Saturday, January 23, 2010

Religious tolerance and ritual in public

The NY Times article, “A Flight Is Diverted by a Prayer Seen as Ominous: Unfamiliarity With a Jewish Teenager’s Ritual Causes Concern in the Air”, by its headlines seems to say that it was the flight crew’s responsibility to be knowledgeable of and accepting of the ritual practiced by less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s population. Yes, we want greater education about all religions, but how much detail can we expect the general population to know about minority religious practices? The expectation may be higher for employees who meet a wide range of individuals in their work, but there are reasonable limits. The quote by the Philadelphia police officer, “It was unfamiliarity that caused this”, holds this position. Even if the flight attendant had been familiar with the ritual, I would still expect her to respond with caution. We expect the attendants to be observant of all behavior that may be a cover for actions that would possibly endanger the aircraft and passengers. The image that I know that went through her mind was the number photos that have been in the news and on entertainment programs that show a bomber as he threatened a facility. Being wrapped in bindings and having a container attached is the standard picture.

The amazing aspect of this story is that the teenager and his community did not react negatively to the precautions taken by the airline personal. All the comments were supportive of the actions the crew took upon observing the behavior. So many times when people of other communities have been confronted because of their appearance or activity, they react that they are being discriminated against. No one quoted in the story seemed to show any of this reaction. The boy’s rabbi even suggested, “I would suggest, pray on the plane and put the tefillin on later on. Pray, and fulfill the ritual later.”

Acceptance is not just knowing and accepting other people’s rituals, but it is also accepting that other people may not know our religious rituals that set us apart from the general population. But for some groups tolerance is a one-way path.

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