Finding a Right to Privacy in Halakhah

Over the past year, controversies concerning the collection of user data by Facebook and other websites have raised questions concerning the preservation of privacy in the digital age. The increasing ubiquity of security cameras and the advent of the so-called Internet of Things—systems that allow household appliances, doors, heating systems, and so forth to be controlled by laptop and cell phone—pose even greater privacy concerns. Examining traditional Jewish law, or halakhah, for a concept of the right to privacy, Aviad Hacohen and Gabi Siboni suggest that secular Israeli law could learn from it in dealing with these challenges:

The ban on infringing upon a person’s privacy is specifically mentioned in Jewish law in many contexts. . . . For example, the Mishnah states, “A person must not create an opening [in his own house] opposite an opening [in his neighbor’s], or a window opposite a window. If his opening or window is small, he must not make it larger. If there is one opening, he must not turn it into two openings.” . . . In his commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir explains that the ban on creating a new opening opposite the opening to his neighbor’s yard (or even a yard shared by both of them) is designed to prevent damage caused by looking into another person’s property; that is, infringement on another person’s privacy.

[The contemporary scholar] Eliyahu Lifshitz explains that the Mishnah shows that damage to privacy caused by opening a window opposite a shared yard is relative and not absolute damage. For this reason, there is no requirement to conceal an existing window, even a large one; it is merely forbidden to create a new window or enlarge an existing one. If the window existed even before the neighbors moved in, they cannot force the window-owner to change his situation; rather, they must take their own measures to prevent the infringement of their privacy. . . .

Jewish law took a more significant step in protecting a person’s privacy regarding personal documents—such as medical records, letters, and, nowadays, material stored on a personal computer—based on a ruling by Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, the greatest Jewish sage in Germany in the 10th century. Among other things, he enacted a ban against any person who reads someone else’s letters without permission, since doing so invades the letter-writer’s privacy. . . .

The general prohibition against infringing upon privacy as well as the specific prohibition against accessing another’s records without that person’s explicit consent are therefore deeply rooted in Jewish law. Accelerated technological development, the weaknesses of cyberspace, and difficulties in security pose new and exciting challenges to Jewish law concerning the application of ancient principles to our times—pouring the fine old wine of Jewish law into the new container of the legal system in Israel, whose values are both Jewish and democratic.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Facebook, Halakhah, Israeli law, Law, Rashbam, Technology


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount