by Rabbi Avi Shafran
“Google” and “National Security Agency” don’t naturally come to mind as
word-associations for “Talmudic blessing.” But recent controversies
regarding the successful Internet search engine and the secretive
government entity do recall the final benediction of a great Talmudic sage.
Alarms were roundly sounded in the wake of reports that the U.S.
Department of Justice, in the course of defending a federal law aimed at
protecting children from child-inappropriate (actually,
anyone-inappropriate) material on the Internet, had asked Google to
share records pertaining to the Web searches of its patrons. Even
though no information identifying individual users was requested,
privacy advocates and skittish citizens saw the petition as the
frightening shadow of an approaching Big Brother.
Similar nervousness ensued when it became apparent that the NSA (an
entity so shadowy that, for a time, it was commonly referred to as the
“No Such Agency”) has been wiretapping conversations of suspected
terrorists without benefit of court orders. The Bush administration
argues that such measures are the legal privilege of the executive
branch, in particular at times of war, and insists that innocent
citizens’ communications were never targeted. All the same, there was
much hue and cry over the (real or perceived) erosion of that most
cherished of American rights: privacy.
Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the degree to which a
commercial venture might properly monitor its customers’ purchases or
tastes; or about the right balance a government should strike between
protecting its citizens’ privacy and ensuring their security.
But what cannot be argued is that our actions are, in fact, private
anymore. Whether we wish it were so or not, our cell-phones and
automatic toll-paying devices faithfully record our whereabouts, our
computers are reliable repositories of information about us, and unseen
cameras record our actions in public places. Private phone records of
unsuspecting individuals are easily purloined, and regularly offered for
purchase by anyone willing to part with a few dollars. And information
about individuals’ communications and Web use is in fact routinely, and
legally, subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies when a crime is suspected.
Once upon a time, lives were considerably less transparent. Unless
people chose to share information with others, or someone had his ear to
the wall, most folks were safe from the sort of exposure to which we are
so strikingly and increasingly vulnerable today.
There is a Jewish tradition of seeking lessons in societal and
technological developments. When the telephone was invented, it is
recounted, the famed Jewish sage the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir
Kagan) – who wrote seminal books on the prohibition of slanderous and
otherwise improper speech – pointed out how concrete it made the Jewish
idea that a word spoken in one place can have ramifications in another,
far away. Similarly, advances in our ability to peer into the heavens
drives home anew how tiny a part of the physical cosmos we remain
despite all our progress; and our ability to glimpse events in the
subatomic realm reminds us of how little we really know about the very
matter of which we, and everything around us, are made
Perhaps the immense erosion of privacy we have undergone in recent years
is meant, too, to remind us of something important.
Like, perhaps, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s blessing.
On his deathbed, the Talmud recounts (Tractate Berachot, 28b), the famed
rabbi was asked by his students for a benediction. He complied, with
the curious wish: “May the fear of Heaven be to you as the fear of human
“That’s it?” the students asked, puzzled.
“If only!” the sage responded, implying that the blessing was a mighty
one indeed. “Think!” he continued. “When a person commits a sin, he
says ‘I hope no one is watching me!’”
But Someone, of course, is – a thought as obvious as it is profound. As
the rabbis put it elsewhere (Avot, 2:1): “An Eye sees and an Ear hears,
and all your actions are duly recorded.”
We may squirm at the idea, but it is fundamental to Judaism – central,
in fact, to any world-view that acknowledges a personal G-d: Our every
action is meaningful, and, therefore, of concern to our Creator.
And so, even as we chafe at what our credit card companies and Internet
providers and government agencies know about us, or can find out if they
choose, we might do well to pause a moment from our outrage and dwell on
how insignificant those eyes and ears really are in the long run, how
revealed we are, in action and even thought, before the only One who, in
the end, really counts.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of