What do the tents in an ancient Israelite encampment have to do with the question of whether the U.S. government should be peering into the phone and Internet records of hundreds of millions of Americans?
Or to put it another way, are there any spiritual and religious roots to the notion of personal and household privacy?
To start from Torah: Many Jewish prayer services begin with a quotation from a non-Jewish shaman, himself quoted in the Torah portion that is read this week: Parshah Balak, Numbers 22: 2 to 24: 25.
King Balak hired an expert curse-hurler, Balaam, to curse the Israelite people who were swarming across the wilderness after their liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. But Balaam tuned in to a spirit-channel that insisted that the Israelites, in their commitment to YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, must be blessed rather than cursed.
So as Balaam gazed down upon the Jewish encampment, he proclaimed, “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!” When the rabbis of Talmud read this story, they asked what was so “goodly” about the tents, and answered that the doors of the individual tents did not face each other. So no family could see into another family’s tent. Each household protected its own privacy.
The ancient rabbis lived under the boot of the Roman Empire, which had a spy system to penetrate any possible bands of dissidents. So perhaps they also saw that King Balak wanted the Israelites cursed because he was disturbed by this household privacy: How dare these people keep secrets from the king?!
But Balaam saw that privacy was “goodly” because it was attuned to the uniqueness of each person. Here, too, the ancient rabbis knew how uniqueness was threatened.
Now let’s jump to the year 1761 of the Common Era, in the town of Boston on the edges of the British Empire. British law provided for the Crown to issue a “writ of assistance,” a general search warrant that had no particular allegations of criminal activity, did not need to specify a particular individual or particular places or effects to be searched, and had no end date.
Once a writ of assistance was issued, no subject of the king had privacy.
Not so fast, said the people of Boston and the other colonies. They rebelled against the writs.
They won. And after they agreed on a new Constitution, some among them wanted to make sure no central government could act like a king.
They insisted on adding to the Constitution the Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.
Now here we are, two centuries later, and the king — even one who said he would support the Bill of Rights against his predecessor’s invasions — is claiming it is all right to scoop up all the data about whom I am phoning, and who is phoning me.
Is this harmless because it doesn’t include the actual words inside the call or email? That’s life under King Balak. Or King George III. Or King George W. Or, even, King Barack.
What shall we do?
Back to the deeper wisdom of the Bible: The blessing Balaam called out has two more words in it: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkanotecha Yisrael — How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your ‘mishkans,’ Yisrael!”
What is a mishkan? It is an inner shrine for the Divine Presence. And Yisrael is the same person/peoplehood as Jacob, who struggled to dominate his brother. But Yisrael has undertaken the deeper spiritual struggle to achieve a higher consciousness. So each household, each mishkan, is protecting its own integrity from outside invasion while growing its own unique truth within.
To face those rulers who want to use computers to serve Big Brother, each of us in our own mishkan breathes a unique breath that goes forth into the world. We shape our breath into words we breathe with each other, a chorus of ‘Yes’ that to Big Brother says ‘No.’
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the author of several books, is director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org ).