Terrorism has made us uneasy travelers. Stories of bombs concealed in shoes and undergarments have lead to tighter and tighter security measures, and put security personnel, flight crews, and passengers on edge. A recent incident on a flight from New York’s LaGuardia airport to Louisville, Kentucky, shows just how uneasy we have become.
On board the flight were a teenage brother and sister. After the flight had been airborne for about a half hour, the boy produced two small boxes, which he strapped to his arm and head. Fearing that the boxes might contain explosives, the flight crew alerted the pilot, who notified federal authorities to meet the plane after it made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. Once the plane was on the ground, FBI agents burst into the cabin and handcuffed and questioned the boy. They quickly found out that he posed no threat. An Orthodox Jew, he had been strapping on tefillin—small leather boxes containing parchment inscribed with biblical passages—prior to saying his morning prayers.
Far from engaging in an act of terrorism, the boy was following one of the dictates of his faith. The Bible tells us to “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” (Deuteronomy 11:18) Orthodox Jews fulfill this command by putting on tefillin (also known as phylacteries) every morning except Sabbath as they recite their prayers. One box and strap is wrapped around the left hand opposite the heart, while the other is wrapped around the head. In this way the Jew demonstrates that his love for God and devotion to His word involve his hands (or actions), his heart (or emotions), and his mind (or thoughts).
To his credit, the boy was calm and cooperative—though frightened—during the incident. The reaction in the Jewish world, too, was measured. While some said the flight crew overreacted, there seemed to be a general understanding that in the current climate of extreme caution engendered by terrorism they had simply made an honest mistake. Jewish leaders were quick to state that they did not view the incident as anti-Semitic.
In fact, it is ignorance—not anti-Semitism—that is at the heart of the matter. Had more people been familiar with Orthodox Jewish observance, there would have been no misunderstanding. But, as one newspaper writer put it, “most people don’t know tefillin from Tupperware.” If this incident shows us anything, it shows us the great need to better understand the customs of other faiths. While understanding would not erase all the divisions and the real differences in belief that exist between us, it would certainly help us avoid the fear and misunderstanding that can grow out of ignorance—and perhaps avoid regrettable incidents like this one.
Building bridges and eliminating misunderstandings between the members of two great faiths, Christianity and Judaism, is at the core of The Fellowship‘s mission. Today, I urge all of us to take up that mission. Visit The Fellowship‘s website to learn more about Jewish faith and life and the Jewish roots of Christianity. If you are Christian, seek out a willing Jewish friend, acquaintance, or co-worker and learn something about his or her faith. If you are Jewish, open a dialogue with a friend or acquaintance who is Christian. The more bridges we build, the closer we will come to realizing the promise spoken of by the Psalmist when he said, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
– Rabbi’s Message, Jan. 28, 2010