A terribly disturbing scandal occurred this week that generated varying reactions. A number of celebrities who saved highly personal pictures in a storage cloud were hacked and their revealing pictures were leaked online. When the FBI catches those responsible, they could face hundreds of years in prison for the crimes they committed and the damage they caused the victims.
Some were terribly disturbed by the unavoidable realization that we are all so vulnerable. This egregious crime occurred to high-profile celebrities, but one cannot help but recognize that when any of us embraces technology and implement it in our personal lives, we assume the great risk of intruders, thieves, and hackers violating our finances, our relationships, our privacy and our most personal pictures and information. It is terribly disheartening and even frightening to accept that once we upload something about us anywhere on the Internet, no matter how many passwords or firewalls are in place, we have potentially just shared it with the public.
This scandal provoked a fascinating debate with some commentators pointing fingers not only at the perpetrators, but also at the victims for uploading such private and intimate pictures in the first place. How foolhardy and reckless to take unnecessary risks, some argue, like walking alone at night in an unsafe neighborhood, or leaving valuables visible in your car essentially tempting criminals to harm you. Certainly the perpetrator bears the sole responsibility for the crime and must be held accountable, but the victim is not entirely free from criticism when he or she takes unnecessary risks with known dangers. Why would celebrities, male or female, or anyone for that matter, upload photos of themselves exposed, thereby also exposing themselves to the high risk of being hacked?
With all the reactions and discussions that have ensued, one of the important conversations that I believe must take place is about the boundaries and limits of how we use technology. As a community that is committed to the values of appropriateness and modesty, is it ever acceptable to take a racy selfie, even if it is never uploaded anywhere?
Don’t get me wrong; Judaism is not a prudish or puritan religion. The pursuit of pleasure in intimacy in the appropriate context is not only tolerated, but is a mitzvah and indeed a marital obligation.
However, intimacy is achieved, according to our Torah, by experiencing something privately, confidentially, in a reserved and modest way that is inaccessible and unshared with others. While taking an immodest picture with no intent to share it widely might seem innocuous and benign, I would argue that in fact it is harmful, for it devalues and cheapens one of our greatest commodities we have, our self-respect. Intimacy quickly becomes indecency when it is recorded or captured.
Our parsha, Ki Seitzei, teaches “V’haya machanecha kadosh, and your encampment should be holy.” While the verse regulates conduct on an army base, our Rabbis expansively interpret the pasuk to be a directive for every Jewish home and community, challenging us to live with modesty and sanctity.
Please God, we will never be hacked and our private information will never be shared. But if we were, are we proud of what the public would learn about us? I am not referring to our financial data, but rather to our online viewing history, our pictures, the sentiments and language in our email and text message conversations and the record of how we truly used our time.
If the thought of someone seeing those things makes us blush, squirm, be filled with regret, anxiety or fear,* then realize that without being hacked, someone already does have access to all of our private information, both in the online cloud and down here on earth.
“Histakeil b’shelosha devarim v’ein atah bah liydei aveira: dah mah l’maaleh mimecha, ayin ro’eh, v’ozen shoma’as, v’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nichtavin.” In Pirkei Avos our Rabbis teach: “Look at three things and you will avoid misbehaviors – know who is above you, an eye is watching, an ear is listening and all of your actions are being recorded.”
During the beginning of the twentieth century, as the world was experiencing a technological revolution, the Chafetz Chaim wrote in his Shem Olam that we can learn valuable lessons from all the new inventions. Concerning the camera, he wrote that it enables us to palpably see that the Mishna’s warning of “ayin ro’eh, an eye is watching,” is not just a metaphor, but a tangible reality.
Learning that some celebrities were hacked and their personal pictures shared, many were filled with regret for things that they had uploaded or looked at and wished that they could somehow erase the history or take the information down. Sadly, the reality of technology is such that once something has entered the online world, it can never be fully removed or erased.
The same is not true when it comes to the eye our Rabbis described that watches from above and records all of our actions. With His boundless mercy, the Ribono Shelo Olam, the Master of the Universe, enabled and empowered every one of us to spiritually edit our online and offline histories by simply engaging in the sincere process of teshuva. Recognizing our mistakes, regretting them, and genuinely committing not to repeat them purges the indiscretions from our past and deletes them from our record permanently.
Rosh Hashana is rapidly approaching and the three books will be open before the Almighty. We have less than three weeks to get busy editing our personal history from this past year so that when it gets revealed before the Heavenly court we can be proud of all that it contains.
*For those struggling with looking at inappropriate material on the Internet, https://guardyoureyes.com/index.php is an excellent resource for help and support.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.