Shabbat Balak 5773

Does Jewish law sanction Big Brother?

In light of allegations made by the NSA whistle blower, Edward Snowden, that personal electronic communications are subject to government surveillance, halakhic experts have weighed in on the issue of privacy in Jewish law and ethics. One such expert is Rabbi David Golinkin, in his columnResponsa in a Moment. You can find the complete essay here, but I’ll emphasize the key arguments below.

On one hand, Jewish law has protected private communications for nearly a millennium, even to the point that failure to respect the privacy of correspondences could lead to herem, excommunication of the violator of privacy. 

On the other hand, the precedents cited in support of privacy come from an era of a different form of communication that we use today. Are there different expectations of privacy when using electronic communication than when we wrote and sealed letters?

What’s more, one has to determine the motivation for ignoring the principle of privacy. If that motivation is pikuah nefesh, life-saving measures, would we apply the law and its principles differently?

We’ll look at Rabbi Golinkin’s essay together on Shabbat morning, and we’ll also look at part of the prophet Bil’am’s poetry from our Torah portion, which touches on the principle of privacy.  

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi David Wise