Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fear of the Sacred

A Hasidic Jew was recently forced to leave an Air Canada flight from Montreal to New York because his praying scared fellow passengers:
The airplane was heading toward the runway at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport when eyewitnesses said the Orthodox man began to pray.

"He was clearly a Hasidic Jew," said Yves Faguy, a passenger seated nearby. "He had some sort of cover over his head. He was reading from a book.

"He wasn't exactly praying out loud but he was lurching back and forth," Faguy added.

The action didn't seem to bother anyone, Faguy said, but a flight attendant approached the man and told him his praying was making other passengers nervous.

"The attendant actually recognized out loud that he wasn't a Muslim and that she was sorry for the situation but they had to ask him to leave," Faguy said.

The man, who spoke neither English nor French, was escorted off the airplane.

Air Canada Jazz termed the situation "delicate," but says it received more than one complaint about the man's behaviour.

The crew had to act in the interest of the majority of passengers, said Jazz spokeswoman Manon Stewart.

"The passenger did not speak English or French, so we really had no choice but to return to the gate to secure a translator," she said.

The airline is not saying if the man was told he was not allowed to pray, but a spokesperson said the man was back on board the next flight to New York.
Now ask yourself, why would anyone be scared of a Hasidic Jew praying on a flight to New York City? Surely there are few more unlikely sources of terrorism. So, unless we wish to believe that the passengers or crew supposed, with no evident reason, that the lastest ploy of Al Qaeda may be to disguise themselves as pious Hasidim, we have to assume that this is a case of simple fear of unfamiliar signs of religious piety (and perhaps some queer, MSM-influenced misconceptions about orthodox Jews and violence).

And this, I think, is an interesting but disquieting sign of our cultural weakness. For on the one hand it shows that the people involved vaguely recognize, and fear, the power of the sacred over human minds; and yet, on the other hand, it suggests that these same people have little interest in the sacred and no idea what Hasidic Judaism is about. Indeed, we can confidently guess that only people who don't take prayer seriously - in the sense that they don't seriously practice it - would raise objections to a Jewish man praying. Such people would assume that pious, semi-public prayer is a sign of an unstable mind, and while they recognize its power, it may not be for the good.

In other words, if and when this type of person is indeed challenged by people motivated by the power of the sacred, people who see the secular North American as weak and decadent, the under-educated, secular-Gnostic, North Americans are going to run screaming if they can't find authority figures to complain to first. They are not going to be able to feel confident and very superior to the other. Sure they will think the other is crazy, but they will not have the courage to face him down in a fight. They will not be able to say "our faith is superior to yours", because they will only fear the power of faith and not be able to embrace it.

This kind of North American is simply buying time. They know the religious crazies are coming, but like the Spanish voters who responded to the train bombings by voting out a government that was willing to fight Islamic terror, they just want to do whatever it takes to avoid, but not face or understand, the supposed danger, and to keep the jet-settting and partying going for as long as they can, until the fearful power of the sacred triumphs in its return to the scene...

We need to learn again how to promote good faith, and so also an understanding of the sacred, that is suited to our times and needs.

Meanwhile, Concordia University continues to fear Jewish speakers.


Gordon Pasha said...

Were the folks who complained, if actually anyone did, Muslim? Have you taken into account the strong thread of antisemitism that runs through Quebec? An Air Canada flight from Montreal would have an all-Quebecois crew. Furthermore, Air Canada crew do not hesitate to use their positions of authority to abuse passengers for political or cultural reasons. I have seen a middle-aged francophone woman refused service by an Air Canada on-board attendant because she asked for a newspaper in English. I don't doubt that Air Canada crew would hassle a Hasidic Jew, out of outright hostility, or just because they had been brought up to fear Jews.

felix said...

Not sure how to respond to this incident. The crew was probably wrong, but we have to allow them to be in charge on the plane, they can't all be experts on various religious activities and rituals.

truepeers said...

keith, you may be right, but I don't think it changes my analysis much. Antisemitism is just a more intense fear of the sacred than what I was imagining, at first.

Felix, of course the crew have to be in charge; but that does not excuse their stupidity.

ReTrack said...

People who act wierd on airplanes bug me.


truepeers said...

Sure retrack, they bug me too. But that's not the question; it's, why do people think a Hasidic Jew praying is something weird?

truepeers said...

No doubt it's often necessary to distinguish among different kinds of relationships to the sacred and maybe I should have in this post. We can simultaneously fear and desire the sacred, because it is an inherently paradoxical force that attracts and repels our attention. "Look, respect, represent, but don't touch", is its basic message. It's often said that fear of the sacred (or of its divine guarantor) is the basis of wisdom. That's very true. But it can also be the basis of unwisdom, which is what was on my mind when I posted.

felix said...

People who fly are in a confined space for a number of hours. So if they perceive, however incorrectly it turns out, that one of the passengers may act out or present a problem, then they might object. There have been several recent examples of people refusing to fly with what they perceived to be suspicious looking middle eastern (Muslim) men on board.

I understand you are trying to talk about the public religious display of this individual, however the public will have to get used to more of a conformity of deportment while flying.

truepeers said...

Felix, sure people might object; but is that a reason to ban prayer from airplanes, let alone kick the praying off? On the other hand, there may well be good reasons to be suspicious of suspiciously-behaving Muslim men on airplanes: the Jihad is a very real and potentially deadly thing, as experience has shown. There is no equivalent in Judaism.

Let me reduce your argument to the absurdity I think it tends: some people are scared of women with big breasts and a killer smile; if the fearful get a little religion, or paranoid, or whatever, and start complaining, should we insist that all such women on planes hide their cleavage - "because it might provoke someone to do something crazy?" Well, if experience shows big breasts visible on planes really are a risk of causing irrational violence, then indeed you have to do something about it, however irrational is the problem. But if there is no experience or ratioanl expecation of danger, doing something about big breasts is a sign of irrational fear. And to my mind, fearing a Hasidic Jew because he rocks when he prays is just as irrational as fearing a sexy woman, if not more so.

Irrational and Gnostic thinking leads inevitably to totalitarianism as I fear your last comment suggests. As FDR said, the only thing we need fear is fear itself. Dictating that everyone on planes sit in an upright position with a straight face will no more make us safe or help win this war than waving a magic wand and shouting abracadabra - terrorists can lean to play along.... Such dictates would entail nothing but a mistaken belief in the magical-ritual power of conformity to dictates, a self-deluding appeasement of one's own fears.

What will win this war is a revitalization of reason and faith in the western mind. And here the hasidic jews have something to teach us. For example: "the average Hasidic family in the United States has 7.9 children." (Wikipedia) You see they care enough about one important element of western culture to commit themselves to truly reproducing it. I would trust members of this culture of life long before I trusted the average Canadian or American nihilist that I see on public transport every day.

truepeers said...

Felix, having said all that, I agree with you that if the crew had reason to believe the passengers were so upset by the sight of a guy praying, that they might have acted irrationally, then indeed the crew had to do something. They might have asked the guy if he would mind not praying. But it appears he probably only spoke Yiddish and Hebrew - did they ask if anyone on the plane spoke these? If they could not have talked to the guy, the correct action, in my view, would not have been to say "majority rules", but to ask the fearful to leave the plane, not the Jew.

However, I suspect the flight attendants may well have been complicit in stirring up the fear. Judeophobia is a common failing.