Over twelve years after our American complacency was shattered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we are still finding our way through a forest of security and privacy issues. As we take in the revelations about the Obama administration's collection of data on phone calls made, these issues are raised afresh. President Obama and our national security leadership have denied absolutely that calls were listened to without appropriate judiciary warrants. We are listening, too, and are probably inclined to believe or doubt those denials based on our own political leanings and proclivities . . . for none of us in the general public really have any way of knowing how this data has been processed.
What sort of guidance does Judaism provide in this existential conflict of interest between protecting innocent populations and protecting the privacy and anonymity of citizens of a democracy?
Jonathan Stein, a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, and an attorney, writes in an article on Judaism and Privacy (www.myjewishlearing.com): "However, there is evidence from [classic Jewish] sources that privacy is not in fact a value in and of itself, but an instrument for achieving social harmony and religious welfare. 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."
In the United States, we have become socialized to assume a constitutional "right to privacy" of which we are more protective than a mother bear with her cubs. Whether there actually exists such a constitutional right is a matter of debate, in fact. In Judaism, however, there is no debate. An individual's "personal space" must give way when matters concerning the well-being of innocents in the community are in question.
In an article published in 2002 (Living Words IV: A Spiritual Source Book for an Age of Terror), Alan Dershowitz recounts the changes of heart he underwent after 9/11 regarding the issue of "roving warrants" (which attach to an individual instead of a particular phone or phone number) and national identity cards. He wrote: "Terrorists should never make us give up our liberties or change our values. But experiences of all kinds--whether they are natural disasters or the horrors wrought by criminals--inevitably provoke thoughtful people into rethinking attitudes and values. This process is a healthy one. It is part of what Socrates called "the examined life."
In Israel, the country that is in constant arbitration between protecting the privacy of individuals in a democracy established with protections for free speech and human rights and protecting a population under almost constant threat of military and/or terrorist attack, the public debate sounds similar to ours, but the background premises are rather different. In Israel, it is the most routine of procedures to have one's bag opened and examined, go through metal detectors, etc., when entering a movie theater or a shopping mall or a coffee shop. To object on the grounds of invasion of privacy would be absurd in a setting where such a lapse might provide the opening for a pizza parlor to be blown to bits.
In Israel, we see, on the ground, the principle Dr. Stein described in theory: in Judaism, privacy is not a value in an of itself . . . it is a luxury we enjoy when circumstances permit.
Many of us enjoy many luxuries here in the United States. Whether we must eschew this particular one in order to maintain public safety or not is a matter of public, crucial public, debate. But our tradition encourages us to keep an open mind and look at the issue not only as citizens of a democracy, but as Jews informed by our tradition as well.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.