How Modern Airport Security May Run Afoul of Jewish Law

Immodest? Religious leaders are concerned that whole-body imaging machines may show too much.
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Immodest? Religious leaders are concerned that whole-body imaging machines may show too much.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010.
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Observant Jews are voicing concerns over modesty and looking for compromise on the Transportation Security Administration’s plan to expand the use of whole-body imaging machines for airport security, after last month’s failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound jetliner.

Leaders in both Conservative and Orthodox communities are debating how scanners with the ability to see through clothing intersect with Jewish laws of tzniut, or modesty, which are observed differently among denominations but generally require Jews to cover their bodies.

“It creates a tension between the Jewish value of protecting lives, which is very strong, and the Jewish value of modesty for women and for men,” said David Rosenn, a Conservative rabbi and the executive director of Avodah, a Jewish service program.

The full-body scanners actually come in two varieties, each using a different type of technology. Millimeter wave scanners use radio frequency beams to create a 3-D image of the body. Backscatter X-rays use small amounts of radiation to create 2-D images of each side of the body. Both result in sketchy digital representations of the naked body of the person being scanned, allowing screeners to see items concealed under clothing.

There are currently 74 full-body scanning machines in operation at American airports. The TSA, which oversees airport security throughout the country, recently announced that 150 more backscatter X-rays will be put to use early this year.

According to the TSA’s Web site, images from the backscatter X-rays are processed through an algorithm meant to protect the privacy of the passenger. The images are viewed by TSA officers who sit at terminals behind closed doors and have no personal interaction with the people being scanned. “They’re just spending 10 seconds or so looking at the image to make sure there aren’t any concealed threat items,” said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the TSA. “Then the image gets deleted.”

Davis said that the officers reviewing the scan would not necessarily be the same gender as the individual being scanned.

Exposed: A volunteer demonstrates a scanner at Ronald Reagan National Airport.
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Exposed: A volunteer demonstrates a scanner at Ronald Reagan National Airport.

Conservative and Orthodox rabbis have voiced concern over the scanners, and in some cases they’ve requested compromises to ensure that their modesty concerns are met. Last June, the Washington office of Agudath Israel, which represents traditional American Orthodox communities, sent a letter to a Senate subcommittee reviewing a TSA-related bill, promoting an amendment to the House version of the bill that limited the use of the full-body scanners to situations in which passengers had already failed a metal detector test, and which would require that those passengers be offered the option of a pat-down search.

“As an organization that represents observant Jews, Agudath Israel finds [full-body imaging] to be offensive, demeaning, and far short of acceptable norms of modesty under the laws and practices of Judaism and many faith communities,” the letter read.

Abba Cohen, the rabbi who directs Agudath Israel’s Washington office, said in an interview that it is important that the full-body scans be adopted with care, if they are adopted at all. “In the rush to move to full-body scans, there hasn’t been any kind of process of determining under what circumstances these scans could and should be used,” Cohen said.

Still, Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, made it clear that his organization saw room for compromise. “Orthodox Jewish men and women go to doctors,” Shafran said. “Because it’s a professional environment, and that person is doing this because of his job, what would be a violation of modesty in one circumstance is not in a medical circumstance. That could be utilized here.”

Other rabbis emphasized the importance of the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, or the saving of human life. “We have a responsibility to make sure that we are protected and to guarantee our physical security, or else our capacity to serve as ambassadors of God in this world is impossible,” said Kenneth Brander, dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. “That being said… the same way that if someone can save oneself on the Sabbath without violating the Sabbath, one does so, if we can figure out ways so that [the full-body scanner] not only blocks out the face, but perhaps certain private parts are shaded in ways that do not compromise security but protect modesty, I think that’s something we should [support].”

The scanners have raised concerns outside the American Jewish community, as well. In early January, a group of European rabbis issued a press release voicing distress over the scanners. And in the United States, American Muslim groups have said that the scans may violate their religion’s standards of modesty. “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said every faith has an intrinsic character, and the intrinsic character of Islam is modesty,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is a Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group. “We have specific requirements for what can be exposed of the body, both for men and women, and needless to say, having a nude image displayed on a screen is not something we appreciate in religious terms.”

Hooper said that it was important to his organization that the full-body scans remain one option. “I think in the Muslim community it’s one topic of discussion,” he said. “People are deciding what they are going to do. Am I going to cut down on my traveling? Am I going to grit my teeth and go through it? Am I going to object? And then if I object, what’s going to happen?”

According to Mary Boys, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, the body scanners don’t seem to have raised widespread concerns among Christians. “I don’t see that this is going to come up as a theological issue among a lot of Christian groups,” Boys said.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at

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