The Snowden Case: Is Telling The Truth Always The Highest Good?

How can it be that a 29-year-old computer technician, a defense contractor for the National Security Agency of these United States, has set the entire intelligence world back on its heels?

The simple answer to that question is, I’m afraid, “all too easily.”

Hired by the NSA as one of many computer specialists fighting America’s war on terror, Edward Snowden came upon information that pointed to a massive, governmental gathering of data from ordinary American citizens. In an effort to create the possibility of tracing enemy patterns of communication, both by phone and e-mail, the government has, evidently, been keeping track of essentially all communications by private citizens. They reasoned that the more data they had on communications in general in this country, the greater the chance for them to pick up on potentially dangerous connections being made by those who would do America harm.

Rather than go through official governmental channels for airing his concerns, Mr. Snowden went the Wiki-leaks route, releasing the information directly to the press. Not surprisingly, the storm of outrage that followed has been powerful. The government’s surveillance effort has obviously been compromised– arguably Mr. Snowden’s aim– and the entire security apparatus of the United States has been subjected to harsh criticism from those whose primary concern is the protection of American civil liberties above all else. President Obama was caught in the flak, forced to defend a program that predated his own presidency, and those who would do us harm now have an added window into understanding how we have been defending ourselves against them.

It seems to me that there are two issues at play here. One has to do with the collection of what is essentially private data from unsuspecting citizens by the American government. The second has to do with Mr. Snowden’s decision to share his truth in the most public way, damn the torpedoes. Both are worthy of consideration.

Regarding the first…

I can’t help but wonder why anyone is surprised by what the government has been doing. Ever since the enactment of the Patriot Act, and all through the Bush (II) presidency, the increasing, legally sanctioned intrusion of the government into the private lives of citizens has been a contentious issue in this country.

Upon hearing about Mr. Snowden’s actions, my mind went back to the sermon I delivered on the memorably awful Shabbat of September 15, 2001. Here in New York, we were all in shell shock, barely functioning. I remember how awed I was by the challenge of having to say something equal to the moment at hand that morning. After expressing the anger, grief, and sense of violation that we were all feeling, I referred to an inevitable discussion soon to come about how much of our precious individual civil liberties we would be willing to sacrifice to feel safe again. None of us felt safe at all on September 15, 2001, and as I write this on June 13, 2013, I think I would be on pretty safe ground to say that most New Yorkers are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As a matter of principle, I hate the idea of government invading my private life in any way. I really do. But I am obliged to admit that I also hate the idea of people whom I don’t know and can’t see and haven’t done anything to spending all of their waking hours trying to devise ways to destroy my city, my country, and my way of life. As a child of the sixties, I was weaned on the idea that government was not to be trusted, and I remain skeptical. But as regards the aforementioned discussion about how much of our civil liberties are we willing to sacrifice -– with appropriate cautions and limits– in order to remain safe, I’m not at all sure that the correct answer is none at all. And if it is indeed true that a number of terrorist attacks were foiled before implementation because of the data gathered, that should not be ignored in this discussion.

Regarding the second issue, and the sharing of truth no matter the circumstance… From a Jewish perspective, “truth at all costs” is not, I would submit, Judaism’s stance.

We already know for sure that the ancient rabbis regarded the unvarnished truth as less important that a person’s feelings. In a famous passage in the tractate of Ketubot in the Babylonian Talmud, the great sages Hillel and Shammai famously disagreed on how to answer the question “Keitzad m’rakdin lifnei hakallah?” How should one dance before the bride?

Evidently, at ancient Jewish wedding celebrations, people would dance before the bride and offer her congratulatory greetings on the occasion. Shammai suggested “kallah k’mot she’hi;” one should offer comments to the bride as she is. In other words, if the bride is not physically attractive, one might say to her (my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek here, so please don’t take offense!) “You know, for you, you look pretty good today.” Hillel challenged him, saying that the appropriate words to say to the bride are “kallah na’ah v’hassuda!” Such a beautiful and gracious bride! Shammai challenged Hillel right back, asking how he could, in good conscience, advocate something less than total honesty? After all, the Torah constrains to distance ourselves from dishonesty!

Hillel answered -– wisely, I hope you would agree -– that the dignity of an individual, and especially a bride on her wedding day, trumps the imperative to tell the unvarnished truth. Sometimes, doing the right thing is more important than being right…

Edward Snowden’s action was not about a bride on her wedding day, nor about “hurt feelings.” But I would still suggest that there was a calculation to be made on whether or not the greater public interest– and safety– was secondary to a different kind of unvarnished truth, especially when there were other ways to address the concerns that he had. What he uncovered wasn’t new, even if it was troubling. If you have a problem with your conscience, by all means address it. Go to your superiors. Resign if you must. That would earn my respect. But you don’t have to take down the whole intelligence apparatus of the country you are serving with your complaint.

In my humble opinion…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.