Global, Religion

Torahs in airports

Torahs are supposed to be transported with the absolute maximum of utter respect, as befits something that symbolises the essence of a religion.
So, you’re delivering a Torah. You’re taking it as cabin baggage, since checked isn’t very nice. There’s only the one of you, since it’s not economically feasible for a companion to come with you. You’re waiting in the concourse and you need to use the bathroom. What do you do?
Here are the values in play: In an airport, checked baggage doesn’t get treated especially well, and if you leave anything unattended, it is liable to be stolen or removed and exploded (and the airport will be evacuated and everyone’s flights will be disrupted). Also, a Torah has to be treated with respect in transit. Specifically, it is Very Not Okay to take a Torah into the bathroom, even if it is wrapped up. You may also not treat it like any old package, unless there are safety reasons such as being afraid of thieves.
Posed with the question, one kid in Berkeley decided, “You find a Jew and ask them to look after it…”
Asked if a Jew was necessary, kid said no, her second choice would be a security person, but a Jew would be better.
I think that’s a splendid answer. It meets all the requirements of the situation, and adds the nuance that makes it a human response and not a mathematical deduction.
Interestingly, that highlights something about the basic process of halakhic decision-making. The scales are weighted by the baggage you bring with you – denominational preference, cultural inclinations, political implications, and so on. Above, I said: here are the values we need to weigh up (including acceptance of previous decisions, note), and here is the situation we need to work them into. Halakhic decision-making entails balancing all the values against the situation and working out a solution which has the maximally advantageous balance – and it turns out the best answer comes with reference to a value I didn’t even list. That is, when listing the values to be considered, it’s dashed hard to make sure you’ve got all of them – and even then, finding the answer isn’t necessarily just a matter of weighing up all the components.
If it doesn’t fit with people’s instinct – that is, the sense, in the low levels of consciousness, that something does or does not harmonise with the set of values a person holds, and holds deeply enough that they are both fundamental to their being and almost past articulation – something’s wrong. Some part of the puzzle is missing.
This is why halakha is more interesting than mathematics. It’s not just about taking systemic data and processes and combining them consistently, it’s also about incorporating the human element, which is considerably more complicated and subtle, and often appears to defy logic. Accommodating this and nonetheless managing to maintain a reasonably functional and consistent system is the challenge of formalistic Judaism, and a challenge which changes as often as the people who are part of it. It’s not as calming as mathematics, but it’s why I’m not a professional mathematician.

10 thoughts on “Torahs in airports

  1. I wonder what the nafka minah would be for a sefer torah which needs to be put into Genizah. Can you enlighten us as to whether such a torah needs the same kavod as a kosher sefer torah?

  2. Last time you asked me something you were being a troll, so I don’t know whether you’re trolling this time or not. If you are, I’d rather you didn’t, thanks.
    I would give it the same kavod, because viscerally it’s the same thing, even if ritually it isn’t. Whether it needs the same kavod I couldn’t say.

  3. Personal English language pet peeve: there’s a difference between Torah and a sefer Torah. When you talk about delivering a Torah, I sort of imagine a mountaintop being involved.

  4. Having just flown with a Torah and having experienced that dilemma, I would just like to point out that airport personnel are not allowed to watch baggage. As one ticketing agent at the gate told me, “If the FAA are watching, I could be fined.” The person carrying a Sefer Torah knows that it’s not dangerous, but the airport employees don’t, and for our own safety, I think I’d prefer that they didn’t accept anything.
    One exception might be possible in this case: Before flying with a Sefer Torah, I called the airline when I bought the ticket to see what accommodations I could get. They arranged for me to be wheeled around the airport in a wheelchair. Now, given that I’m a woman and the person wheeling me around the airport was a man, I think he would have been allowed/required to stay with my carry-on baggage outside the bathroom. But if that would be allowed, even if my transporter was a woman I think it would have been possible to leave her with my stuff out of the bathroom.
    What did I actually do? I did my best to go to the bathroom on the plane, in particular just before landing (I had a layover). But when I was in the airport alone and had to go, I called a friend to distract me and then as soon as I boarded I went to the bathroom (the rest of the passengers were boarding).
    My friend’s suggestion, by the way, was to find a family who could watch it.

  5. Despite the expense of an additional ticket, shouldn’t a second person always accompany the one carrying the sefer Torah?

  6. I sympathize with your desire to avoid trolling. However, I found your use of MO style Halacha rhetoric jarring.
    “This is why halakha is more interesting than mathematics….it’s also about incorporating the human element, which is considerably more complicated…”
    The fact that this is implicitly juxtaposed to your activities in writing sifrei Torah, which those people who talk this way would castigate you for, makes it a funny juxtaposition. It is sort of like a black person in 1980s S Africa commenting on the complexity and wonders of apartheid law, and how he loves it so much, except for the parts where he is not equal.

  7. Quite honestly, this is unfeasible for another reason: Few people are willing to look after a stranger’s bag in an airport–we have all been told thousands of times by airport security never, ever to do this. It makes no difference at all whether the stranger is a Jew or not.

  8. I hate to say but I agree with Pitz. If you asked me to look after a big bag, even if you say it’s a Torah, I wouldn’t do it. OK, I would if Hatam Soferet asked, but only because I know her.

  9. In addition to its inestimable spiritual worth, a Torah is worth thousands of dollars and would be a serious temptation to a knowledgeable thief (and yes, you can sell them on e-bay).
    As reluctant as I would be to take a Torah into a bathroom, I would be even more reluctant to ask a stranger of any tribe to watch it (and, as Pitz and Avi say, that stranger would be ill-advised to watch it if I did ask).

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