What does Judaism say about the right to privacy?

August 1, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

THE CASE FOR PRIVACY

Q. What does Judaism say about the right to privacy?

A. Privacy as a moral concept has long been part of Jewish law.

The Decalogue forbids disturbing another person: banning murder, stealing, adultery, false witness, and coveting implies a right to enjoy life, property, marriage, reputation, dignity and identity.

A lender cannot barge into my house to collect a pledge (Deut. 24:10-11). Not even a court officer can enter premises without permission (BK 27b).

The rights of the individual are sacred (BM 113a/b). People may not reveal secrets (Lev. 19:21; Prov. 11:13) or disclose court discussions (Mishnah Sanh. 3:7; Sotah 31a).

On the words, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob: your dwelling-places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5), Rashi says that no one may peek into the opposite tent. One must not pry into another person’s affairs since “damage by seeing is real damage” (BB 2b).

When there is a risk of invasion of privacy, I must protect myself; I must protect my neighbour and not force him to hide himself or what he is doing.

Me’iri (13th cent.) says people should keep their voices low if they don’t wish to be overheard. This covers electronic eavesdropping, wiretapping, reading other people’s correspondence, or using stored data. All are forms of invasion, even if the person who acquires the information does not act upon it.

Yet the right to privacy is not absolute; the law may require disclosure of information which bears upon public policy. The Bible says, “If one does not tell, he bears (a share in) the iniquity” (Lev. 5:1).

Every society needs an independent, speedy-acting Ethics Ombudsman to monitor, supervise and assess what is done (or not done) in the name of the nation. Yet in situations where cover-ups would imperil national security there are times to authorise invasions of privacy.

ONLY THE LIVING CAN REMEMBER

On Tishah B’Av, remembering is the rule. Tragedies happened, and we have to remember them. Not just the destruction of the Temple, indeed both Temples, but the long procession of calamities that accompanied all the ages.

Every time of year has its historical memories; every day could well have been appointed as a national Yahrzeit; but Tishah B’Av brings all the catastrophes together.

Maimonides says in his Hil’chot Evel (13:11-12) that one who does not remember and mourn for the calamities is a cruel character. And yet one can overdo the mourning. After a bereavement, there are stages in mourning, and by the end of the first year the mourner must pick him- or herself up and get back into life.

The real tragedy is when there is no one to remember. I often wandered through the Jewish part of Rookwood Cemetery when I was a rabbi in Sydney, and I would sadly note how many people had no living relative to say Kaddish and keep the Yahrzeit.

This emphasises the value of Tishah B’Av, as the occasion for the whole Jewish people to remember and mourn for the martyrs of the generations. The martyrs can never be forgotten so long as our people remembers.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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