INDIVIDUAL PRIVACYWhen conversing, if we don't want the person with whom we are talking to repeat what we say to a third party, we tell the person: 'it's a secret'. The underlying assumption of our society would seem to be that what we say is really part of the public domain unless we clearly define it and describe it as private. From the words of T.B. Yoma 4b, though, it seems that the Torah actually values the opposite assumption. From its analysis of Vayikra 1:1,1 the gemara concludes that one should not repeat what one hears from another unless given permission. The underlying assumption would seem to be that what we say should really be seen as part of the private domain unless we, specifically those speaking, define it and describe it as public.
This rule is actually not so concrete. Chafetz Chaim, Hilchot Loshon Harah, Be'er Mayim Chaim 2:26 states that the gemara does not mean to create an absolute prohibition to repeat what one hears from another without permission.2 Circumstances matter. In the case of this verse, God called Moshe into the Ohel Moed to speak to him in private;3 there is thus reason to assume that the words of the conversation are private. It is only in such circumstances, when one could reasonably assume that there is an interest in privacy, that one should refrain from repeating a conversation to a third party. When it can be reasonably assumed that a conversation is not private and that the one speaking has no problem with his/her words being repeated, there is indeed no problem in doing so even without specific permission. The call of the gemara is not to see everything as private even when there is no indication of it - as is the case with most conversations. The call of the gemara , though, is for sensitivity to this concept of privacy. The underlying assumption of our world would seem to be that everything is open and public unless steps are taken to demarcate the self and privacy. The assumption of this gemara would seem to be that we should first recognize individual space and, only after ensuring that, can information be deemed public.
The greater issue would be how we view information about others in general. Do we have a right to know everything, to be then limited only when necessary? Or are we to recognize a significant right of privacy that limits this desire to know, a right only to be set aside when necessary? The issue is not really whether information is private or public. The issue is rather this sensitivity to privacy. When we assume that anything we hear can be repeated unless we are specifically told that it is a secret, that all information is open to the public, our perception of the other as a private, distinct individual is lessened. We do not naturally see the other as a unique, separate human being but simply as part of generic humanity and the environment. Privacy is a call not to see another as just simply an other, part of the universal enterprise of life. Privacy demands of us to perceive another individual as a separate and singular entity. This other person is not just an element of my world. This other person is an entire, distinct world of his/her own.
This is the tension we encounter when we confront the issue of privacy and knowledge. Broad knowledge is generic; information can ignore individuality. When we indiscriminately wish to share a person's information with others, the distinction of the individual is lost. What remains is the skeleton of the generic human being. This information may, of course, still have value - and it is indeed such information which we can share without limitation when there is no issue of privacy. In stating that for the most part what we say in conversation with another we can share, we are actually stating that we are recognizing the generic aspects of human life in all of us and are thus open to sharing such information with all. Sensitivity to privacy, though, makes us realize that all the information regarding another person, however, is not of this nature. We are not solely talking about another generic member of humanity. We are talking about a distinct human being with a life all his/her own. Such a person is not just an object within my world existence. Such a person is a subject in his/her own right. Any information within a conversation may thus be unique within the existence of this unique world of this individual. It may not only be improper to share such information but, in reality, it may really be impossible. If we convey that a person did an action, it is not simply that another person did this. We must recognize that this unique, psychological being undertook this action. This may not be for generic distribution. This recognition must always be part of our consciousness.
This is the real distinction in approach between a society that fosters the sharing of a conversation with another unless it is labeled a secret and one that cautions against this sharing. With the former, the underlying focus of existence is generic humanity. The basic assumption in life is that we are all the same and only when the distinctive nature of our uniqueness is articulated - through a statement such as 'this is a secret' - do we consider our separate individuality. With the latter, the underlying focus, though, is the uniqueness of each individual. The basic assumption is that we are all different and our question, rather, regards similarity. The question is, rather, why the matter may be generic and thus open to be shared. .
This is an idea that I believe permeates the Torah view of humanity. There is a generic aspect to our identity; in many ways, we are similar human beings. Within this realm, there is much we can learn in the sharing of information. There is, however, a great distinction between us; we are also unique individuals.4 This must be an important part of our consciousness in many respects. When Hashem called Moshe to speak to him in private, the concern was actually the listener's privacy. Moshe's concern in not repeating the words without permission was whether they were meant for him alone. It was a self-awareness of his own individuality. Words that are spoken reflect upon the unique individuality of both in the conversation, the one speaking and the one listening, albeit that they may also contain aspects of the generic. The Torah's call is for us to constantly be aware of this.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 As the gemara derives this idea from the word leimor [saying], which is found in numerous verses in the Torah in the same context, the commentators question why the gemara specifically learns this idea from this verse. See, for example, Maharsha, Yoma 4b.who offers some insight into the distinction between the commands at Sinai and those that came afterwards.
2 Rather than defining the gemara 's statement as a clear halachic directive, the Chafetz Chaim offers the possibility that it may be more of a presentation on a worthwhile positive attribute to acquire. See, however, Semag, Lo Ta'aseh 9 which would seem to give the statement some halachic significance. The Chafetz Chaim's subsequent words regarding circumstances would seem to apply in either regard. .
3 This also answers the question posed in footnote 1.
4 See, also, Malbim, Bereishit 2:19.
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