Friday, July 27, 2007

Invasions of Privacy (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, July 27, 2007

I recently saw the new film about the horrible kidnapping and death of Daniel Pearl, "A Mighty Heart." It reminded me of an essay written at the time of the tragedy by Judea Pearl, Daniel's father. Shaken by the broadcast of the grizzly video of the mutilation of Danny's body, he called out for a show of dignity in the midst of the barbarity we see around us. He wrote:

"To preserve the dignity of our champions, we should remove all terrorist produced murder scenes from our Web sites and agree to suppress such scenes in the future."

A more inspiring summation of the Jewish values of dignity and privacy could not have been written. But now, half a decade later, such a wish seems hopelessly naive. The erosion of privacy has become an Information Age pandemic, spreading far beyond the tentacles of the terrorists.
New York Magazine recently ran a story on how, as younger people freely reveal their private lives on the Internet, the older generation is responding with a sense of incredulity not seen since the early days of rock and roll. As journalist Emily Nussbaum noted, "Even 9-year-olds have their own site, Club Penguin, to play games and plan parties. The change has rippled through pretty much every act of growing up. Go through your first big breakup and you may need to change your status on Facebook from 'In a relationship' to "Single." Everyone will see it on your "feed," including your ex, and that's part of the point."

Just recently, my wife and I finally allowed Dan, our 14-year-old, to go onto Facebook. A few days later, I checked out the site and found out entirely too much information about some kids I thought I had known very well. Then, returning to my son's homepage, I noticed that my little bubelah was listed as "married." After peeling myself off the floor, I asked him if perhaps there was some misunderstanding here, noting-that matrimony is illegal for someone just entering high school. That's when I discovered that Facebook marriages are somewhat less complicated than real ones.

Facebook profiles will let you know right away what your high schooler is "looking for" and "interested in." Rarely are the answers "good grades" and "chess club." I was less than amused to discover, for example, that one recent bar mitzvah student of mine is looking for "whatever I can get."

We have become a society of exhibitionists. It's hard to blame terrorist Web sites for this when a promo for an upcoming "Oprah" exclaims, "He had sex with her best friend ... while she was in the house. Can their marriage be saved?"

Entirely too much information!

Celebrities have seen that their every movement will likely be chronicled on YouTube within a day. But it's not just celebrities. We now know everything about everyone, and whatever you do will stay with you forever.

To be, it appears, is to be Googled.

That's why privacy's significance in Jewish law is so pertinent and timely.

Jews have a hard time with open caskets. We just do. We never have them at our funerals. Even in Jerusalem, where they don't use caskets, the body is wrapped from head to toe in a shroud. No one is given the opportunity to gawk at the face of death. We don't dress up our dead in finery like some Barbie doll. We don't broadcast grotesque images of carnage, even when it could help us score propaganda points. It's all about preserving the privacy and dignity of the deceased.

The ancient rabbis wondered what was it that moved the Moabite prophet Balaam to bless Israel when his intent all along had been to curse them. They concluded that when he saw all the tents of Israel laid out, he was amazed that they were set up in such a way that no one could look into another person's dwelling place. Now, if you've ever lived in close quarters (i.e. Manhattan) you know that is very hard to do.

Based largely on this midrash, the Talmud came up with some important guidelines: prohibiting the installation of a window if it looks in on someone else's house, for example, and ruling that a person should knock before opening a closed door. By extension, a creditor is not allowed to enter the home of a debtor but must remain outside to receive the pledge.

Much later, in the 10th century, a sage named Rabbenu Gershom decreed opening someone else's mail to be punishable by excommunication, from which is derived the general principle that we can't pick through our neighbor's garbage to search out secrets. What's private must be respected. How often are we forwarded e-mail notes that were sent by a third party, without the permission of that third party? Gershom would have had a problem with that.

Israeli law, by the way, follows the Jewish value system along these lines, strictly regulating the use of surveillance devices and eavesdropping-this despite the many security dangers Israel faces. Judea Pearl was right. The grizzly ways of the terrorists betray their own grotesque value system. We can't allow them to corrupt ours. Judaism has an enormous contribution to make in this era of encroachment.

The only thing that can stop Big Brother, it seems, is a Jewish mother.

When Balaam saw the people of Israel, he called them, "Am Levadad Yishkon," "a people that dwells apart." What has set us apart from other peoples most of all has been our willingness to give others the private space we all need to grow, and the protective cover in which to nurture that growth. Sometimes we need to be protected from others, sometimes even from ourselves. Lessons learned so long ago must now become part of our collective Facebook profile. To respect privacy is to protect human dignity.