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Privacy from rulers: What ancient Israel could teach the N.S.A.

Jewish tradition offers a profound lesson in the necessity for privacy from rulers

What does the arrangement of tents in an ancient Israelite encampment have to do with the ultramodern question of whether the US government should be peering into the ultramodern phone and Internet records of hundreds of millions of Americans?

Or to put it another way, are there any spiritual and religious roots to the notion of personal and household privacy?

To start from Torah: Many Jewish prayer services begin with a quotation from a non-Jewish shaman, himself quoted in the Torah. (See Num. 22: 2 to 24: 25; this passage of Torah, Parashat Balak, will be read on June 22). King Balak had hired an expert curse-maker, Balaam, to curse the People of Israel who were swarming across the wilderness after their liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. But Balaam tuned in to a spirit-channel that insisted: the Israelites, in their commitment to YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, must be blessed rather than cursed.

So as Balaam gazed down upon the Jewish encampment, he proclaimed, “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!” (Num 24: 5) When the rabbis of Talmud (Baba Batra 60a) read this story, they asked what was so “goodly” about the tents, and answered that the doors of the individual tents did not face each other. So no family could see into another family’s tent. Each household protected its own privacy and that of all the others.

The ancient rabbis lived under the boot of the Roman Empire, which had a spy system to penetrate any possible bands of troublesome dissidents. So perhaps they also saw that King Balak was disturbed precisely by this household privacy: How dare these people keep secrets from the king?!

But Balaam saw that privacy was “goodly” and delightsome because it was attuned to the uniqueness of each person, just as the uniqueness of each species is what makes all life fit together into eco-systems.

Now let’s jump a few millennia, to the year 1761 of the Common Era, in the town of Boston on the edges of the British Empire. British law provided for the Crown to ask for a “writ of assistance,” a general search warrant that had no particular allegations of criminal activity, did not need to specify a particular individual or particular places or effects to be searched, and had no end date.

Once a writ of assistance had been issued, no subject of the king had privacy. King Balak would triumph, Balaam would go away shame-faced, and the Godwrestling folk, the runaway ex-slaves, would be enslaved once more.

Not so fast, said the people of Boston and the other American colonies. They rebelled against the writs of assistance.

They won. And after they agreed on a new Constitution, some among them wanted to make sure no central government could act like the king they had vanquished.

So they insisted on adding to the Constitution the Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Now here we are, two centuries later, and the king – even one who said he would support the Bill of Rights against his predecessor’s invasion of it – is claiming it is all right to scoop up all the data about whom I am phoning, who is phoning me, where we are, and how long we talk.

Is this harmless because it does not include the actual words inside the call or email?

The New Yorker reports:

As Jameel Jaffar, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, put it, imagine if the government required every American to report to the government every night who they spoke to, or texted, for how long, and from where. People would be furious, but that’s precisely the information the N.S.A. is collecting from telecom companies. And it’s precisely why the government desperately wanted to keep the practice a secret.

Or let’s make it more concrete: You are trying to start a political campaign for Congress in a district where some government official likes somebody else. You are testing out the waters by meeting with possible supporters, experts in street theater and radio ads and fundraising. Now the hostile official knows who you are talking to, how often, and where. Is it easier to break up your campaign?

Or another: J Edgar Hoover was (in)famous for blackmailing members of Congress and Presidents to increase his power, by gathering information on their sex lives. He was constrained to following just a few people at a time by the high cost in staff and money it took to do that. But now, with super-computers and thousands of programmers hoovering up the data for some future J. Edgar ——

Or let’s bring it home, from big-time officials and political activists to our neighbors down the block. One of them happens to be a mid-level IT person for a security firm like Booz-Allen, but doesn’t have the scruples of Edward Snowden: “Your phone records show you make a call each month to a guy we know is selling dope. Would you want your boss to know? Just let me know if any of your co-workers are belly-aching about the pay scale, and I’ll keep my mouth shut …”

That’s life under King Balak. Or King George III. Or King George W.

Or, sad to say, King Barack.

What shall we do?

For an answer, back to the deeper wisdom of the Torah. The blessing Balaam called out has two more words in it: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkanotecha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your ‘mishkans,’ Yisrael!”

What is a Mishkan? It is an inner shrine for the Divine Indwelling Presence. And Yisrael is the same person/peoplehood as Jacob – only Yisrael has turned from struggling to dominate his brother, in favor of wrestling with God’s Own Self. Yisrael, the Godwrestler, has undertaken the deeper spiritual struggle to achieve a higher consciousness.

So each tent, each household, is protecting its own integrity from outside invasion whole growing its own truth within. And these truths are One because they see the deepest connection with the One Who binds all life, all truth together: the One named YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh Who is the Interbreathing of all life.

This One is precisely not a king, Big Daddy, who is invoked by High Priests, Popes, Corporate CEO’s, or Big Brother Rulers to dominate the people from above. This One is the very breath we breathe: the breath we breathe in from what the trees breathe out, the breath the trees breathe in from what we breathe out. A scientific as well as a spiritual truth.

How does this Unity cohere with the privacy of each tent, each separate sacred Mishkan?

As the Rabbis also taught, “When Caesar stamps his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When the One Who is beyond all rulers stamps the Divine Image on a coin [a human being, and today we might add, a species] – each coin comes out unique.”

Unique – and interwoven. Uniqueness – and its privacy – is not only a social and emotional blessing, but also a spiritual blessing. Spiritual and political in the same breath.

And the uniqueness shines forth not despite the sharing of our Unity, but because of it. The Infinite can only be refracted through diversity.

So to face those rulers who want to use computers not for liberation but to serve Big Brother, a courageous people takes a deep breath. Each of us in our own Mishkan of the Holy Indwelling Presence takes a unique breath that goes forth into the world, breathing a wind, a hurricane, of change. We shape our breath into words we breathe with each other, a chorus of Yes that to Big Brother speaks a No.

About the Author
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center; his latest books are a new and revised edition of “Seasons of Our Joy” (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and “Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011)