Rabbi Avi Shafran
Much puzzlement - and even more merriment - greeted the story, reported by the Associated Press and others, of some observant Jews' reluctance to fly El Al planes from Tel Aviv to New York because their flight path at take off passes directly over a cemetery in the town of Holon.
What engendered the concern of observant cohanim, or descendants of Moses' brother Aaron, about boarding the flights was the halachic stricture forbidding them from certain contact with, including passing above, dead bodies. Such contact, according to Jewish religious law deriving from a number of verses in Leviticus, confers a spiritual contamination of sorts (a respected Reform rabbi and scholar with whom I was friendly, William Braude, once even suggested that the word "contaminate" may itself be sourced in the Hebrew word for that effect, tum'ah). While enclosures of various sorts can "insulate" a cohein from such contamination, whether the alloys that comprise the body of a modern aircraft might do so is a complex halachic issue.
At least one major halachic authority ruled that they cannot, and so some cohanim opted not to fly the airline. Others, much to the amusement of some in the media, requested to be permitted to enclose themselves on the plane in various ways, including, reportedly, in body bags - which, sadly, are well-stocked in Israel these days.
It has been reported that Israeli Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh has made efforts to reroute El Al's planes to accommodate its observant passengers. If that indeed proves to be the case, the problem for observant travelers will have been solved.
The media snickering, though, over the image of rational human beings so concerned with something imperceptible that they would go so far to wrap themselves in insulation made me think about a very similar scene that unfolded recently in a number of venues. There, too, otherwise reasonable men had encased themselves in body bags (they called them "suits") to protect themselves against an entirely invisible danger, in places like the Hart Senate Office Building and a number of post office facilities in Washington, New York and elsewhere.
Now, needless to say, anthrax germs, while invisible to the human eye, are still physical entities and detectable in other ways. And they are capable of causing very apparent disease and death. Tum'ah, by contrast, is invisible to even the most powerful microscope, and has no evident physical effects. But that does not make it unreal, and therein lies important food for Jewish thought.
The Jewish people might best be described, from a historical perspective, as the vehicle for teaching the world about the invisible. Our ancestors faced a world filled with idols of every substance and worshippers of stars, and forced it to confront a new and outrageous idea: that the true G-d transcends all His creations and is unseen.
And there were other invisibles that our forbears introduced, too, ideals like justice, education, empathy and peace.
What is more, Judaism, while it lives and breathes in the "real" world of our physical existence, is steeped in the idea that what we think and say and do makes a difference not only in the familiar world but also - and perhaps most of all - in a spiritual realm largely imperceptible to us. When we perform a mitzvah, we affect that spiritual realm, as well as the spiritual within us. We may have done nothing more than heard a shofar's cry on Rosh Hashana or taken an esrog and lulav on Sukkot; nothing more than circumcised a Jewish baby or made a blessing on a food; nothing more than refrained from eating a forbidden food or from speaking ill of others. But we have created a powerful effect, even if it is one not readily noticeable.
There is much else in the rich realm of the invisible, including puzzling things like tum'ah. But Jews sensitive to Jewish tradition do not seek to ridicule or dismiss them, but rather to endeavor, through study of Jewish sources, to better understand them.
Because they realize that, whether in the realm of sickness or of spirit, sometimes what is invisible matters.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]