Shmuley Boteach
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The death of privacy

Does the whole world -- including the government -- need to know you hate your father?

The column is an end-of-year obituary.

It mourns the death of privacy.

Privacy died in 2013. It was on its deathbed for years. But this year it finally succumbed.

Not because more teenagers than ever are posting pictures of their bodies on Facebook, although they are. And not because adults are posting sex tapes on the web, although it’s become the surest road to celebrity. And not even because more everyday people are confessing their most embarrassing behavior on reality TV shows, although that too has become mainstream.

Rather, we discovered that privacy had finally kicked the bucket in 2013 when the world learned, through Edward Snowden and others, that we’re spied on, by the NSA and foreign governments, every time we scratch our buttock and we all just shrugged. No one gave a damn. The biggest revelations of government monitoring our phone calls, tracking our movements, monitoring our purchases, and following our texts produced only a collective yawn. No big deal. No one even felt violated. Heck, we’re revealing all that stuff anyway. And we’re doing it voluntarily. So should we really feel invaded if our privacy is taken by force?

In fact, the only person who seems to have cared that she was being listened to this year was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She even bought a new phone. But the rest of us couldn’t even be bothered to write a letter to our Congressman, asking “What the hell?”

Does it matter that we no longer value privacy? Are there consequences for a society that can no longer distinguish between the public and the private? Will it change a woman’s relationship when she posts pictures of herself and her boyfriend in intimate settings for the whole world to see?

Yes, yes, and yes.

The very first casualty of the loss of privacy is the loss of intimacy. In the same way you can’t have an intimate moment in a public place, you can’t have an intimate relationship when all of you has become public.

Relationships thrive on intimacy. Whether its the physical intimacy of husband and wife, the emotional intimacy of mother and child, a secret shared between friends, or a private confession from man to God, relationships rely on the intimate connection that can only be created via exclusivity. If nothing is private than everything is public. And if everything is public, then nothing is special.

The special things in life are those that are hidden away from the world in our innermost sanctum, shared only on special occasions, in special settings, and with special people.

Rabbi Manis Friedman makes the argument that Judaism’s emphasis on modest dress for both men and women is about creating private areas of our bodies that can be shared in intimate moments. If our bodies are the bus terminal where people just hop on and off it’s going to be challenging to turn sex into lovemaking.

But the same remains true of the rest of our lives. Does the whole world need to know you hate your father, and can the relationship ever improve if so many strangers have crowded in? Is it really anyone’s business that the reason that you got divorced is that your husband had out-of-control halitosis, and is the world ennobled with that information?

Make no mistake. I love social media. Twitter gives me the ability to share my thoughts on values, items in the news, and religious and political life. Facebook allows me to interact with people all over the world. It also allows me to share public family occasions and I am a great believer in promoting the integrity of the family. The TV show I hosted on TLC, Shalom in the Home, was focused on fixing families in crisis and I was immensely proud of the show because it was not exploitative. There were many occasions where families revealed troubling truths that would have helped our ratings but we edited it out of the final version because the revelation would hinder their healing.

But I need to always ask myself, as do you, whether what I’m sharing with the public is truly public, or whether, exposed to communal glare, it will be like a negative destroyed by too much light, or a precious flower exposed too long to the sun’s rays.

The Kabbalah Center promotes a red string to ward off the evil eye. Does anyone really believe a silly yarn about a piece of yarn? The evil eye is not a mystical concept or a superstition. Judaism doesn’t deal with furry rabbit’s feet. Rather it’s a moral concept. If people see you flaunting your success it’s going to make them feel like failures. It will create envy. The solution is to try and be as modest about our blessings as possible.

All of us are comprised of two dimensions, the public and the private. Public life has its virtues. We don’t want our children marrying only among family. We don’t want to celebrate our birthdays and have our friends forget. It can be lonely to work from home alone just as it can be exhilarating sitting with 50 thousand fans, complete strangers, cheering for the same team at a football game. But then there are the aspects of our lives that are supposed to be shared only in an intimate circle, or even with a single person.

Perhaps as a new year’s resolution for 2014 we can attempt to breathe some life into the rotting carcass of privacy and reclaim the part of us that is exclusive and intimate.

And let’s give our government the same message. The only entity that is supposed to be all-seeing and all-knowing is God.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.