• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    The case for privacy – Ask the Rabbi

    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.

    Comments are closed.