Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cohen in a bag

This picture was doing the rounds. Not only in Jewish media, but all over the world the media was showing how crazy some Orthodox Jews are.

After some misinformation when people though this man didn't want to be in the same plane as a woman, it was clarified that he is a Cohen (priest) and climbed inside his plastic bag in order to protect himself from ritual impurity while the aeroplane flew over Cholon cemetery.

Some of the blogs even praised the person himself (even if they thought the ruling was odd) for listening to the ruling of his Rabbi. (Even Dovbear tried to justify (or not) his actions)

I just want to throw in my 5 cents (or tuppence if you are British).

Firstly, as has been pointed out, the idea that a plastic bag protects (being synthetic) more than the actual plane (which is made of aluminium) or the carpet etc (all made of synthetic materials) is ludicrous.

But let's leave that aside.

It seems to me that his Rosh Yeshiva (who may well be a great Torah scholar - I have no idea) has forgotten a Gemara in Berachot 19b regarding when and when not to do things that are potentially embarrassing in order to avoid sin.

The Gemara begins by saying that if a person discovers they are wearing a garment containing Shatnez they must disrobe even in public, to avoid sinning.

R. Judah said in the name of Rab: If one finds mixed kinds3 in his garment, he takes it off even in the street. What is the reason? [It says]: There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord; wherever a profanation of God's name is involved no respect is paid to a teacher.

But the Gemara then goes on to give a list of exceptions to this rule. Including the following:

Come and hear; for R. Eleazar b. Zadok said: We used to leap over coffins containing bodies to see the Israelite kings. Nor did they mean this to apply only to Israelite kings, but also to heathen kings, so that if he should be privileged [to live to the time of the Messiah], he should be able to distinguish between the Israelite and the heathen kings. Why so? Let us say, 'There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel before the Lord'? — [It is in accord with the dictum of Raba; for Raba said: It is a rule of the Torah that a 'tent' which has a hollow space of a handbreadth forms a partition against uncleanness, but if it has not a hollow space of a handbreadth it forms no partition against uncleanness. Now most coffins have a space of a handbreadth, and [the Rabbis] decreed that those which had such a space [should form no partition] for fear they should be confused with those which had no space, but where respect to kings was involved they did not enforce the decree.

In other words, a cohen is permitted to actually run over graves in order to greet a king (whether Jewish or not Jewish) because it probably only involves transgression of a Rabbinic commandment, which does not apply when honouring kings.

Is it not obvious that we can certainly apply a kal va-chomer to flying over a cemetery. Surely it is at least a safek or a Rabbinic prohibition.

But in our case, the Cohen was not going to greet a king. So how does that help? Because the whole sugya is based on avoiding chilul Hashem (profanation of G-d's name). I'll repeat the line from above:

wherever a profanation of God's name is involved no respect is paid to a teacher.

In other words, one is commanded to perform potentially embarrassing actions to avoid chilul Hashem.

Is one commanded to perform potentially embarrassing actions to cause chilul Hashem? Absolutely not.

Look there at the rest of the Gemara. It is clear to me that even if a strict interpretation of the halacha would require every cohen to get inside a plastic bag, the fact that nowadays people carry phones with them and are able to put pictures such as this on facebook/twitter etc within second, thereby creating chilul Hashem, means that one should not apply the strict interpretation of the halacha here, but should rely on one of the (many) possible lenient rulings to avoid chilul Hashem.

Ok, perhaps the Rosh Yeshiva has never heard of twitter of facebook, and didn't realise that people carry cameras with them (kosher phones have neitehr internet nor cameras). But why did the Cohen himself not look around and think that he was perhasp doing the wrong thing, since he was the only one on the flight with a plastic bag? The answer is a combination of "Da'as Torah" and pride.

The Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, gave an address at the funeral for Lady Margaret Thatcher. He struggled to find anything nice to say about her (so resorted to telling jokes). But one of the things he said was interesting. He pointed out the difference between Methodists (which Baroness Thatcher was) and Anglicans (which he is).

She once described her religious upbringing in a lecture saying: "We were taught always to make up our own minds and never take the easy way of following the crowd". The Bishop says that in the past it was so often the Methodists who took the lead.

Anglicans apparently are told to follow the party line and not question. Methodists are encouraged to question and search for truth.

It appears to me that the Chareidi world has chosen the path of the Anglicans. A student may never question his teacher. A Rabbi may never question a Godol. etc. Thinking and questioning is strongly discouraged (apart from very narrowly defined questions on Gemara which are permitted).

A good student, even if he was formerly a pilot in the airforce (as this Cohen was) is not allowed to question the ruling of the Rebbe. His job is to do what he is told. He should be a good Anglican.

It is true that a soldier ultimately has to follow orders from above. But if he is sent to do something which he feels is wrong, a good soldier (in a good army) will be permitted to question and clarify before going on the mission.

Furthermore, this Cohen was on the plane for several hours (I think it was a flight from the USA to Israel). The plastic bag/cemetery was only at the end of the flight. He had hours in which to ask if there were any other Cohanim on the flight, and whether they planned on getting into a plastic bag. And if not, why not. He could have done plenty of research on the trip before making Judaism a lauging stock.

But he (presumably) didn't. And why not? Because Chareidi Jews (and others) do not feel connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael. There would be no point in asking someone with a knitted kippa what to do (even if that person was a well-qualified Rabbi) because "such people are not really Jewish", and always look for the easy way out. (Look at all the political rhetoric surrounding Bayit HaYehudi coming from the Chareidi world).
And if there is a Chareidi Cohen on the flight, his opinion is also unreliable, because my Rosh Yeshiva knows better than he does.

There are many things that we Jews do which seem odd to the outside world. These are not a chilul Hashem, but can be a kiddush Hashem and Jews are often respected for them.
But when the crazy thing comes out of ignorance (of cameras and internet, not to mention aeroplane construction) and pride (because my Rosh Yeshiva knows better than anyone else in the world) this is a chilul Hashem.

This parsha of Acharei Mot/Kedoshim teaches us the mitzva of tochecha. But tochecha can only be given (if it can be given at all) to someone who is "amitecha" - part of your people. As long as each group views themselves as separate from the rest of klal yisrael, there is no chance of tochecha, and no chance of actual Torah, instead of stupidity.


  1. I'm not sure of the hlachic ins-and-outs, but I think that this individual was correct to follow his Rabbi's advise. Walking up and down plane to see if there was a Cohen with a different ruling is not the way to make Halachic decisions.

    I'm not qualified to address the question of whether his Rosh Yeshiva was correct in the ruling that he gave.

    I'm surprised that this is the first time that such an incident has been publicized, it has been discussed for years and I'm sure many other Cohanim have done the same thing. I just finished reading the book "Jacob's Gift" ( in the last chapter the author gives examples of extremes in Judaism that he can't relate to, and one example is of a prominent British Rosh Yeshiva Cohen who wraps himself in a plastic bag when flying to Israel. The book came out a long time before this picture hit the Internet.

  2. Two comments on your comment, Michael:
    1. One should not pasken halacha by walking up and down aeroplane aisles. But when there are experts (i.e. people who fly regularly, and have thought the issue through and considered it from all angles) their opinion should be sought out. Especially when NOBODY else is doing what you are doing.
    2. I don't believe the British Rosh Yeshiva actually did wrap himself in a plastic bag. There was a lot of discussion about it at the time, especially in the Jewish Chronicle. But I am pretty sure that nobody ever actually did it (I know that Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the London Beis Din, who is a Cohen, did not wrap himself in a bag, even though people thought that he might). Furthermore, even if that was the halacha 12 years ago, I think that phones with cameras and facebook/twitter have made a new halachic reality. There were no photos in the world media 12 years ago. Now it is a chilul Hashem.