I see so many things on Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds that seem so improper somehow – why do we all need to know every detail of everyone’s life? But I seem to be alone here. Does Judaism have anything to say about the ethics of privacy? Could this possibly be a “tzniut” issue?
Yes, indeed, Judaism has a lot to say about privacy, and it is as directly relevant to contemporary uses of Facebook and Twitter as it was to private conversations and letters in times past. In sum, Judaism requires not only that we take steps to preserve other people's privacy, but our own. For a thorough discussion of the import of Judaism for privacy on the internet, see Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), Chapter Two.
The ethics of privacy from a Jewish perspective regarding electronic media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter involve two different and separate vectors. On the one hand, the responsibility for one has to respect the privacy of another is an important consideration that has been long discussed in various venues by Halachic authorities; on the other, the responsibility of an individual to keep private intimate or potentially compromising aspects of his personal life is an equally important issue addressed by Jewish traditional sources. Current trends to regularly post potentially compromising photographs and express private feelings and activities in extreme detail could overlap both areas—to what extent should one attempt to access and review what others have displayed without obtaining explicit permission, as well as what are the parameters for deciding what to submit for potentially public scrutiny even when granting such permission. Nevertheless, the question that has been presented focuses upon the post-er, “Why do we need to know every detail of everyone’s life?” which we will investigate.
Well-known standards of personal modesty regarding dress and public deportment, such as the formulation of Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Personality, Chapt. 5 would obviously summarily preclude not only “in-person” behaviors, but also someone posting pictures of himself engaging in inappropriate activities. Such a prohibition would apply even if there were no potential consequences in terms of one’s candidacy for school acceptance or employment; the fact that admissions officers and human resources administrators have begun to regularly review applicants’ electronic profiles attaches serious consequences to irresponsible postings, and qualify such activities as forms of self-destructive behavior. Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 421:12 posits that even if an individual tells another that the latter can harm the former with impunity, we do not believe that the permission was freely given because “it is a known matter that no one wishes such a thing,” and the perpetrator would therefore be ultimately culpable. Extending such a concept to the posting of potentially incriminating material on the Web that will damage his reputation in the eyes of others, a person doing so, even if he claims to be aware that this can do him potential harm, still does not have the ethical right to engage in such behavior. It is possible that at the heart of the Shulchan Aruch’s assumption is not only the biological human instinctual desire for self-preservation, but also the spiritual postulate that all people are created in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27; Ibid. 9:5-6 is cited by some as a prohibition against suicide, i.e., the ultimate act of self-destruction,) transforming personally harmful behavior into an affront to God Himself. (See Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:23 for another example of the identity between human disparagement and a profanation of God’s Holiness.)
Finally, with respect to the postings of personal thoughts and actions that while not compromising or humiliating, are nevertheless trivial and suggesting an inflated sense of self-importance, a person should keep in mind sources exemplified by Mishna Shekalim 3:2 ‘
“…A person needs to consider making a good impression upon other people in the same way that he has to live up to the Expectations of the Divine, as it is said, (Numbers 32:22) “And you will have complied with the expectations of God and of Israel” and it is said (Proverbs 3:4) “And find grace and understanding in the eyes of God and man.”
Before doing or saying something that others will be able to see and hear, one should consider what sort of affect his words and actions might have upon others. Living up to our being Created in God’s Image does not only mean that we have to strive to preserve our physical and spiritual existences, but also to whatever extent possible give rise to the Sanctification of God’s Name. This would suggest that what we do should always be subjected to the scrutiny of the following frame of reference: (Deuteronomy 6:18) “And you will do what is straight and good in the Eyes of God…” Foolish, let alone insignificant, behavior would appear to fall short of this standard.
Judaism does indeed have much to say about privacy. While Jewish tradition doesn’t tend to speak in terms of “rights,” it does teach us of the demand to protect the personal dignity and the personal space of those around us. We are forbidden, for example, to trespass against the reputation of our fellow human being, whether in the form of slander (lashon hara) or gossip (r’khilut). Jewish law empowers one to demand that a neighbor erect a barrier ( a privacy fence) so that the neighbor cannot peer into one’s house or courtyard; “the damage inflicted by ‘prying eyes’ (hezek r’iyah) is a cause for legal action.” A leading medieval rabbi enacted a rule forbidding a person from reading a letter sent to another without the other’s consent. (On all of this, see Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, CCAR Press, 2010, vol. 1, pp. 334-337.) We learn from all this that fundamental human dignity (sometimes called k’vod hab’riyot) is inextricably bound up with the value that we call “privacy,” so that the former can hardly exist when the latter is violated.
Our Jewish community has yet to discuss adequately how the value of privacy – to say nothing of tzniyut, the concept of personal modesty and restraint – might apply to the new social media. While I can’t imagine that the main stream of our tradition’s teachings would somehow “forbid” the use of these media – any more than it “forbids” the electronic technology that makes them possible – it would seem to have a great deal to teach us about how we use them so as to ensure that the concepts of privacy, dignity, and modesty remain a real presence in our lives and are not consigned as relics to the Museum of the Hopelessly Outdated. This is clearly an issue that rabbis, Jewish teachers, and the rest of us will want to focus upon in great detail in the coming years.
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