate-seating buses “unnecessary.”
Accordingly, one may sit next to a member of the opposite sex on a flight. Any physical contact is unintentional and incidental and therefore not prohibited.
Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner, however, is stringent. Concerned that contact – even unintentional – could lead to impure thoughts, he rules that is preferable to stand rather then sit next to a woman (Shevet ha-Levi 4:136).
Those who want to be stringent and avoid sitting next to a member of the opposite sex, can stand during the flight (excluding takeoff and landing, of course), or purchase a seat in Business or First Class, where they will have plenty of room for themselves.
Stringency and personal piety should never come at the expense of someone else, or create a ‘Desecration of God’s Name.’ As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes: “One who seeks to be truly pious must weigh all his actions in relation to their outcome and in relation to all of the accompanying circumstance: the time, social environment, situation, and setting. And if refraining [from an act] will produce a greater sanctification of the Name of Heaven, and greater satisfaction before Him than doing the act, he should refrain and not do it” (Mesilat Yesharim, Chap. 20).
Those causing flight delays and making passengers and crew members uncomfortable, should consider how their stringent behavior impacts others and be stringent in the mitzvah of loving their fellow as themselves.