I am confused. The startling revelations around the National Security Agency’s surveillance are deeply disturbing. It turns out “Big Brother” is watching, more than we had imagined, though anyone with a bit of an astute sensibility has by now noticed the “serendipitous” advertisements that just happen to pop up on our computers after even a cursory mention of a related product or service. Or the coupons matching our purchases that spit out along with our grocery receipts. And surely an evening of crime-show viewing would be enough to dispel us of any notion of privacy, not to mention the speed at which the Boston bombers were identified. I wonder about the Jewish attitude toward privacy. Are there mentions of eavesdropping or surveillance in our tradition? What’s a citizen to do?
Nothing like the ignition of a heated national conversation to start off a summer! When 29-year-old Edward Snowden leaked information about a vast National Security Agency program involving the surveillance of U.S. cell phone calls, Facebook accounts, and other cyber activity, he launched a major national conversation on privacy and governmental encroachment. It is a critical conversation. Is Snowden a hero or a villain? How do we as a nation balance the rights of privacy and national security? A peek at the Jewish take on all things private might inform our greater conversation.
Perhaps the first episode of Biblical eavesdropping is Sarah listening at the tent door on Abraham and the three guests. She learns of the promising prediction that even though she and Abraham are of an advanced age, she will give birth to Isaac. She hears the news delivered to Abraham via clandestine means. In spite of this subtle, perhaps even justifiable overhearing, it leads to her skeptical response and, later, discomfort at her reaction.
If only she had heard the news in full view of Abraham rather than secreted away, Sarah might have had less of an unguarded response, which she later had to defend.
Our takeaway? Even innocuous eavesdropping such as Sarah’s results in family drama. It complicates relationships, and in this case it is clearly not smiled upon and no good seems to come of it.
Next up, our second matriarch, Rebecca. She too listens in at the door, speedily revealing to Jacob she has overheard a conversation between Isaac and son Esau involving hunting, victuals and blessings. This crucial eavesdropping propels the story of Jacob’s disguising himself as his brother and then receiving the blessing that had been meant for Esau, thus incurring great wrath and years of sibling discord. Whether or not it was the fate of Jacob to receive the blessing, it is noteworthy that through the exploit of eavesdropping the family is catapulted into chaos and disarray. A breakdown in privacy, hearing what is not meant for one’s ears, leads to disharmony. The Torah rarely puts up a neon sign flashing, “Here’s the lesson!” It is for us to discern and distill.
Where the narrative of the Torah might be indirect, halachah has no such luxury. The Shulchan Aruch, drawing on Mishnaic and Talmudic discussions, rules that in a shared courtyard either party may compel the other to split the costs of the construction of a wall to provide the necessary privacy. This necessary privacy is considered part of one’s property rights. Failure to provide this would result in what is called “hezek reeiah,” the damage of seeing into someone else’s property.
Our tradition takes it as a given that there be a baseline of privacy, echoing the spirit of Rashi’s comment on the blessing of Bilaam: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob” (“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaacov”). Wondering about what is “goodly” about them, Rashi notes that the entrances of the Israelites’ tents in the desert did not face each other, ensuring the respect and privacy of all who dwell together.
Eavesdropping surfaces in Jewish law as well. As an extension of the “Laws of Damages of Seeing” found in the Talmud and in Maimonides’s “Laws of Neighbors” are the “Laws of Damages of Hearing” — hearing what was not intended to be heard. In this regard, Rabbi Yaacov Yeshya Bloi asserts that even though an earlier halachist, Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, had ruled that one cannot force a neighbor to build a soundproof wall, still it is forbidden to listen in to the conversations of others, stressing it is despicable to eavesdrop on the words of others not meant for you to hear.
Clearly our tradition recognizes and protects the value of privacy and condemns the act of eavesdropping. Now the question is, at what point are these values to be set aside for national security? And of course, who is to be trusted in determining the demands of national security? What about the individual who leaks information about the country damaging national security for the sake of the rights and the privacy of its citizens? That we shall leave to others to sort out. Brace yourselves: We’ve got a hot summer ahead.