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Judaism and Privacy

Jewish ethics value the right to privacy, but it's unclear how much.

The right to privacy, as enshrined in the United States Constitution, has been interpreted in numerous ways. But however one defines it, the right has been compromised by the rise of mass media and modern communication networks.

In America

The internet has made identity theft, gossip, and online spying cheap and ubiquitous. And the U.S. government has gotten in on the action as well, as proven by the revelation that President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to intercept the phone calls and emails of American citizens as part of a “terrorist surveillance” program. While this action and others like it have dismayed privacy advocates, it is unclear what Jewish tradition has to say on the matter.

In the American political tradition, personal privacy is derived from individual liberty. The U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable government intrusion, be it wiretaps in criminal investigations or legislative limits on reproductive autonomy. The tort system allows individuals to recover damages from government officers and private individuals when their privacy rights are infringed. But Judaism views privacy as an element of communal holiness and ethical perfection rather than as an individual right. Whereas America has a Big Brother complex, a fear of social control through government surveillance, Judaism is suspicious of power only insofar as it is an affront to God’s sovereignty. Further, because the concept of privacy is a relatively modern one, it is not explicitly discussed in traditional Jewish sources. Indeed, Classical Hebrew does not even have a word for “privacy” (the modern Hebrew word is prateiyut). That said, a number of Jewish texts do relate to various aspects of what would today be considered personal privacy.

Confidentiality

“A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence” (Proverbs 11:13). With this verse, the Bible establishes an ethical obligation to protect confidentiality. This obligation is broadly construed by the Talmudic Rabbis, who state that one should never disclose the details of even a casual conversation without explicit permission (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 4b).

In the Middle Ages, the 11th century sage Rabbenu Gershom went even further, punishing unauthorized readers of private correspondence with excommunication. But does all this mean that Judaism recognizes a right to control information about oneself? The texts themselves do not say. However, there is evidence from other sources that privacy is not in fact a value in and of itself, but an instrument for achieving social harmony and religious welfare.

Communal vs. Personal

Thus, the general duty of confidentiality gives way when it clashes with issues of communal import. Court witnesses may not claim a confidentiality privilege to avoid testifying. Concerns of justice override any privacy interest. This is in contrast to American law, where doctors, lawyers, ministers, and spouses can often avoid testifying about information they received in confidence. What’s more, Rabbi Jonah of Gerondi (13th century) imposed a duty to publicly disclose another’s sins if that person has refused to heed private rebuke. The threat of shaming is considered necessary to induce proper religious behavior. From a religious standpoint, one’s private vices are matters of public concern. This reduces hypocrisy and provides an incentive to live authentically, without misleading others.

In other areas, Judaism’s preference for individual privacy and religious virtue happily coincide. Jewish law requires neighbors to share the cost of constructing a wall between two adjoining courtyards in order to avoid compromising each other’s private space. The Talmudic Rabbis believed that the notion of home as private sphere was a biblical one. When Balaam, the gentile prophet, praises the desert encampment of the Jewish people–“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5)–the Rabbis understood this phrase as a reference to a physical feature of the encampment: the entranceways to each tent did not face each other. No one could accidentally peer into his neighbor’s private space.

Underlying this view is the interpretive trope of equating the female with the home. “Rabbi Yossi said: During all my days I have never called my wife ‘my wife’?Rather I have called my wife ‘my house’. (Bablonian Talmud, Gittin 52a)” Sexual modesty requires that the home be protected from unwarranted intrusion. However, even this value cannot entirely withstand Judaism’s communitarian ethos. The Talmud relates a tale of a disciple who hid under his teacher’s bed in order to learn the laws governing sexual intercourse. When the teacher discovers the disciple and asks him to leave, the disciple refuses. “It is Torah and I must learn it. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 62a)”

Talmudic Surveillance

As for Big Brother, the lack of Jewish sovereignty for much of the Jewish experience has resulted in a dearth of serious thinking about this problem. However, given the general thrust of Jewish views on privacy, its likely that community needs would outweigh individual interests, provided those community needs were legitimate, not simply an abuse of power for power’s sake. Thus, the Mishnah teaches that a “sting” operation of sorts is permitted in the case of the “enticer” who proselytizes for idolatrous religions. Jewish law requires two eyewitnesses for conviction. But if one is approached by an enticer, he is permitted to recruit another witness, hide that witness behind the curtain, and ask the enticer to repeat his solicitation to idolatry. This is not exactly the type of invasive surveillance that has American civil libertarians up in arms, but it does demonstrate the principle that spying, even on coreligionists, has its place.

Conclusion

In recent decades, technological advances have seriously eroded personal privacy. Whether it’s airport scanners that peer underneath clothing or consumer databases collecting everything from employment histories to purchasing preferences or video cameras at ATMs and on traffic lights, technology has transformed personal, everyday activities into opportunities for collecting, sifting, and sorting personal data.

Whether Jewish tradition views this development as good, bad, or neutral is anybody’s guess. But it’s likely that a Jewish perspective would not consider this loss of privacy an evil in and of itself. Rather the Jewish view of privacy would probably judge these changes instrumentally by their effects on society. Does less privacy equal greater public safety or individual authenticity? If so, it may not be a problem after all. In a traditional Jewish discourse, invoking privacy as a magic word certainly will not do, not least because ancient Hebrew doesn’t even have one.

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