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Parashat Balak: A Timeless Lesson About Respecting Privacy

What is the connection between the weekly Torah portion of Balak and the right to privacy? Stay tuned. I’ll get back to my question in a moment.

We live in an age of lack of privacy. Google, Amazon, Facebook: They track everything that we do and everything that we buy and everything that we say. Cameras film us at shopping malls, at airports, throughout the city. Hackers steal our personal information and our credit card particulars.

Many governments perform secret surveillance on their own citizens.

We are entertained by programs such as Big Brother, which has been on television since 1999… 448 seasons in 54 countries. And we also tuned into televised trials, show trials beginning with Ted Bundy in 1979, a serial killer. The Menendez brothers, 1993-94.

O.J. Simpson in 1995. At that time, 82 percent of the American public said that they were going to follow the trial. 2011 Casey Anthony accused of the death of her two-year-old daughter, Kaylee.

And then of course there are the gossip columnists and People magazine founded in 1974, whose main purpose is to tell us about the private lives of celebrities. And then of course there are paparazzi.

How is all of this justified?

Much of it is justified by the people’s right to know, yet there is no such right to know in Jewish law. In Jewish law we do not have a right to know about people’s private lives. Judaism believes that every human being has the right to privacy and confidentiality unless he or she waives that right and allows someone to enter his home or to reveal her secret.

There are a number of principles in Jewish law related to this topic and I will only deal with one today because it’s directly based on a verse from our parasha and that is the principle of visual privacy.

The Torah clearly shows great respect for visual privacy. We all know the story in Genesis, chapter 3, “and the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened up and they knew that they were naked and they wove fig leaves and they made out of them belts or clothing in order to cover up their private parts.”

A few chapters later in Genesis, chapter 9 we read the story of the drunkenness of Noah and of course you know that Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of Noah and told his brothers. They took a cloak, they put it on their shoulders, they walked backwards and they covered up the nakedness of their father, and their faces were the other way so that they would not see the nakedness of their father.

We see from those of these stories that already in the Torah the idea of visual privacy is very important. But the Mishnah and the Talmud turned this into the principle of visual privacy.

We learn in the Mishnah in the tractate Bava Batra, chapter 3, that if you have a shared courtyard, you do not open one door opposite another door or one window opposite another window so that the neighbors should not look into each other’s doors or each other’s windows.

The Gemara asks, as it usually does, on what verse is this based? And it quotes the following verse from our portion: And Bilaam lifted up his eyes and he saw the Jewish people sitting according to their tribes. What did he see? He saw that the gates of their tents were not facing each other.

Rashi explains this is why he said, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel,”

because he saw that the tents were set up in such a way that they would not look into each other’s homes.

And then Bilaam says, according to this midrash, these people are worthy that God’s presence should dwell amongst them. In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe Isserless adds: You may not stand in your window and look into your neighbor’s courtyard, that you should not harm him by gazing. And that is prohibited.

And similarly, again in the Shulchan Aruch, it says that if one of the partners in a courtyard wants to open up a window into his friend’s courtyard, the partner in that courtyard can stop him. And if he opens up that window, the friend can close that window.

So we see here a very basic principle of Jewish law and Jewish privacy which is visual privacy. it is not in our power to undo all of the wonders of modern technology and the fact that so many people can watch and listen to so many other people.

We should bear in mind, however, the principles of Jewish law regarding privacy and remember the verse, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Shavua Tov from Schechter.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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