I just found out that my daughter’s teacher created a Facebook persona (another teenage girl) in order to spy on her students and make sure they weren’t doing anything inappropriate online. I am incensed, and I approached her about this. She claims there were many breaches of “tzniut” and she was just doing her job. I strongly disagree and would like to take the matter to the principal. Thoughts?
This apparently simple question is in point of fact quite complicated. In order to answer the question adequately, honestly, and with integrity we must
review the official religion Orthodox understanding of Jewish law,
answer the question asked, the Jewish view of entrapment and privacy,
explain what official religion Orthodox Judaism says about “modesty,” and
what Jews should do when the ethic of the human constructed Jewish street conflicts with the eternal ethic of God’s law
I. A review of the official religion Orthodox
understanding of Jewish law
Jewish law is a normative order of three tiers of laws/rules/norms: Toraitic or covenantal law, which is either Biblical law or Oral Torah formulations of Torah, which are the word of God even after the Five Books of Moses were complete [see Isaiah 2:3], Rabbinic legislation, and customary usage. When customs are universally observed, they become, like Rabbinic legislation which was accepted by all Israel, binding upon all Israel. [Maimonides, Introduction tio the Code]
Barring emergencies, [Mamrim 2:4], lower grade rules are invalid if and when they invalidate or conflict with higher grade norms. Specifically, man-made conventions, or customary usage, may not override covenant law. Although there are voices in the Jewish literary corpus that claim “that the custom of Israel may override law or is Torah,” these voices are almost always deviating from the Judaism of the Wrtiten and Oral Torah.
II. What is the Jewish view of entrapment and
The young lady’s teacher is aware of and is competent in decoding the Judaism of the Orthodox street; the teacher is sadly uninformed with regard to the actual details of textually framed and canonically recorded Orthodox Jewish law.
1. bBaba Batra 2b-3a speaks of heqeq re’iah, that there is a Jewish right to expect visual privacy and unwanted peeping is a violation of Jewish law. Similarly, internet spying for anything less than fiscal or physical security would be outlawed by Jewish law.
2. Leviticus 19:14 forbids the “placing a stumbling block before the blind,” which the Oral Law takes to mean doing an act that entices another to sin. [bMo’ed Qatan 17a, Safra Qedoshim 2:2] Therefore, an entrapment or police sting that entices some one with an inclination to do wrong to in fact act wrongly is itself a wrongful act. Secular law seeks to find guilt and the guilty; Torah law stresses the observance of Torah norms and the avoiding of wrongdoing.
3. When confronted with a sting or entrapment scenario, and one will not suffer legal penalty or risk punitive suffering, one is obliged to enform the target of the sting, as one may not stand idle when the blood/person of one’s fellow is vulnerable, exposed, or otherwise targeted. [Leviticus 19:16, bSanhedrin 73a, and Safra, Supra, that connects these two verses.
III. Explain what official religion Orthodox Judaism says about “modesty”
In pagan societies, the king is “highness,” the priest is “holiness” and modesty refers to the opiate of the masses who walk humbly for other humans who bereft of modesty speak in God’s voice. In Israel, Moses was the most modest of all people [Numbers 12:3] even though he was the greatest of all people. [Deuteronomy 34:10] Micah 6:8 speaks of actng humbly before God and, implicitly, defiantly before people who demand deference when cynically they are semantically only asking for respect.
It is profoundly immodest for men to tell women what for women is modest and what is not modest. Just as God asks Adam, “who told you [i.e., how do you know that] you are naked,” we have a rite to ask how any man or wman js endowed with the sacred intuition to determine what is by religious covenant rather than contived convention immodest. Unless a law is explicitly recorded in the Oral Torah, it may not override the Torah’s concern for human dignity [Kevod ha-beriyyot]. [bShabbat 19b, 81a, 94b] which may, according to Oral Torah law, override Torah law. Therefore, if a woman is wearing pants cut for women, it does not violate Jewish law [Deuteronomy 22:5, bNazir 59a, bMakkot 20b]. The claim that such attire is unacceptable on modesty grounds is itself both immodest and unacceptable on theological grounds because the claim is unsourced in the canon and violates the above cited norm regarding human dignity.
IV. What Jews should do when the ethic of the human constructed Jewish street conflicts with the eternal ethic of God’s law
When at a teacher’s meeting where I was a teacher of Hebrew in a Orthodox Girls High School, the faculty was reminded to strictly enforce the school modesty/social conformity conditioninh/dress code, that the young women’s skirt must hang below the knee, I asked the administrator in charge, “are you really sure you want me [an adult married man] to do this?”
When told by a Yeshiva principal that my son must grow long sideburns, because it is “halakhah,” I asked the principal for the Oral Torah source and was told “it is brought down [sic] in seforim [sacred books].” I told this administrator that unless he shows me the oral Torah source for this new addition to the student handbook, he now has a problem with me, because I am as an informed parent forbidding my son to comply with this rule of social conditioning. It is not the job of the school to override the customs, practices, or religious standards of the parents whose children it is, it is his job to educate but not indoctrinate. The poor fellow seemed shocked that his call for signals of social piety be challenged. However, when social piety is presented as religious principle, a challenge is the principled and pious response.
Entrapment violates Torah law as well as human dignity; modesty rules are, when supported by street culture “tradition” rather than citation, euphemistically framed norms of social control that are presenyed as the word of God. In order to walk modestly before God, people must first walk and talk respectfully, honestly, and truthfully with each other.
You are right to be concerned. While the teacher may have found that there were breaches of tzniut (modesty), she had no way of knowing that ahead of time. In Judaism, we have a principle of “dan l’chaf z’chut” judging people towards the likelihood of their merit. Although the teacher surely meant well and was likely trying to protect her students from making mistakes that they might regret later, she was in the wrong to assume that there would be breaches that she could trick them into revealing by pretending to be someone else. Moreover, it is unclear why the teacher thought it would be her job (as opposed to a parent’s) to be policing such breaches.
Jewish law takes the notion of privacy exceptionally seriously. There are many commentaries emphasizing how very deeply the notion of privacy is embedded in Jewish society. Rashi comments on Numbers 24, verses 2 and 5, that the reason that Balaam, the gentile prophet praises Israel, “--"How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5), is specifically because in the verse just a few lines earlier, "Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes," what Balaam meant was —“He saw that their entrances did not face each other, so that one should not look into his neighbor's tent.” (Talmud Bava Batra, 60a, quoted by Rashi on commentary to verse 24:2).
The Talmud in Yoma declares that one should not disclose matters from even a casual conversation without explicit permission (Talmud Yoma 4b) and Rabbeinu Gershom (early 10th century) wrote a takkanah that “one should not read one’s friend’s letter,” which seems to me to apply to even media such as Facebook.
But even more explicitly related to our case, in the Mishnah (Bava Batra) there is a concept of “hezek r’ayah” – damage caused by looking - more idiomatically, "invasion of privacy" - which forbids a person to, for example, open a door across from a door or a window across from a window. Creating a casual way of glancing in at others’ lives that they might not wish you to see is, itself, a breach of tzniut.
While Judaism does view the teacher as a very important person in a student’s life – one who helps mold the soul of the student, and so is, in some ways, as important as a parent, I would suggest that it might be appropriate for the principle to discuss with the teacher whether she should be monitoring students out of school, and what an appropriate relationship with the students might be. Certainly if the teacher has concerns about what is going on between the students – mean girl behavior, for example, or posting inappropriate pictures of themselves, the teacher should speak to the parents about her concerns. She should not however, pose as someone she is not in order to spy on her students.
Let’s see…a teacher poses as a teenaged girl in order to electronically “friend” her students online and gain access to a window on their extracurricular relationships and activities? This is a teacher who understands neither the meaning of nor, apparently, the need for, appropriate professional boundaries; let alone, as my esteemed colleagues have pointed out, the true meaning of tzniut, or modesty. Run, don’t walk, to the principal’s office.
As a rabbi on Facebook, I have chosen not to initiate “friend” requests with children, out of concern that they might feel obligated to accept my request. (I do accept friend requests from students.) This teacher may have removed the danger of coercion by disguising her identity (presumably, her students chose willingly to accept a “friend” request from this fictional teenager, which raises a whole different issue, which I will address in a moment), but on the other hand, she has entered into these online relationships with minors under false pretenses. If I were her principal, I’d be concerned about a lawsuit.
I would, as a parent or the principal, want to know more about this teacher’s claim that “there were many breaches of tzniut.” Where? In the classroom? Outside of school? Documented? Or only alleged? If she has witnessed or has credible evidence of a violation of Jewish law and appropriate behavior during the school day, addressing it may fall under the legitimate purview of this teacher, but I cannot imagine any scenario in which she needs to or ought to resort to Facebook in order to do so.
Finally, I’m extremely concerned about whether this teacher’s ploy was effective—that is, did she get her students to “friend” her online, underage avatar? If so, the education of these students has been woefully neglected as regards online safety and security. Young internet users face so many online dangers these days—from bullying and shaming to identity theft and contact with pedophiles or other criminals. I should hope parents (and teachers) would not consider allowing their children to “surf” those treacherous waters without intentional and careful instruction.
This is a Jewish value. In Kiddushin 29a we learn that in addition to teaching our children Torah and a trade or skill for earning their keep, we must teach our children to swim. In other words, we are required by Jewish tradition to equip our kids with what they need to know in order to survive in the world. We teach our children not to accept candy from strangers or to get in cars with strangers; now we must teach them not to accept “friend” requests from strangers, and to protect their online identities: a challenging but essential and sacred task in our fast-moving, ever more connected world. I sincerely wish you, and all of us, future success in this endeavor.
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