The Loss of Privacy and How We Can Bring it Back into Our Lives

For many reasons, I generally try to vary these columns, certainly not repeating a subject or topic from one week to another. However, this week something was brought to my attention that caused me to break a rule. So, with apologies to my kind readers, please allow me to briefly go back a bit.

Last week, we discussed some of the evil effects of the internet and smartphones and the positive effect Torah Jewry has hopefully had in diminishing their negative influence. Someone sent me a copy of the front page of last week’s New York Times Sunday Review, which corroborated my piece in the Yated. The author, an expert on this subject, announced in her very first sentence that “social media is broken. It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other… Facebook and Twitter are slowly imploding…and we need to think about what the future will be like after social media so we can prepare for what comes next.”

The author “went on a quest” to ascertain what this future might look like by speaking to many professionals in the field. Although I agree that the answer is not pretty, I disagree about one of the worst results of the internet and smartphones. AnnaLee Newwitz claims that “collectively, they gave me a glimpse of a future where the greatest tragedy is not the loss of our privacy. It is the loss of an open public sphere.” Although she admits at the end of her piece that “we’ll have to carve out genuinely private spaces too,” she concludes that the disastrous loss of our privacy is not too great a price to pay for the great benefits of social media.  

I beg to differ. Even an astute observer such as this author and her army of media experts cannot seem to understand the true catastrophe of our loss of privacy. Let us listen to the sounds of our eternal Torah on the importance of solitude, occasional isolation and privacy, and we will instantly realize how much we have lost. This subject must always begin with the famous words of Bilam as he marveled at the dwellings of Am Yisroel in the desert: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov – How goodly are your tents O Yaakov” (Bamidbar 24:5). Rashi famously comments that Bilam “saw that the Jewish tents did not have their doors facing each other.”

Meforshim over the centuries (see Siddur Tzelosa D’Avrohom) have expressed surprise that we begin our daily prayers with the words of this enemy of our people. One of the explanations is clearly that every single day we remind ourselves that one of our primary traits as a nation is our cherished privacy, even if the rest of the world has completely abandoned any semblance of limitations in this area. I am not even speaking of the horrendous loss of any tznius or basic human modesty. That was lost to the world at large long ago. However, even the sense of personal space has been abandoned with the recent descent into the inferno of social media. People who had hitherto maintained some aspects of privacy suddenly seem to have the need to broadcast every single inane and personal act to the world or least their immediate 5,000 or so intimate acquaintances.

To get some idea of how far we have sunk, please read with me a letter (Igros Pachad Yitzchok, page 309, No. 230) from my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, to a student: “I remember once being present when one of the gedolei hador received a postcard in the mail with divrei Torah. That great rov was extremely upset at the sender of the card, claiming that sending Torah using such a venue was equivalent to leaving a Sefer Torah uncovered and in effect naked. The beautification of divrei Torah requires that they be sent in an envelope… For this reason, I didn’t send you a telegram with blessings upon your recent wedding. It would have been strange to me to send you brachos in a sack, which would be like giving you blessings in the street. The least that I could do to establish the intimacy of a brocha is to put it into an envelope.”

Rav Hutner then references the Gemara (Taanis 8a), which declares that “a brocha does not have an effect unless it is shielded from the human eye.”

How far we have come from that ideal! Yet, when my rebbi had just begun to become known and the house was often full of gedolei Yisroel, he made sure that “my public neshomah should not overwhelm my personal soul” (Sefer Hazikaron Pachad Yitzchok, page 33). He therefore made sure that “the privacy of the home should never be swallowed up” by his public self.

This is what we are in danger of losing with the proliferation of the so-called social media of our day. The institution of “selfies” and other immediate records of every event and moment of our lives erase any possibility of keeping personal matters behind closed doors. One wonders if even the evil Bilam would want to send pictures of himself to every person he had ever met.

Now, I am well aware that there were very great gedolim who sent and encouraged post cards with divrei Torah. One of these was Rav Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon, but he was said to prefer postcards because of the “bittul Torah,” or waste of time, involved in opening envelopes. This is certainly not a consideration for most of us, and perhaps in the age of social media, we would do well to institute as many safeguards of our sense of privacy as possible.

Although photography has been available for about two centuries, what is new is the ability to immediately send them anywhere in a moment of impetuous folly and indiscretion. What is missing, as well, is a healthy dose of Rav Yechezkel Sarna’s wisdom. He would often quote the posuk which states, “Whatever sho’ala eini I did not deny them” (Koheles 2:10). Rav Sarna asked: Why didn’t Shlomo Hamelech simply say “whatever my eye saw”? Why use the term shoel, which means to ask?

He answers that Shlomo Hamelech, in doing an “experiment” (see Koheles 2:1) with the proper limits of materialism, stopped to ask before each new acquisition. Whom did he ask? The answer applies to every one of us. He made sure that his spontaneous and impetuous side asked his own intellectual side if what he was doing made sense. In other words, Rav Sarna taught us to follow Shlomo Hamelech’s lead to stop and think before we act.

Today’s devices and social media encourage and ensnare us into wreaking irreparable damage before we even have a moment to consider the foolishness of it all. I do not have a smartphone, but one doesn’t have to be very smart to overhear countless people bemoaning that they just sent something to somebody – or many bodies – who shouldn’t have received it. This is just another casualty in the slow and painful murder of privacy and irrevocable witlessness.

The Pnei Menachem of Gur (TazriaMetzora, page 116) notes that tznius, modesty, is not limited to how one dresses. He points out that Shaul Hamelech inherited his ancestor Rochel Imeinu’s middah of silence and passed it along to Queen Esther. Her tznius (see also Pachad Yitzchok, Purim, Kuntres Reshimos 6), in turn, saved Klal Yisroel. He explains that although the power of speech is the very definition of mankind, knowing when to speak and when to be silent can be either life-saving or destructive in the extreme.

We can extrapolate from this bit of wisdom that unrestricted exposure of one’s words, deeds and these days images of a personal nature can only be personally destructive and nationally disastrous.

Perhaps we may find echoes of the rebbe’s approach in the words of his grandfather, the Sefas Emes (Ki Sisa 5639). He raises an interesting question about the two sets of Luchos that Klal Yisroel received. The first was given amidst lightning and thunder with great fanfare, but the second was given quietly, in relative secrecy. Rashi (Shemos 34:3) comments that there is nothing as wonderful as tznius. The Sefas Emes thereupon asks: Why, then, weren’t the first Luchos also given in this way? He answers that Klal Yisroel were originally comprised of great tzaddikim who were capable of changing the entire world, bringing everyone closer to Hashem and His will for the universe. However, after Amaleik infected us with his venom and lowered our own standards, we had to take a lower profile and concentrate on our internal growth and sanctity so that we would not become influenced by society at large.

We, who are battling against an overwhelmingly alien culture, having already been wounded ourselves by the prevailing winds of immodesty and chaos in the world, would certainly do well to heed the Sefas Emes. This is a time to eschew and totally reject any incursion into the tents of Klal Yisroel. We should be careful to ensure that our simchos not become garish concerts in disguise or opportunities for videos to be broadcast to the wider world. This should be a time when we teach by example, through a sense of absolute privacy and modesty in our demeanor, music and actions. Just as we have hopefully had some influence on the world in rejecting the evils of technology, perhaps we can do so for the all-important human need for privacy as well.