Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 7 July 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

Airing Questions

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Alexy

Dear Rabbi,

I was in an airport travelling with my family and saw a rabbi praying in the departure area before the flight. I explained to my son that a rabbi is a holy and learned person, and that it is important to show respect to the rabbi. I also told my son that while a rabbi won’t discuss Judaism without being asked, he considers it a good deed to answer questions about it and that one should take advantage of the opportunity to do so. After that “prep-talk”, when the rabbi finished his prayers, I began a conversation, the rabbi was very friendly (he actually gave my son kosher chocolate), but my son was not as respectful as he should have been, nor did he ask any questions. So I have some questions about this scenario. Is there a way that I can know whether such a person is a rabbi? Is it common to pray that way outside of a synagogue, in an airport? Is it acceptable to address the rabbi in this way and to ask him questions? Why do you think my son did not take up on my encouragement?

Dear Alexy,

I commend you on your own respect and interest in Judaism which is genuine and refreshing. If all Jewish parents expressed to their children what you expressed to your son, there would be much more assurance of passing on Judaism to future generations.

Was the person a rabbi? It is important to know that not everybody who might appear to be a rabbi is one. The reason for this is that among the more observant Orthodox groups, mode of dress is fairly standard, such that rabbis and layman look alike. Generally, even a layman of such affiliation and appearance is well-versed and knowledgeable and may be considered reliable for answering many questions about Judaism. Two useful points for you to know is that, out of humility, a rabbi might not admit to being one; on the other hand, most rabbis and laymen would admit to not knowing the answer to a question and defer to a more knowledgeable source.

Is it common to pray in an airport? While it is mandatory to pray in a synagogue with the community, in extenuating circumstances such as during travel when the appointed times for prayer expire without access to a synagogue or community, it is permitted to pray individually and outside of a synagogue. Presumably, this is what the man that you saw was doing, and even a rabbi might find himself in that situation. However, if the route is a common one for Jews, such as between Israel and New York, the required number of ten men might make impromptu services for prayer in the airport, or even in the plane.

Did you address the rabbi in an acceptable way by asking questions? From the way you prepped your son, I’m sure you addressed the person with reverence and respect, which is really how we should address all people, and I’m sure that was acceptable to him. In fact, you mention that he was friendly toward you. And, as far as asking a rabbi or any other Orthodox person about Judaism, there should be nothing wrong with that, as long as one asks respectfully and not with sarcasm and confrontation.

Nevertheless, some people are naturally friendly, others are less so. Some are more knowledgeable, others less so. Sometimes, one has more time, while at other times one is in a rush. So you can always ask, but just be prepared for various responses, and don’t make generalizations about Orthodox Jewry based on the reactions of select individuals. Another point to consider, specifically in the situation you describe, is that the person may not have much time to talk if he’s prayed between flights, and may need to care for personal needs or have a wife and small children travelling with him who might need his help.

Regarding your son’s reaction to the situation, it actually seems perfectly natural and expected. From what I glean, he is probably not familiar with Orthodox Jews. Children are wary, or at least shy, of strangers in general. This is certainly so when the stranger looks “strange” to them. And add to that your well-meaning, but possibly intimidating “prep-talk”, and I can see why he’d be reluctant to capitalize on the “opportunity” you orchestrated for him. In fact, perhaps the rabbi’s perception of your son’s awkwardness prompted his gift of chocolate.

So, while I greatly admire your intention and the ideas that you conveyed to your son, based on your son’s reaction, it seems you might better achieve your educational goal with a slightly modified approach. Your “prep” was amazing, and I’d definitely keep that. However, rather than expecting your young son to initiate questions to an unfamiliar, intimidating adult, in this situation you might have taught by example, inviting your son to merely accompany you to ask your questions together. As the conversation progressed, and your son would be more at ease, you could, through “show and tell”, encourage him to see and touch, for example, the rabbi’s tefillin or tallit, piquing your son’s natural curiosity to ask his own questions.

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