Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Big Brother, Meet Jewish Mother

The issue of privacy has become paramount recently, with the revelations of government intelligence gathering only adding to the pervasive sense that all privacy has been sacrificed at the altars of security and technological expedience.

How much does the public need to know?  This week’s media circus in Israel, where police released details to the press about the Bar-Noar murders only to have a gag order imposed a half hour later, demonstrates just how much we are all groping to preserve privacy in an environment that has become increasingly tell-all and reveal-all. 

How much does the government need to know?  That’s the question Americans are obsessing over in light of recent revelations about the IRS and NSA.

A Wall Street Journal poll conducted in the Fall of 1999 asked Americans what they feared the most in the new millennium. Privacy loss came out on top (29%), substantially higher than terrorism, global warming, and overpopulation (none higher than 23%).  And back then we could barely imagine the world we now live in.

We have become a society of exhibitionists. A guy in San Francisco, Justin Kan, wears a micro camera on his head wherever he goes. It is always on. You can view his entire life at justin.tv. And he’s far from the only one now engaged in what has been dubbed “lifecasting,” the broadcasting of one’s entire life over the Internet.

At Houston’s Minute Maid Park, a man paid upwards of $300 for a chance to appear on the stadium’s “Kiss Cam” and propose to his girlfriend in front of 30,000 people. He got down on a knee and produced a ring. According to the Houston Chronicle, the woman looked shocked, then upset as she got up and left the stadium – after depositing her popcorn on his head.  He did not get a refund from the Astros.        

Judaism places a premium on preserving privacy and dignity, even of the deceased.  Open caskets are anathema to our tradition. Even in Jerusalem, where they don’t use caskets, the body is wrapped from head to toe in a shroud.  No one is given the opportunity to gawk at the face of death.  We don’t dress up our dead in finery like some Barbie doll. Israeli TV does not broadcast grotesque images of carnage, even when it could help score propaganda points. We are very good at self-regulating our impulse to gawk.

In next week’s Torah portion we read the glorious prophecy of Balaam that has come down to us as the Mah Tovu prayer, “How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”  That prophecy contains the seeds of an entire corpus of legal material having to do with privacy.  The rabbis wondered what was it that moved Balaam to praise Israel when his intent all along had been to curse them. They concluded that when he saw all the tents of Israel laid out, he was amazed that they were set up in such a way that no one could look into another person’s dwelling place.

Now that is very hard to do.  If you’ve ever lived in close quarters with other families you know that – i.e., if you have ever lived in Manhattan.  When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the kitchen of my rabbinical school apartment was literally less than ten feet away from the kitchen of the neighbor in the next building over.  It got embarrassing at times, but I won’t get into that.  We were rabbinical students after all.  

Based largely on this verse from this portion, the Talmud came up with some important guidelines:

  • That we should knock before opening a closed door, even in our own home.  How many of us do that?  By extension, a creditor is not allowed to enter the home of a debtor – he must remain outside and the person brings his pledge out to him. 
  • That we may not put a window in the wall of our house if it looks in on someone else’s house.  Why didn’t my seminary think of that? 
  • In the 10th century, a sage named Rabbenu Gershom ruled that it is against halacha for us to open someone else’s mail.  This was punished by excommunication.  And from this ruling is derived the general principle that we are not allowed to search out the secrets of our fellow.  We can’t pick through his garbage, we can’t do undercover work to discover trade secrets.  What’s private must be respected.

Think for a moment about how much that one is violated.  Not only with regular mail, but especially with e-mail.  How often are we forwarded e-mail notes that were sent by a third party, without the permission of that third party.  Not long ago, I was forwarded a very embarrassing e-mail by an attorney, and at the bottom of the note was the disclaimer that it is illegal to forward his own e-mail without permission. Apparently he didn’t even read his own automatically-generated directive.

The Jewish value system would not stand for such an invasion of privacy.  In midrashic literature it clearly states that one may not enter the home of another unless the homeowner tells the visitor, “Enter.”  There is a whole body of doctrine generated by the concept of hezzek re’iyah, injury caused by seeing, limiting the use of surveillance devices and eavesdropping from a distance, even outside one’s home.

And speaking of mothers, it is peculiarly fitting that the basis for Roe v. Wade, the original Supreme Court decision advocating a woman’s right to choose was based on the principle of privacy.

It all comes back to the question of dignity.  Whether dead or alive, every person has the right to determine what the world knows about us, and what the world sees and ultimately what happens within our bodies.

When Balaam saw the people of Israel, he called them, “Am Levadad Yishkon,” ”a People that dwells apart.”  That has been our blessing and our curse throughout the ages.  Perhaps what has set us apart from other peoples most of all has been our willingness to set ourselves apart from each other, to give everyone the space we all need to grow, and the protective cover in which to nurture that growth.

The only thing that can stop Big Brother, it seems, is a Jewish Mother.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books). Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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