One for the great social revolutions that have marked the beginning of the 21st Century is the drastic shift in the parameters of privacy. Alongside the great benefits that mass data and communications we have also seen a revolution in the field of privacy to the extent that some believe that “even if privacy is not dead yet, it is surely on life support,” Questions of privacy are not limited to governments and businesses but pertain to every aspect of our lives. The sharing of personal information on social networks, our increased ability to be publically expressive about our personal lives, and the overwhelming amount of information available to the public, challenge privacy in every aspect of our lives.
As contemporary ethicists and legal experts ponder whether privacy is a right, value, both, or neither, one is left wondering what Judaism’s outlook is on this matter. Does Jewish law protect of value an individual’s right to privacy? Is privacy an ideal ethic? Does the Torah want us to live our lives behind opaque walls or is a transparent and exemplary life perhaps the ideal one.
The Talmud (Berakhot 28b) tells us that when Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was on his deathbed and his students asked him to bless them, he said “may your fear of God be as great as your fear of man,” His students, shocked by this demeaning statement, expressed their surprise with this statement, which seems to compare the reverence one must have for God to the reverence one should have for flesh and blood. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai reaffirmed his statement and told them “indeed, may this be the case, for when one sins he usually says ‘let it be that no person should see me now.’”
These sharp words are a powerful expression of man’s fear of humiliation by peers and friends; they also show the great impact public transparency might have on preventing one from sinning and other inappropriate conduct.
This notion lends itself to support increased transparency, public accessibility to data and information, and the maximization of publicity even in private aspects of our lives.
However, we must bear in mind that the decision as to whether certain information should be public or not belongs to none other than the person who is the subject of that information – not to the public. The Talmud (Yoma 4b) tells us, based on a verse in the Torah that if one is given information by their friend – even casual information – one may not retell that information unless granted specific permission to do so.
Furthermore, the Talmud (Bava Batra 59b) says that a person cannot build a window that looks into another’s private dwellings, as this would render the dwelling less livable; the person whose privacy is being violated thus has a right to block a neighbor’s construction that diminishes the livability of his or her home. Clearly, one cannot share information that was entrusted to them without permission of the person who gave them the information. Needless to say, if that information can cause damage, embarrassment, or strain good relations it cannot be made public, as this violates the severe prohibition of Lashon Hara or Rekhilut.
This leaves us with a most pertinent question that so many young people struggle with on a daily basis – “to share or not to share?”. While sharing information about others is clearly prohibited, we must wonder to what extent to which we can or should share information about ourselves. After all, we have ownership over information about ourselves and if we so wish we can share, be it on Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform. How much sharing is appropriate, and what limits on sharing might exist?
There is no question that online sharing today is the new form of social interaction. Our friends are more and more likely to be those with whom we interact online, and even family interactions have shifted greatly towards the web. Not sharing is no longer much of an option; the question, rather, is what to share. The Torah tells us that when Bilam saw the Jewish people’s encampment he said “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov– how goodly are thy tents o Jacob your dwellings o Israel”(Bamidbar 24:5). He said this after noticing that the windows of the Jewish people were constructed in a way that did not violate each other’s privacy. Furthermore, the prophet tells us (Micha 6:8) “It has been told to you what is good, and what Hashem asks of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Hashem you G-d”. Tzeniut and humility have always been central values to spiritual well being and growth; intimacy and exposure were always properly relegated to the realm of personal and close relationships. Certainly, as cultural norms have changed and it is normal and acceptable to use social media to share certain information about ourselves publically, we need not refrain rom doing so. At the same time, however, we must not allow this to compromise our dignity and inner world we hold so sacred.
To share or not to share – that is today’s burning question. As with many others things, the answer is that yes, one may share, although it must be with caution, discernment, and wisdom. As we progress with the recognition of social media as a platform that replaces or at least enhances our basic social interactions, we must learn to wisely discern between what can be public and what ought to remain private. We must not allow our eagerness to share parts of our lives with others to compromise the fundamental values of humility and modesty, and the capacity for a rich, meaningful, and robust inner life.
The words of Torah in this article are dedicated in loving memory of Alexander Neuhaus-Yochanan Zelig ben Pesya– who was taken from us suddenly and tragically at the age of ten. His memory will always be with us and his smile will not be forgotten.
 There is discussion as to whether this qualifies as a lav or not. Acharonim further discuss whether this prohibition falls into the category of prohibitions pertaining to lashon hara or not (see Chafetz Chaim, Kelal 2, footnote 27). Another topic discussed by the Acharonim in light of this prohibition is whether one is permitted to record a conversation without that person’s knowledge (see Mishneh Halakhot 7th volume siman 273).