Eighteen hundred years ago Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi taught:
What is the proper path a person should choose for himself… Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in the Book.
(Ethics of the Fathers 2:1)
While this is stating the obvious for believing Jews and Christians, for non-believers it’s an absurdity. At least it was an absurdity till one or two decades ago. Now it’s no longer a declaration of piety, but rather a statement of fact. With the proliferation of security cameras, there are eyes all over the streets, inside buildings, elevators, buses… All watched, all recorded in the book.
We think our private electronic communications are hidden from prying eyes, but anybody who has anything to do with Sony Pictures has discovered otherwise. Supposedly hidden personal emails, cel phone numbers, salaries, social insurance numbers have been placed out in the open, where an irresponsible press has gone on a feeding frenzy, publishing any private embarrassing material they come across.
Anybody who uses Facebook should know the perils. Many companies demand that potential employees hand over their Facebook passwords, so they can scrutinize their personal behavior and beliefs. Many have lost their jobs over Facebook comments.
Search engines record everything you look for, so they can target you better with ads. Google reads all emails on its servers, including every single Gmail document. The company considers that users have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
Although such snooping was part of the mandate of the American National Security Administration, people were still stunned as to how much personal information the NSA gathered. But with simple, off-the-shelf technology and a six thousand dollar drone, any interested eavesdropper can listen to your phone calls, break into your Wi-Fi network, and peruse anything there. Everything is recorded in the book, and the book is open.
In his nineteen forty-eight dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell described a world where the government watched everything a
person said or did. “Big Brother is Watching You” was written as a warning, but has ended up as a model. What is perhaps most disturbing is that people have become complacent about it. We traded our privacy, our personal space, for the ability to instantly disseminate videos of cats.
We’re not likely to get rid of Big brother in the near future; cute videos are a big part of our lives. Instant business and personal correspondence have become too important. Our friendships with people we’ll never meet take up a big part of our lives.
Digitial technology has the ability to instantly record and store everything its eyes and ears pick up. And they’re picking up more and more every day. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s concept of everything being recorded in the book is no longer scientifically absurd; humans have the technology to do it. If there’s an omniscient God, It dwarfs humanity’s abilities in this field.
Another Rabbinic teaching offers a potential solution:
A fence for wisdom is silence.
(Ethics of the Fathers 3:17)
When you choose to speak, when you choose your path of action, do so in a way that you won’t be embarrassed if it turns out you are being recorded in the book— whether by the NSA, Google, or God.