Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Control Of Torah

As a follow up to my last post I want to offer a further thought.
There is a not-so-well-known midrash which tells the story of a king living at the time of Matan Torah.  Having heard about the event and of Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, he sent one of his greatest artists to our ancestors' camp.  The mission was to meet Moshe Rabeinu and bring back a picture of him since the king wanted to see what a man who spoke to God looked like.
The artist arrived in the camp, completed his mission and returned home but the king wasn't happy with the results.  He thought that Moshe Rabeinu looked like a horrible, angry man.  Why would God speak with such a person?
The artist said that he had asked the same question of Moshe Rabeinu and the answer was "Indeed I am that kind of a person but because God demands of me to be different, so I am."
Along the line of this midrash, the Torah gives us certain clues as to the true nature of our Avos.  Avraham Avinu, a"h might have had issues with faith as his repeated requests for the assurances about the future might suggest.  Yitchak Avinu, a"h, wanted to be liked.  Yaakov Avinu, a"h, might have had a shemetz of cocky and dishonest.  Yet with the awareness of God and being in His constant service they were all able to overcome these limitations to such a degree that all the Torah can do is hint at who they really were.  With God and Torah Avraham Avinu became so full of faith he let himself be thrown into the furnace of Ur haKasdim.  Yitzchak Avinu saw through Avimelech's flattery after the Philistines stole his wells and confronted him, refuting the king's claims of good treatment of him.  Yaakov Avinu rose to become the paradigm of truth, titen emes l'Yaakov.  It is this way that we remember them because they didn't hide behind the excuse that they could not rise about their base characteristics.
In short, it's not that they were born demigod-like and therefore naturally became who they were?  They reached for holiness, achieved it and became the merkavah of the Shechinah.
Perhaps this is what is missing from modern Torah observance.  FinkOrSwim recently posted a couple of good pieces on why people remain Orthodox which seemed to conclude that Orthodox is in fact a tool, not a guide for many frum people.  The thesis was that we do what we do because it gives us something and I would suggest that if Rabbi Fink is correct then Orthodoxy, Chareidi, Zionist and Modern, are all in big trouble.
The reason I think that is because of context.  We often forget that the current living situation for most observant Jews these days is the best in history since the heyday of the Second Commonwealth over two thousand years ago.  Lack of official Jew-hatred in most of the countries we live in (excluding university campuses), the affluence of many of our communities, the availability of Jewish resources, kosher food, and the like is unparalleled in last two millenia.  For lots of us being Orthodox is feasible and preferable because it's not that hard.  What would happen if the situation suddenly changed and being Orthodox once again became a burden when it came to acquiring food, work or social success?
As unsexy as it sounds, Orthodoxy from left to right has to reintroduce the concept of obligation.  We are frum because, as Jews, we are bound by our bris at Har Sinai to be observant, not because we get anything out of it.  We have to emphasize the bound with the Creator above the earthly pleasures being religious causes.  Otherwise we get a religious practice that might be strict in some areas but, in the absence of genuine fear of God, has gaping holes when it comes to other behaviours.
In short, like Moshe Rabeinu and our holy Avos, we need to let the Torah guide us instead of treating it as a corner store.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Tool Or Guide

Rabbi Barry Freundel is a famous figure in the news right now for all the wrong reasons.  I'm not going to list all of them.  The man has had enough public humiliation without me having to pile on.
What I want to do is ask: what went wrong?
A quick look at Rabbi Freundel's CV clearly shows a discrepancy.  He is a major talmid chacham.  He is politically influential within the Modern Orthodox community.  He is a well-known author.  His personal level of religious practice is known to be on the stringent side and, unlike very recently, his reputation was impeccable.  None of these achievements came without tremendous amounts of effort, study and work.  How is it possible that someone who so dedicated his life to Torah and kedushah was, in his spare time, involved in such despicable acts both known and unknown to his victims?
I would like to suggest the following: it's all how you see your religious practice.
For some, religious practice is a guide.  One sees the rules as leading towards greater spirituality, character development and closeness to God.  One practices in public and private in the same way because the guide is always present and relevant no matter what the situation.
For others, religious practice is a tool.  It's a job, it's a way to community prominence, it's a bludgeon to hit others over the head with or some such.  It's not about the inner content but the outer routine and those public and private practice vary quite a great deal.  It's all about who's watching.
Recall the gemara in which a dying Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai tells his students to be as careful in their fear of God as their fear of man.  To their response "Not more?" he remind them that when a person sins he always checks to make sure no one saw him but God sees everything and that doesn't seem to register with the sinner.
North American culture is very much about the superficial.  It's about what you wear, how you talk, what you own.  Personal qualities such as humility, honesty and decency very often count for little. "What's in it for me?" might as well be on everyone's licence plate.
Is it any wonder then that prominent religious figures keep finding themselves in the news for all the wrong reasons?  A person might be exemplary when it comes to some areas of religious belief while completely negligent in others and the justification, conscious or not, is that he enjoys the former and gets something out of it while the latter are not as important and can therefore be ignored.
Perhaps this is the trap that Rabbi Freundel fell into.  Clearly an intelligent and ambitious man, in those areas where his intelligence and ambition were useful and gave him a sense of satisfaction he was able to rise to the top and perform at a very high level.  In those areas where restraint or sensitivity might have been called for he perhaps did not get much satisfaction or use for his intelligence and ambition.  Maybe this is the reason for the huge discrepancy in his behaviour.
When I was in grade 7 my school teacher gave me the secret to academic success.  Anyone can succeed in something they like, he told me.  The people who get the furthest in life are the ones who succeed at the stuff they don't like.  If they can excel in those areas then the stuff they enjoy comes easy.
Our religious practice needs to incorporate this philosophy.  Yes, there are areas of halacha that a person might not much care out: theft, honest, peritzus, etc.  It might be easy for a person to restrict himself to triple mehadrin meat while holding back from the internet might be inconceivable to him.  But he must recognize that it is the latter where he must excel and the former will simply follow.
Otherwise we are just picking and choosing and that's not real dveikus with the Creator of the universe.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Does He Care?

This is a big question that often comes up when people who don't like religion are speaking with people who do, especially the small details.  The religious person will point out that a kiddush cup must be held in the right hand and the non-religious person will snort and say something like "As if God's paying attention" or "Do you really think God cares about such nitpicking things?"  Sometimes it's more dismissively vague as in "All God cares about is that you be a good person".
Now many times that's really just the person saying "I don't care about the details and I can't imagine a god that doesn't think exactly like me, therefore that god doesn't care either".  On the other hand, it does tempt the religious person to introspect.  To what extent is God a micro-manager?  If my tefillin is off-centre by a few millimetres does He really say "No check mark today" for my mitzvah performance?  If I only wait 5:59 after meat before drinking milk, am I really committing a horrible sin?
I think that in order to answer that question satisfactorily, an exploration of the halachic system and its foundation is in order.  The foundation part is easy.  God appeared to our ancestors at Sinai, presented the Torah, both Written and Oral, and left it with us to guide our lives.  What's more, He left it in a hands-off fashion as the famous gemara in Bava Metzia about the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer makes clear: Lo b'shamayim hi!  Once given over to us, the Torah and its ongoing development as a tool of study and practice belong to us.  Yes, God gave us a set of rules by which to interpret the Written and Oral Laws but using those rules, responding to new situations and guiding ourselves through history is our task.
But if the Torah is ours then what is left of our relationship with God?  For many people, whether they realize it or not, there is very little left.  Yes they'll pray to Him three times a day but it's by rote, an obligation to be fulfilled.  For those folks the details are part of the routine.  You do what you do because that's what you do or because the book says.  It makes for efficient halachic practice but isn't very emotionally satisfying.  I would be surprised that any OTD's from this crowd leave the path because something more emotionally interactive and meaningful comes along.  People want an emotional connection to important things in their lives and if their Judaism is just a series of actions without fulfillment then why stick with it when something better comes along?
For some it's a very strict relationship.  God is a mean old schoolmaster up in the sky constantly scanning the schoolyard and hoping for the children to misbehave so that He can write down their misdemeanours in His book and, if He's feeling especially luck, mete out punishment.  No question as to why these guys go OTD from time to time.  Other than through fear or ignorance of the outside world why would anyone choose to live in such a system?  The only question is why it doesn't happen more often.
For others however there is a more nuanced relationship based on what God has actually told us.  Yes, He is the Creator and He is the King of Life, the Universe and Everything but it doesn't end there.  He is our Father.  He did not choose us as the Am haNivchar because there was no one better around or because He was stuck with what He had promised Avraham Avinu at some point.  He did it because He loves us like a parent loves a child.
This is a completely different way of understanding how the complexities of Judaism matter.  God, having given us a system and one overarching instruction - excel at this system I have given you - expects us to do our best without the structure we have ourselves constructed.  He wants us to succeed at His charge and, if it is possible to say such, is pleased when we strive for excellence in Torah practice.
No, he probably didn't specifically tell Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, at Sinai that one must hold one's kiddush cup in the right hand but using the foundation of the Oral and Written Torah along with all the mystical principles that accompanied them Chazal and the later decisors decided that doing that was the optimal way to fulfill the mitzvah.  When I specifically choose to hold the kiddush cup in my right hand I am trying my hardest to follow Chazal's lead.  This is what God is looking for.  And if I lazily hold the kiddush cup in my left hand then it's not davka that I used the left hand that costs me mitzvah points but that I could have done better and chose not to.
And why bother?  Because just as my Father has given me life, health and the tools to fufil His will so I as His son have a reciprocal obligation to show my gratitude and to try and please Him.  I want to excel because I appreciate what He has done for me and can only pay Him back in that way.  The details aren't nitpicking, they're showing love for the Creator of the Universe.  It's about trying as hard for Him as He does for us.
Perhaps we need to choose this system more often to practice our details with as opposed to the other two.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Keep Things In Proportion

Yesterday a Canadian convert to Islam attacked the National War Memorial and the Parliament Building in Ottawa up here in snowy (well okay, not yet) Canada.  He initially killed a soldier guarding the memorial.  Due to the quick thinking and high level of training of a parliament security guard he was shot before any more innocent people could die.
Maybe I'm just used to terrorism stories from Israel.  Maybe it was the near simultaneous terrorist attack in Yerushalayim in which an infant was cruelly killed and dozens wounded but when I started reading opinion pieces in the newspaper today about the event I had to roll my eyes.
I know journalists make their money on sensationalism but there was still something irritating about reading things like "Canada fought back!", "We won't be cowed by terror!" and "Terrorism strikes home!"
I mean really, one guy who by all accounts was an unstable nut job without any formal terrorist group alliances (perhaps he thought he was auditioning for ISIS?), only one death (fortunately) and the press made it sound like Al Qaeda itself had flown over and tried to blow up the entire Ottawa downtown.
Yes, Canada is a boring country that often has to invent problems so the local news operations will have something to report.  Yes, Canada is far away from the real crisis zones in the world which is probably why when anything, however limited, happens here we get all excited.
But let's keep this clear: Canada was no in real danger at any time here.  The security team around Parliament along with the police sprung into immediate action.  The government members were immediately in hiding or taken to safety.  There were no bombings.  This was the act of a single lunatic acting out his religious fantasies of killing the infidel, nothing more.
We up here need to be grateful that this is all that happened, that Canada is working on the side of good in this conflict and to recognize that in the bigger picture there is indeed a struggle between Western civilization and Islamofascism that is at play here.  Freaking out over minor incidents and acting as if something truly calamitous has occurred obscures that.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Real Theodicy

One of the big complaints against God is when bad things happen to good people.  I don't mean like a nice guy getting a parking ticket because he was late getting to his car.  I mean really bad things and really good people like kids getting cancer or elderly widows getting robbed and beaten.  The usual refrain is "How could God let this happen?" followed by some conclusion that He must not be out there, chalilah or otherwise uncaring or impotent when it comes to daily affairs.
Does anyone else out there get the impression that this kind of statement betrays an infantile understand of God and His role in the big scheme of things?
It seems to me that there are two main kinds of bad events - those that are caused by other people and those that seem to occur at random.  Let me first discuss the former.
Consider first the Jewish principle of free will.  As we all know it is an underlying foundation of our faith.  It's what makes our behaviours and the observance of mitzvos so valuable.  Without free will we are automatons who do what we're supposed to but there's really no point to it all.  If I keep kosher despite my lusting for a good meal at McDonald's it's a lot different than if I keep kosher simply because I know of no other way to eat because a treif meal has never occurred to me.  Free will is essential.
So should there be limits on that free will?  If the thug about the home invade the little old lady's condo knows for certain that lightning will strike him the minute he goes to kick in the door will he still attempt the robbery?  Or has he lost a bit of his free will because he decides he'd rather not be a sizzling pile of goo on the floor?  If free will is an absolute value how could God decide to abrogate it in this case?  If He does then where is His red line?
After all it's easy to pick up the extreme cases but after those it gets trickier.  Yes, fry all the home invaders because they're about to commit violence and theft, two things God abhors.  Well according to the Torah God abhors lots of other things.  Most of Wall Street and every Pride Parade would also be legitimate targets if Heavenly fire was a regular occurrence.  While the atheoskeptic crowd might applaud the untimely and spectacular demise of the Lehman brothers they would be enraged when the queer crowd gets zapped.
Consider it in even more banal terms.  You're a Jew about to eat a cheeseburger at McDonalds and a large spectral hand comes down and flicks your Happy Meal into the garbage.  Might that not annoy you?  Might not "Mind Your own business!" flick through your head?
In short, when it comes to person-on-person injustice we're okay with God interfering when we feel He should and outraged when we feel He shouldn't.  We are quite ready to sacrifice someone else's free will when it suits us, but only when it suits us.
But let's move on to the second category because the implications here are a bit deeper.
A 2 year old presents to the local emergency room with intractable vomiting.  After various investigations an MRI is done which shows a brain tumour.  Despite excellent medical care part of the tumour survives the operation.  Another one can't be done without causing significant brain damage which means the child is slowly doomed to death as the cancer regrows.
Who wouldn't be heartbroken by such a scenario?  Who wouldn't be moved to tears and want to move Heaven and Earth to help this child and its familiy?  Who wouldn't ask "Why God?  Why did You let this happen?"  All that is understandable.
Now take a second look at the scenario.  Look at the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  In many ways this is one of the evils the ecofascist crowd has committed with its obsession with climate change.  Most global warming deniers will readily agree there is way too much pollution in our environment and that it is posing risks to humanity but the ecofascists only want to talk about it if the conclusion has something to do with climate change.  As a result we miss other things.
Did this child's family live not so far from a chemical plant that was caught last year illegally disposing of waste into the local river which serves as the city's source of drinking water?  What about all the chemical preservatives in all the food we exposed it to?  What about the ever increasing types of radio waves and radiation we shoot through our environment?  Did mom smoke during pregnancy?  Did she do drugs?  Seriously, do you know how toxic it is out there?
In short, what are the odds that humanity and the push for modern society caused this tumour?
From my vantage point and professional experience, 95% of what ails people in North America is self-inflicted.  Heart attacks, strokes, cancers, emphysema, arthritis, chronic pain, you name it and without much effort you can trace each sufferer's complain back to his lifestyle.  We eat too much prepared food and fruits coated in pesticide.  We don't exercise enough.  We breathe polluted air, smoke and drink to excess.  Why does anyone wonder why our hospitals are all so full?
In short we need to look at ourselves.  Everything we do to ourselves and our environment is done by our free will.  To save any of us from the consequences of this poisoning, God would either have to change the rules of nature, something He said He would never do, or perform outright miracles, something we know He's not inclined towards.  We cannot create a toxic environment and then blame God when the weakest among us suffer as a result.
A child is hit by a drunk driver.  A woman is assaulted walking home from work at night.  God's not at fault and if He prevented the driver from hitting the child  or stopped the rapist He would have interfered with free will.  God's not at fault, the drunk driver and the rapist (and possibly the parole board that gave him early release from his previous jail stint) are.  And as I noted above, once He does that there's no real red line.  Suddenly that same God we cheered for saving the little boy would interfere elsewhere and we'd cry foul because we didn't agree.
To conclude, we have to think deeper than the superficial "Something bad happened and God didn't prevent it so He's either bad or just not there,chalilah."  Thinking like that leads nowhere because it absolves us of any responsibility for dealing with the probem.  Such deeper consideration would certainly allow us to see the responsibility for our own suffering and lead to constructive approaches to alleviating it.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Holy Stupidity

I've written before about how it seems that the sole criteria for tzidkus in the Chareidi community are the amount of Torah you know, how machmir you are whenever given the chance and how black your hat is. Personal characteristics, personal decency and the like are nice add-on's but irrelevant in the end.
The latest example of this short-sighted approach to righteousness is Rav Yitzchok Aderlstein's essay in support of Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky.
Rav Kamenetzky, as folks throughout the Jewish blogosphere already are aware, holds the incorrect opinion that vaccinations are not helpful and also possibly harmful.  He shares this stolid opinion with his wife who is an open anti-vaccination public and therefore a menace to the public.  In fact, one can surmise that she is the source of his opinion on the matter as vaccination is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch which means that Rav Kamenetzky knows nothing about it.  He is naive, she is dangerous.
What I'm writing might seem harsh but I think it's necessary for two reasons.  One is the source of the misinformation.  Apologists for Rav Kamenetzky have pointed out that he is not offering a p'sak but rather just an opinion.  People who wish to vaccinate their children aren't doing anything wrong by ignoring his statement.  The problem is that for too many in the Chareidi community any statement by a "Gadol" is taken as halacha (as long as the person actually agrees with it, otherwise he'll tell you "that's not what he really meant") which means those kooks out there who already are hesitant about doing the right thing for their children will take this as legal support for their refusal.  "Rav Kamenetzsky thinks so" will morph into "Rav Kamenetzsky says so which means it's Daas Torah not to vaccinate".
A second reason for the harshness is the far-reaching effect of this belief in vaccination non-efficacy.  Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who published the fraudulent study on MMR in The Lancet is directly responsible for all harm and death caused by parents who didn't vaccinate their children based on his so-called advice.  Not vaccinating one's children isn't simply an act of omission but one of commission.  By refusing vaccines one exposes one's children to harmful and deadly diseases that might have tragic consequences and one brings those diseases into one's community which threatens harm to other children.
It's interesting to note that one of Rav Kamenetzky's stated reasons for not supporting vaccination is because many children don't get vaccinates and behold!  They don't contract polio either.  Rav Kamentzky is clearly unaware of herd immunity (again, not a surprise) in which people who are unvaccinated benefit from mass vaccination of the rest of the population which prevents the disease from entering the community.  This is a parasitic relationship and the irony of a Chareidi "Gadol" advocating such a thing should not be lost on anyone.
Consider the following: one meets a "Gadol" who is world-famous for his erudition and acts of saintliness.  In a quiet and candid moment he tells you that he knows that the world is really a flat disk and all the stuff about a spherical earth and heliocentric solar system is a bunch of apikorsus invented by atheist scientists to draw Jews away from Torah.  Is he still a great "Gadol" or just a foolish man who happens to know a lot?  And this is an opinion that causes no harm to anyone!
What's more, consider one of Rav Adlerstein's concluding points:

While I have never met a chosid who actually thought his rebbe infallible, the possibility of error looms even larger in the (old) Litvishe approach with which I am comfortable. 
Concerning the first half of the sentence one must ask: has Rav Adlerstein never met a real chosid or has he just never met an honest one?  Concerning the second half one must ask: Is Rav Adlerstein unaware of the modern day use of the term Daas Torah to denote the infallibility of "the Gedolim" or is he also lying, just like Rav Kamenetzky's wife?

Vaccinate your children and ignore foolish PR bag men who think knowing the Talmud really well means covering up idiotic opinions.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Chickens Are For Eating

As a follow up to my last post and being it's only a few days after Yom Kippur I'd like to bring another pertinent example regarding being machmir and meikel at the same time.  That example is the time-honoured pre-Day of Atonement ritual called kapparos.
A detailed description of the ritual and some of its history can be found here and here.  It's important to note that many major authorities opposed the ritual as it was performed while others wholeheartedly supported it.  It's also noteworthy that the ritual can be performed with money but even if one uses a chicken one is supposed to be an humane as possible.
That's what makes the modern incarnation of the ritual so problematic.  It's one thing to gently take a chicken by its body and wave it over one's head three times.  It's another to yank it around by its wings or legs, definitely causing the chicken pain and distress and also possibly fracturing its bones.  Of course this is above and beyond all the reported cases of inhame transporting conditions that wind up killing the birds en route to their holy destinations.
This is all part of something I've written about recently - the obsession with ritual to the exclusion of all other considerations even if it means transgressing actual mitzvos.  After all, tza'ar ba'alei chayim is a mitzvah d'oraisa while kapparos is, at best, an establishing custom which isn't even truly obligatory.  Really, does anyone believe that the Master of the Universe will refuse to forgive one's sins if one takes the chicken straight to the dinner table?  Yet ask anyone who performs the ritual to forgo the bird and use money and they look at you as if you had just told them to skip Yom Kippur altogether.
This is troubling for me as well because it exemplifies the extent to which the mystical part of Judaism, something which should be reserved for the highest level learners and practitioners of halacha, has seeped into common every day Judaism without bringing along the requisite safeguards it should have.
In short, we would be made to believe that there is an irreplacable spiritual outcome to performing kapparos while no good explanation is offered as to how that happens when active transgressing might be obviously accompanying it.
As I noted in the last post, one must sometimes evaluate halachic actions like one evaluates a difficult chess move.  Note the obvious, immediately outcome but also sit back and consider all future possibilities, positive and negative.  Which outweighs which?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Stringencies and Leniencies

Rav Shimon Eider, z"l, is a well-known author to the English speaking frum community.  Before Shemirath Shabbath was released in English his Halachos of Shabbos was the standard for learning about the 39 melachos.  His Halachos of Niddah is still an important introductory work along with all his others although other than his Halachos of Pesach they're all getting harder to find.
In the introduction to his Halachos of Niddah he notes an interesting way of looking at the trend towards stringency when one is uncertain of one's halachic options.  He notes that some people aren't that familiar with checking post-menstrual stains to determine if they are tahor or not and often, instead of asking a shailoh they simply decide to be stringent and put off mikvah night.  He saliently points out that while the couple might think they're being stringent, mikvah night at the right time is a very important mitzvah that should not be wrongly delayed.  By being stringent and thinking they're being careful the young couple is delaying the mitzvah which is a big problem in its own right.  By being machmir they're really also being meikel, something they surely think they're avoiding.
This idea has a far broader application to almost every area of daily life.  Being machmir is the big buzzword these days.  It's certainly the trend du jour in the Chareidi community where everyone always seems to be looking for the chumrah of the week.  Even in the Modern Orthodox community people are abandoning family customs and community standards when the occasion to be stringent comes up, just so as not to look less religious.  However, this can backfire and often does.
For instance, everyone following the Jewish news has read the story of the anonymous Chareidi man on a recent El Al flight who refused to take his assigned seat because it meant sitting next to a woman.  Now, put aside that other than those who were there we are all dealing with second hand accounts of what happened and that one self-centred nutjob does not represent his entire kehillah.  Let's assume, for a moment, that the story is accurate.
What was this guy thinking?  Again, the trend within Chareidism today is towards stringencies wherever possible, especially when it comes to man-woman interactions.  Clearly this guy doesn't want to be left behind.  He probably only rides on mehadrin buses too.  Fine, that's his decision and with the state of education in his community being "What we do is right and other ways are just wrong" it's no wonder there was no reasoning with him.  For him it's an aveirah to sit next to a woman.
However, that does not justify the behaviour he apparently exhibited.  Yes, he was machmir about arayos (remember the days when arayos meant actually sleeping with your sister's wife as opposed to saying "hello" to her in passing) but he was definitely meikel about chilul haShem.  I doubt any of the non-Chareidi passengers (and maybe even a few of the Chareidi ones) were impressed with his actions and more than one probably thought: "If this is Judaism, count me out".  At any point did he realize that?  Did he even care?
As a religious Jew I long ago learned that I live a more limited life than my non-Jewish friends.  They can go to movies I can't watch.  They can go out on Friday nights when I can't.  They can eat whatever food they want wherever and whenever they want to.  I know I can never run for prime minister because I can't campaign on Shabbos or eat at community barbeques.  I could complain but I recognize that this is the price of being Torah observant.  As Rabbi Eliezer famously said, what can I do?  The will of God is upon me.
I recall once eating with two non-religious friends in med school.  I paused to make a beracha and one of them looked nervously at me and asked: "Do you expect us to do that?"  I told him that what he chose to do was up to him.  Yes, I could have said "Absolutely, you're a Jew and a Jew makes a beracha before he eats" but I knew that such an answer would not have gone over well.  I would have accomplished nothing by my missionizing except possibly to alienate him from his already weak connection to Judaism.
Perhaps someone needs to have whispered something similar in this Chareidi gentleman's ear.  Something to the effect of pointing out that his insistence on remaining on the flight while refusing to take his assigned seat and making his female neighbour feel less than human was a bigger chilul haShem than the kiddush haShem he thought he was accomplishing by demonstrating his public commitment to gender segregation.
Had he asked quietly for a different seat, had he responded to a refusal for such an accomodation by saying that he wanted to leave the plane the negative response to his actions would have been far more limited, especially as such actions would have not created a news story at all, along with the all the requisiting Chareidi-bashing that accomplished those stories.
As the new year beings let's all realize that our knee-jerk desires to be machmir must, like chess moves, be well thought out less unintended consequences result.