The Man in the Bag, The Woman and the Foundation: Mocking Orthodox Jews

Did you hear the one about the Orthodox man in the plastic bag? How about the one with the Orthodox woman who sued the makeup company over foundation that didn’t last all of Shabbos? Likely, you heard both, as these two stories spread throughout the Internet like wildfire over the last few weeks. Although I don’t find either of these stories funny, they have made Orthodox Jews the laughing stock of the world wide web. Commentators have been having a field day mocking and trashing religious Jews and our practices, and reporters have done very little to put these bizarre stories into context.

The Orthodox man in a plastic bag “story” broke in mid-April. A photo of a man with a yarmulke and beard sitting on a plane in a body-sized clear plastic bag (with the bag knotted above his head) was posted on Reddit. The picture instantly went viral and spread without any verification and very few details. Site after site posted the photo without knowing who the man was, when the incident took place, or why the man was sitting in a totally enclosed plastic bag. There was only conjecture. Only several days after the photo was posted did YNet write an article claiming that a rabbi in Israel had told the man in the picture to enclose himself in a plastic bag because he was a Kohen (a Jewish priest) and needed to protect himself from becoming ritualistically impure as the plane flew over a cemetery. The man in the bag was never named.

What not a single site noted – and I read MANY articles on this topic – was how many Orthodox rabbis completely disagree with the idea of enclosing oneself in a plastic bag! I checked with rabbis from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy: Modern, Yeshivish, Centrist, Sephardic, Lubavitch, Hasidic. Not a single one said that being totally enclosed in a plastic bag was an appropriate thing to do in terms of Jewish law and many of them noted that it was and insane thing to do. There is certainly an idea of a Kohen taking measures to protect himself from becoming tamei (ritualistically impure), but it can’t come at the cost of endangering himself by asphyxiation or by causing a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name). One of the messages my rabbis and teachers tried to impart to my classmates and me during our year of seminary study in Israel was that the Shulchan Aruch  (the Code of Jewish law) is a four volume work, but the “fifth” book of the Shulchan Aruch is seichel (common sense).

Good reporting means not only having the facts behind a story, but also giving voice to the other side. I can’t tell this rabbi how to rule on Jewish law or the man in the bag which rabbi to go to, but I’d venture to say that the VAST majority of Orthodox Jews are against the practice of sitting in a sealed plastic bag. If the world doesn’t hear from these people, though, it’s as if they don’t exist. Instead of reporters setting out to discover what’s mainstream, the whole Orthodox Jewish community gets judged by one person.

What about the more recent story of the woman suing the makeup company because the foundation she purchased didn’t last the full twenty-four hours it claimed, and it ruined her Shabbos (since she couldn’t reapply the liquid foundation)? This story also was printed and re-printed all over the Internet with people once again bad-mouthing and mocking Orthodox Jews. The reporting was also very weak for this story as hardly any news outlet mentioned that this lawsuit is *class action*.

I spoke to a legal expert who explained why that information is so crucial. First off, the woman who’s named in the suit has almost nothing to gain monetarily. Maybe she’ll get the $40 back she spent on the foundation. That’s it. The lion share of the $5 million claim (that’s what the lawyers are suing for) goes to the lawyers in cases like these. From the way the story was framed in most of the articles, you’d think the plaintiff wanted to be compensated for her “pain and suffering.” In truth, there is very little incentive for her to sue.

Second of all, while I don’t know what the law firms involved in this case did, the legal expert explained that many class action law firms are known to seek out plaintiffs for their suits. Some will even go as far as hoodwinking potential plaintiffs, as the lawyers are the ones who will benefit the most from a win. While I won’t make any accusations about the attorneys, I’ve been hearing murmurings on social media sites that the woman named in the suit didn’t understand what she was getting herself into, was given bad legal advice, and has suffered greatly since the story broke. Not one reporter bothered to interview the plaintiff  directly as to why she’d go to all this trouble to sue a makeup company if she has so little to gain.

The legal expert also noted that even if this law suit was this woman’s idea, no law firm should have ever taken such a frivolous case. He said that any judge would throw out this suit immediately. Everyone reading the article has condemned the plaintiff, but where is the outrage towards the lawyers for taking on such a ridiculous case? And just like with the man in the bag, there was no balance offered in any article where other Orthodox Jewish women had the chance to explain that most of us would never dream of bringing such a law suit.

The Orthodox world is certainly not perfect. There are many wonderful aspects to it, but there are real problems as well, and when those problems are discovered, we must speak out against them and work to improve them. But these recent stories are not indicative of larger problems. They merely bizarre aberrations. But since so few people personally know an Orthodox Jew and the media hasn’t bothered to ask any of us what is normative behavior, these stories will now define us. Through social media, WE have the power to report the side that the mainstream media hasn’t reported. Please help publicize the fact that these cases do not reflect the vast majority of Orthodox Jews.

[Watch Jew in the City’s video response on this topic here: JITC Unplugged: A Response To The NYPost’s Holy Chic: Extreme Makeup and Shabbos]

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  • Avatar photo Tom says on May 9, 2013

    As a gentile who has taken some interest in Jewish issues, here is my perspective.

    A great deal of Judaism is geared around the idea expressed in Leviticus 20:26 that the Jewish nation is to be kept separate from the other nations of the world. The chukkim (e.g. kashrut, shatnez, the ritual purity laws for kohanim you describe) have done an incredible job of accomplishing this goal throughout the millennia, but their observance necessarily attracts the attention of gentiles to Jews who faithfully attempt to apply them. Perhaps this is by design, as such attention is the first necessary step toward the goal of the Jewish people being a light unto the other nations.

    Personally, I am fascinated and inspired that there are a significant number of people in the world who go to such great lengths to attempt to learn, understand, and comply with the incredibly-complex set of rules mandated by Judaism on observant Jews. But there are many people who are threatened by such behavior. I don’t agree with the attitude, but I can sympathize with non-observant Jews, most of whom have been born into irrevocable Jewish status from the Orthodox point of view, being upset that the Orthodox believe they should follow such a complex set of rules. I don’t, however, understand the level of vitriol directed at Orthodox Jews that I see on the comment threads of many of the more secular Jewish websites.

    When mean-spirited mockery from outside the Jewish community is directed at Orthodox Jews, it seems to me that most of it comes from secularists with an interest in denigrating religion in general. Orthodox Jews are convenient to this end, as the observance of the chukkim appears strange and irrational to many gentiles, and as it seemingly conflicts with the rationalism promoted by secularists and definitely conflicts with a naturalistic worldview. I think that this is the sort of thinking that motivates most of the journalists (whether consciously or not) who write the type of articles you are describing without bothering to delve deeper into the actual range of Jewish opinions on the behavior.

    I’m not sure if there is a solution to this problem. I personally believe that a greater understanding of Jewish law by gentiles is a good thing, but I understand why others would think differently. As many have pointed out, Martin Luther seemed to have had a pretty good understanding of Judaism before he went off the deep end.

    • Avatar photo Talia says on May 10, 2013

      Two things-
      One, I notice that you’re specifically citing gentiles in this case- however there is a piece missing in what you’re saying. The fact that there are now secular Jews who are helping these philosophies along is not good either. They have been raised themselves to dislike Orthodoxy, so they make it legitimate to do so.
      Two, remember that Orthodoxy is not the only traditional thing vilified by the media. I, personally, see an influx of anti-tradition viewpoints in the MSM (and no, I’m not making some big political statement here, I’m just speaking the truth). So I don’t think this is isolated, I think it’s a part of a larger issue with the whole world- there is less and less respect for what came before.
      Just my take on it.

      • Avatar photo Allison says on May 10, 2013

        Thanks for your comment, Talia. I wasn’t only speaking about non-Jews. I was speaking about most of the world – including non-Orthodox Jews. I agree that the media goes after other religious groups, but JITC’s focus is about Orthodoxy and presenting a different side to the world than what the MSM usually shows us, so I focus on the Orthodox articles.

        • Avatar photo Talia says on May 10, 2013

          I know, I was responding to the comment by Tom, not to the article, he was talking about goyim, so I responded to that.

          • Avatar photo Allison says on May 10, 2013

            oops! didn’t notice that in the comment moderating section of the site. sorry!

          • Avatar photo Talia says on May 11, 2013

            Haha, no problem!! I know your views on the subject are very consistent, no worries!

  • Avatar photo AJ says on May 10, 2013

    On YUTorah.org, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz has a ten-minute halacha class on the halachic analysis of why a kohain would need to fly in a plastic bag for those who want to understand the reasoning. Here’s the link:

  • Avatar photo George says on May 10, 2013

    The preeminent posek (decisior of halakha) of haredi Israeli Jewry (other than hasidim), Rabbi Elyashiv, published a ruling that kohanim must avoid such airplane rides, and gave as a loophole the wearing of a plastic bag. So this action is hardly marginal or aberrant. http://www.haaretz.com/news/ultra-orthodox-passengers-riot-aboard-el-al-plane-over-screening-of-film-1.243447

    • Avatar photo Allison says on May 13, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, George. I am aware of that article. I raised the issue with my rav who lives in Israel and while he is not charedi himself, he is very much a part of that world. He is a grandson of Reb Yaakov Kamenestsky, he grew up at the feet of Rav Moshe. He understands the charedi world in a very personal way. He is critical of parts of it and he respects parts of it. When I told him about this ruling from Rav Elyashiv, he was 100% confident that there was a misunderstanding. Either Rav Elyashiv said a plastic bag – in theory – would work, but he never meant that a person should actually do it. Or someone spoke in his name. So while I wouldn’t claim to know what Rav Elyashiv said or didn’t say, I trust my rav for this sort of thing and if he is confident that Rav Elyashiv would have never ruled in such a way, I trust that information.

  • Avatar photo Ari Gold says on May 10, 2013

    No race or religion is safe from mockery. But I do notice people never really mock Native Americans. Why? Do they still exist.

  • Avatar photo bill says on May 17, 2013

    allison, be comforted that many gentiles love israel and the jews. we just don’t get much press.


  • Avatar photo Menachem Mendl says on May 20, 2013

    The people who mocked those 2 people were actually the Orthodox Jews themselves. Wearing a bag in a plane is extremely silly. Wearing makeup in Shabes is not necessary and is a complete disregard for the laws of Tznius.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on May 20, 2013

      Thanks for your comment Menachem Mendl, but it was Orthodox Jews AND the rest of the world. If we are critiquing our community that’s one thing – we know wearing a bag is not common. For the rest of the world, they have no idea how common or uncommon this is.

      In terms of makeup on Shabbos, I don’t understand how wearing it is in complete disregard of tznius. There are no mainstream laws against wearing makeup as part of tnzius. In terms of Shabbos observance, it can be put on beforehand and there are some who say that some types of makeups applied in certain ways can be put on during.

  • Avatar photo shimon baum says on May 21, 2013

    They were mocked because they did mock worthy things. If you look or do something ridiculous you will be mocked for it. They are both examples of people who have no common sense. They make us all look stupid. Instead of blaming the people who mock them blame them for being ridiculous.

    • Avatar photo Allison says on May 21, 2013

      First of all, if a person doesn’t act wisely, I don’ t think it’s right to mock them – there’s a way to respectfully disagree. Second of all – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t disagree – ALL I’m saying is that I wish the MSM gave a voice to ALL the Orthodox who DO disagree. To show the readers that these things are not common or accepted. You and I know that. The average reader now judges all of us by these actions.

  • Avatar photo Amanda_Joy says on May 26, 2013

    As someone who until this past year, lived near Lakewood NJ,I have a special fondness and respect for Nagasaki and orthodox community…I moved to southern NJ in. March 2012, and when I told people where I was from originally…they immediately said ‘oh you live near those Amish people! What’s up with them being able to drive cars? I then smile and politely explain that they are NOT Amish, but but a strict sect of the Jewish faith…..then out come the hole in the sheet and now the plastic bag questions….So I am apologizing in advance, for any non informed people from Southern NJ, who may gawk at you while driving through Lakewood and might ask about being Amish…

  • Avatar photo Amanda_Joy says on May 26, 2013

    Sorry for the typo. I meant Hasidic not Nagasaki…stupid auto correct


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