What Does Jewish Law Say About NSA Snooping Scandal?

Conflict Between Privacy and Saving Lives Dates to Bible

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By Reuven Namdar

Published June 12, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
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On the other side of this equation stands another important Jewish principle: kevod haBriot, the preservation of human dignity. This principle first appears in the book of Leviticus (19:18) and is (rather awkwardly) translated into English as “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The great sage Rabbi Akiva (circa 40 — circa 137 C.E.) declares it as a klal gadol, a grand rule, and another great sage, the famously pragmatic Hillel the Elder (circa110 BCE, died 10 C.E.), rephrases it as ”That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

This principle has served as the moral and legal base for many rabbinic debates around the question of privacy, and the obligation to respect it. The sages regarded eavesdropping on a private conversation or peeking into someone’s private domain as robbery or theft and defined them as genevat da’at — literally: “stealing of one’s mind” — an act of deceit or swindling.

But the most direct reference comes from an important, and formative, set of rabbinic rules and regulations known as the Herem de-Rabbeinu Gershom that was published in Germany around 1000 C.E. and became widely accepted in most of the Jewish world.

This herem (whose most famous contribution to Jewish life is the elimination of bigamy) explicitly forbids the pious to read a private letter without the knowledge and permission of the sender. This regulation is widely quoted and has become one of the foundations of the Jewish public sphere. The principal of regarding one’s privacy as a possession and the breach of it as a theft remains an organizing notion of Jewish ethics to the day. ‘

Unless one can prove without a doubt that hacking into someone’s email account or tapping his or her phone line will prevent a clear and immediate danger to human life, there is very little grounds for holding such an action as Jewishly legitimate.

Reuven Namdar, a New York-based Israeli writer and translator of Persian poetry is the author of “Haviv,” a collection of short stories, which won the Israeli ministry of culture’s award for best debut fiction.


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