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    The right to be left alone

    May 25th, 2016

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 25 May, 2016.

    PrivacyThe Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, dating from 1791, affirms a citizen’s right to be secure in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

    A century later this was labeled “the right to be let alone.” At that stage it had no legal status, though physical trespass (called in biblical law hassagat gevul, trespass on another’s territory) had long been identified as a legal wrong. Many legal systems allowed redress only if one’s material interests were placed in jeopardy.

    The broader moral right to be let alone was not unknown but proved hard to define. The courts sometimes dealt with it by means of “property” terminology and proceeded to assess the extent of quantifiable damage. Justice Louis D Brandeis wanted a more straightforward approach and argued that one should be able to assert privacy directly.

    A concept of privacy is found in Roman law, but even earlier it existed as a legal and moral right in the Bible. The Ten Commandments established it negatively, as a duty to refrain from disturbing another person, and positively too, since the ban on murder, stealing, adultery, false witness and coveting implied a right to enjoy life, property, marriage, reputation, dignity and identity.

    Among specific provisions, a lender was not allowed to enter a neighbor’s house to collect a pledge (Deuteronomy 24:10-11); the sages forbade entering any premises, even one’s own, without permission (Bava Kama 27b). This also applied to a court officer, implying that society may not harm the rights of the individual (Bava Metzia 113a/b).

    One may not reveal secrets (Leviticus 19:21; Proverbs 11:13) or disclose court discussions (Mishnah Sanhedrin 3:7; Sotah 31a). Even seeing into someone’s home is forbidden. On the words, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob: your dwelling-places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5), Rashi says no-one should peer into the opposite tent.

    In addition, one must not pry into another person’s affairs, since “damage by seeing is real damage” (Bava Batra 2b).

    There are two main parties to the problem of invasion of privacy. I have no right to disturb my neighbor, nor must he be forced to hide away or cover up his traces.

    Damage by seeing is more obvious than damage by hearing; Me’iri (13th century) says people are more careful to keep their voices down when they don’t wish to be overheard, though this might be questioned these days, when the slightest whisper cannot be kept secret.

    Seeing, hearing and others of the five senses are threats to privacy. This covers eavesdropping, wiretapping, reading other people’s correspondence or using stored data. All are forms of spying, even if the person who acquires the information does not act upon it, either for his own benefit or for the detriment of another.

    Yet the right to privacy is not absolute.

    Though society must not intrude upon people’s deeds for commercial benefit, entertainment or mere titillation, the law may require disclosure of information which has a direct, serious bearing upon public policy. The Bible says, “If he does not tell, he bears [a share in] the iniquity” (Leviticus 5:1). Yet telling must be at the appropriate time: “‘Do not tell’ until I say, ‘Go, tell!’” (Yoma 4b).

    Professional privilege has narrower boundaries in Jewish than in civil law.

    There is no sanctity of the confessional: no-one but God may have access to people’s secrets. If a person tells the rabbi something in confidence, the rabbi has no right to remain silent. Nor may the media say, “The public is entitled to know.” Intellectual property is a specialised area of privacy.

    The general rule is, “He who cites a thing in the name of the one who stated it brings redemption to the world” (Mishnah Avot 6:6).

    In the Holocaust, the victims had their privacy invaded, compromised, undermined and flouted in every possible way. Everybody became a nobody. Nothing meant anything – not their name, their identity, their dignity, their family, their learning, their possessions, nor even their history of service to the nation or to humanity.

    There were distinguished people whose contributions to culture, science and civilisation meant nothing; great intellectuals who were mocked as they were thrown into the gas chambers; many who became slave laborers or were used for “scientific” experiments; many whose bodies became soap or lampshades or whose gold teeth were torn out to enrich the Reich.

    Not only were the victims “unpersons”; the enemy denied them the slightest protection of the law, while the world mostly stood by and said nothing. The church bells rang as normal; the perpetrators spent their nights with classical music; the world’s moral scruples were unruffled. The victims had no privacy by day or night. Yet few sought refuge in death. Most had faith in a final account and reckoning. Most sustained their belief, values, gentility and love for others.

    There were Jews who risked all by sharing a morsel with others, supporting them in life and giving them a funeral when they died; Jews who determined that the enemy would not take away their souls, spirits or spirituality; Jews who knew that if they lost their sense of time they would lose everything, so they counted the days and knew when it was Shabbat or Yom Kippur. The persecutors didn’t care, but the Jews did.

    There are ongoing efforts to ensure that the millions of victims do not remain mere numbers but once more gain a name, an identity, a face, a family. Every time a name is rediscovered, every time a Kaddish is said, every time a memory is rebuilt, a portion of privacy is restored.

    Judaism dislikes counting people. Privacy is one of the reasons. Everyone is entitled to be themselves. Everyone has the right to be secure and let alone, to hold their own place in the sun, to be able to bring their own blessing to the world.

    [Photo credit: Home Water Softener Reviews]


    A peak of insight – B’har

    May 21st, 2016

    Mountain-150x150When the Israelites said Na’aseh v’nishma, “We will do and we shall hear”, they are seen by the sages (Shab. 88a/b) as on a peak of spiritual understanding.

    Metaphorically they ascended a mountain, echoing the title of this week’s reading, B’har (“On Mount Sinai”).

    Through Na’aseh v’nishma they committed themselves in advance to obeying God’s word (“We shall do”) before hearing all the details (“We shall hear”). The rabbis say that this made them like the angels.

    It’s like a person who says to another, “I want you to promise me something”. The answer is quite understandably, “How can I promise something if I haven’t heard all the details, and if I’m not certain it is within my power!”

    In relation to God, however, the Israelites trusted in the Divine wisdom to such an extent that they knew He would never ask something of them which they were unable to fulfil.


    Belittling God – B’har

    May 21st, 2016

    OnkelosThe final words of the sidra are “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 25:55).

    This is nothing new to anyone who has been following the Torah readings and especially Parashat K’doshim and the beginning of the Ten Commandments.

    But when you compare the Hebrew of the Chumash with the Aramaic of Targum Onkelos, you see a change in the spelling.

    The Hebrew follows its normal pattern and spells the word for “your God” as if the word were plural.

    It is normal with the Torah to refer to God in the plural, not that there is (God forbid!) more than one God, but it is the plural of majesty. It shows the unique greatness of the Almighty that makes him the concentration of all power and might.

    L’havdil, one might similarly attribute to an earthly potentate a plurality of status when they say things like “We declare”, “You must obey our word”, etc.

    What Onkelos does is to replace the plural with the singular, not that it disagrees with the concept of God’s unique greatness, but it does not wish people to get a wrong, superficial impression about God.


    Freedom for the generation – B’har

    May 21st, 2016

    liberty bellThe famous Liberty Bell is but one of many echoes of the Torah’s message, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10).

    These days we would use the word cherut for liberty, but the Torah uses the word d’ror. The commentators try to work out its derivation.

    Ibn Ezra thinks it denotes a singing bird, which makes music as long as it is free but loses its voice if confined and denied freedom. A Talmudic explanation links it with dur, to dwell, and dirah, a dwelling, and suggests that the real freedom is the right to dwell wherever you wish, without being turned away or herded into a ghetto.

    According to Nachmanides it is connected with dor, a generation, and it tells us that a person who can choose to come back to his family is thus enabled to take his place in the tradition of the generations.

    Whichever interpretation you prefer, the message is clear. Freedom is the right to speak, to believe, to pray (or not to pray); the right to be yourself; the right to choose where you go and where you make your home.


    Vengeance in Psalms – Ask the Rabbi

    May 21st, 2016

    Q. The end of Psalm 137 (Al Naharot Bavel) says, “Blest is he who takes and shatters your infants against the rock”. How can the Psalm say something so offensive and vengeful?

    psalm 137A. Psalm 137 is a sad reflection of how bitter it was for the remnants of the Jewish people to be in Babylon and suffer under the harshness of the regime. Imagine how the enemy taunted them: “Go on, sing one of your Jewish songs!”

    What heartache is expressed in the verse, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

    No wonder the people pledged to themselves and to God that they would never forget their Jewish identity, and they prayed that the Day of the Lord would overcome Babylon.

    How many times over the last 2000 years did Jews echo this psalm…

    What a tragedy it is that now that Jews can freely live a Jewish life in Israel, so many have got used to life in the Diaspora…

    What a pity that it is resurgent antisemitism that is making European Jews interested in Aliyah….

    The last verse of the Psalm is not a statement of religious dogma, but part of a poem, and no-one has to automatically applaud the poet’s phraseology.

    It is one of several so-called psalms of vengeance, and in each case the idea is that those who commit wrongs will one day get a dose of their own medicine. Hence if the Babylonians were cruel to Jewish children, their own children will eventually suffer.

    This may not be the noblest of sentiments, but it is the anguished cry of a people undergoing horrific suffering.

    PSALM 137

    1. By Babylon’s rivers,
    There we sat, we wept
    When we thought of Zion.

    2. Upon the willows in its midst
    We hung up our harps –

    3. For there our captors asked us for song,
    Our tormentors wanted mirth:
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

    4. How can we sing the Lord’s song
    In a strange land?

    5. If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    Let my right hand wither;

    6. Let my tongue stick to my palate
    If I do not remember you,
    If I do not place Jerusalem
    Above my best joy.

    7. Remember, O Lord,
    Against the people of Edom
    The day of Jerusalem;
    Those who said, “Lay it bare,
    Bare to its foundations!”

    8. O city of Babylon,
    Doomed for destruction –
    Blest is he who treats you
    As you have treated us.

    9. Blest is he
    Who takes and shatters your infants
    Against the rock.