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We're Not Alone
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 beings.”

“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 America.]

 






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