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The Paranoid Universe

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Recent reports inform us that the surveillance industry is making impressive technological strides. Leading the way is a company called Visionics, which now markets a computerized facial identification system, one which instantaneously matches faces in a crowd to digital photographs in databases. This system, called "Face-It," is already used by police departments, airports, casino operators looking for known cheats, and, most famously, during this year's Super Bowl, to scan the crowd for known criminals and potential terrorists. According to a Washington Post article on the subject, "there are a hundred or more such companies developing technology that relies on such human identifiers as patterns on the retina, hand prints or voice patterns..." And everybody from the Tampa Police Department to the Israeli Mossad wants what they're selling.

As the mid-twentieth century poet Delmore Schwartz once said, "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that nobody's following you." On the contrary, in today's society you have to be crazy to think that nobody is watching or listening; the fact is, they are. Every bank, restaurant, government office and supermarket is equipped with cameras. Given the ubiquity of high-tech surveillance, a new word would have to be coined to describe the derangement of an individual who, in the face of all the facts to the contrary, insists that he is not under constant surveillance.

According to Jewish tradition, however, this phenomenon is hardly new. Judaism maintains that we are being watched, and always have been.

Jewish tradition testifies to the existence of an all-knowing G-d: "Contemplate three things and you will not come into the hands of sin---a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are written in a book." It is an anthropomorphic reference to the omniscient Creator, Who knows and records everything that we think and do. He is the Biggest "Big Brother" of them all, with the vastest, most perfect database, in which everything is contained.

The idea goes deeper. The feeling that someone is watching us is something that we are born with. Everybody shares in it. Whether one knows what's written in the Torah or not, the reality of an eye above watching you, is no less a reality.

There is a verse to this effect in Ecclesiastes (3:14). It begins by referring to the laws of nature made by the Creator---"Whatever G-d does, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it..." But then the verse seems abruptly to shift to a different point - "And G-d has done it, so that people will fear before Him."

The laws of nature created by G-d are unchangeable...and people will fear Him. The renowned kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, explained that what the author of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, is teaching here is that fear is also a law of nature. He explains, furthermore, that there is a pause before the last word, lefanav ("before Him"). Thus, it may be read as "people will fear..." Those who deny G-d's rule over the world will admit that they live in fear of various things -- but they ignore the lefanav, insisting that they do not fear G-d. But those who read the verse to the end, who delve into the depths of things, know that G-d Himself made fear an ineluctable part of human existence, and that therefore all fear is in a sense lefanav. For even those who choose to fear other things are still living in fear because of G-d.

If we choose to deny G-d's rule over our lives, then we will fear something else. It may be the data probe of a vast security network. Or it may be the superstitious fear of unnamed malevolent forces. Friday the 13th. Or AIDS. Or being made redundant by economic recession. Or global warming...

People think that the choice is between being a G-d-fearing person or nothing. But it's a misconception. The choice is between being a G-d-fearing person or being an AIDS-fearing or an unemployment-fearing person.

The security establishment claims that its technology is for our own good - to protect us from the criminal element. A well-placed paranoia, buttressed by a reading of Orwell's 1984, will generate doubts about the purity of their intentions. But G-d has no ulterior motive. He will not divulge the intimate details of our life to the highest bidder. He only wants the best for us. As the above-mentioned mishnah from Ethics of the Fathers states, G-d wishes us to fear Him only to keep us out of the hands of sin, so that we should not forfeit all the blessings of peace and well-being that He wishes to bestow upon us. Whether we are to be the victims or the beneficiaries of the paranoid universe - the choice is ours.

Sources: Rabbi Yechiel Yakovson; Washington Post, August 1, 2001; Ethics of the Fathers 2:1.

Reprinted with permission from

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