‘Nothing is Secret from You’ – A Jewish Objection to Government Surveillance

Each day, in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, I read a small prayer authored by the 3rd century Babylonian sage Rav. In a discussion of what Jews need to say when we confess, Rav writes the following: Atah yodea razei olam, v’ta’alumot sitrei kol chai. Atah chofes kol chad’rei beten, u’vochen k’layot va’lev. Ein davar ne’lam mimecha, v’ein nistar mineged eineicha. “You know the mysteries of the universe and the deepest secrets of everyone alive. You probe our innermost depths; You examine our thoughts and feelings. Nothing escapes You; nothing is secret from You.”

This language is concerned with establishing only one thing – that God knows all.

When we talk about God in Judaism, we tend to think of God as both omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). However, the idea of God as omnipotent is relatively weak; we talk about God needing human help to accomplish the goals of Creation, we talk about covenant and we talk about the ongoing process of replacing chaos with order. But whereas omnipotence is somewhat flimsy in Jewish theology, omniscience is absolute.

Rabbi Akiva is famously quoted in Mishna Avot (3:15) as saying ha’kol tzafui v’reshut netuna. Literally, this means, “all is foreseen, but free will is granted nonetheless.” What Rabbi Akiva is affirming is God’s omniscience, and its relationship with our choices and actions.

It is not a coincidence that Rav connected confession to the words ‘nothing is secret from You.’ In Judaism, God’s omniscience creates an exclusive relationship between God and humanity as a whole and between God and an individual simultaneously. Because God is the only one from whom nothing is truly secret – there is a certain element of privacy in our relationship with God, almost confidentiality.

Judaism goes further than just establishing this exclusive relationship with God, and continues to make it clear that this secret-sharing relationship is not something that mortal rulers should have as well. Beginning with Deuteronomy, we start to see the Jewish tradition restrict the authority of human rulers. In Chapter 17, God concedes that the Israelites might mistakenly want to establish a king for themselves like all other nations. If in fact they insist on doing this, certain rules are given for that king: 1. He must be wise, 2. He must not be a foreigner, 3. He shall not have his own army, 4. He shall not invade another nation for an army, 5. He shall not make private alliances, 6. He shall not be privately wealthy, and 7. He shall base his decisions on the Torah.

Already, we can feel the suspicion with which mortal rulers are viewed. Kings are not to be trusted to have the people’s best interests in mind automatically – they must be restricted, they must be molded to consider the best interests of their subjects. They cannot accrue horses, wives, silver, or gold – all symbols of their personal power. In order for a King to be effective, he must be limited – that much is clear.

We see more of this distrust in the interactions between many of the prophets and the kings and queens of Israel. We also get explicit injunctions not to trust mortal authorities in places like Psalm 146, where it says: “Do not trust in princes, nor in any mortals, in whom there is no salvation.”

This distrust of human governmental authority continues into the rabbinic period where we read, “Avoid a close relationship with the government” and “Be careful in your interactions with the government because they draw people close only for their own needs…They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but do not stand with a person in their time of need.” (Mishnah Avot 2:3 and 1:10)

As halakha (Jewish law) continued to develop, this distrust of mortal authority became canonized – even in regards to civil litigation. The rabbis established the category of ‘hezek re’iyah’ or ‘damage-by-seeing’, which sets up a legal paradigm to prosecute someone for an invasion of privacy and surveillance without consent.

By now I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Following the attacks of September 11th, the Bush Administration authorized the National Security Agency to collect any and all communications of someone suspected of terror, as long as they were believed to be outside the United States. However, this did not prevent the surveillance of any US citizens these suspects might be communicating with. As a result, this loophole was exploited to allow for six years of illegal and invasive surveillance on American citizens with little or no tie to suspected terrorist activities. This warantless wiretapping was officially suspended in 2007, but in 2008 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court relaxed the regulations again, allowing for the redevelopment of legal loopholes permitting warantless surveillance of American citizens. This new effort to spy on American citizens was codenamed PRISM and moved behind closed doors and away from oversight at the NSA.

Judaism teaches us that our relationship with God is special because God is the only one who knows all secrets. Additionally, our relationship with human authorities should be restricted, their powers limited, our trust in them not given easily, and their abuses against us prosecuted.

Each day, when Jews confess our sins, when we recite, ‘Nothing escapes You; Nothing is secret from You.’ – we cannot help but think of the abuses of personal privacy that Americans are suffering at the hands of their government. To a Judaism that affirms our private connection with divinity and our distance from government, the revelations about warantless surveillance of Americans are a violation not only of our political rights of also of our spiritual ideals.

We should be outraged to discover that our government seeks to replace God, to be the one who ‘knows the mysteries of the universe and the deepest secrets of everyone alive.’ We should be outraged not only because this directly violates the Fourth Amendment and our rights as Americans, but also because it directly violates the conception of our exclusive and private connection with God as the one and only knower-of-secrets.

Both God and the American government cannot be omniscient. As a Jew, I believe that the power to know all secrets is one reserved for divinity, and one that needs to be restricted from humanity. As a Jew, I must consider that between divine authority and human authority – I recognize the divine. As a Jew, I must daily confess my sins not because I am disclosing them but because I am renewing my conviction that God is the one with whom I have a private relationship. As a Jew, I affirm that there is only one knower-of-secrets, and my tradition and my freedom are both at stake when I allow a mortal authority to subsume God’s role as the omniscient One.

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8 thoughts on “‘Nothing is Secret from You’ – A Jewish Objection to Government Surveillance

  1. I’m just as upset about the wanton surveillance by the government as most people, but to argue that this displays a desire for omniscience by the US government really seems to embellish the degree to which the government is violating your privacy. Unless you’re disclosing your sins to God over the phone or e-mail, I just don’t understand how this encroaches on your personal relationship to God.

    1. That’s an excellent point – although I imagine these days many people’s transgressions against God are primarily displayed via phone and email (and Snapchat perhaps).

      My bigger issue is that in Judaism, the combination of the insistence that God is the exclusive knower-of-secrets and the teaching that government authority should be suspect, lead to a conclusion that the infringement of individual’s rights in a case like PRISM is more than a political issue– it’s a religious one too.

      I don’t think the NSA has as its goal omniscience in a religious sense. However, an authentic connection with God as omniscient precludes the possibility of endorsing government surveillance, and furthermore, I think it actually provides a mandate for working against it.

      1. Social Security numbers, government issued IDs, security cameras, etc…These are all forms of surveillance. Why specifically does wiretapping and internet surveillance by the NSA and more secretive agencies constitute a violation of religious privacy? I doubt you would claim that belief in an omniscient God mandates working against these more conventional forms of surveillance, so why these latter forms? Moreover, if God’s omniscience precludes the possibility of surveillance, then I think it presents a much larger issue about how community members ought to hold their fellow citizens accountable.

        Similar to the commenter below, your focus on omniscience avoids the question of justice, but I think in doing so you neglect to address 1) how surveillance is a constitutive feature of any orderly community, and 2) how such surveillance also functions to protect the religious liberties we enjoy.

        1. Hi ‘Huh?’,

          I think you could actually make an excellent case that those first forms you mention also have spiritual capital. Surveillance by a government of its citizens stands out because of the magnitude and illegality of the crime. However, Judaism’s exhortations not to trust mortal authorities and to recognize no sovereign other than God could very well support a resistance to even those ‘casual’ forms of surveillance. Notably, there have been many religious Jewish anarchists who have taken just that position.

          As for the role of privacy in society, my friend and teacher Rabbi Ari Hart wrote a great piece demonstrating that, to the Jewish legal mind, privacy is the foundation of an orderly society. Surveillance is certainly a useful part of criminal investigations, and can be, as you said, a tool to protect religious liberty when used in criminal investigations against those who threaten it. However, using surveillance as a tool against those who have done nothing wrong under the supposition that they will, or might, turn criminal is dangerous, illegal, and as I hope I’ve shown, contradicts directly with Jewish ideas about human society and its relationship with God.

          1. I agree with you that is is dangerous and illegal, but I still don’t see how surveillance as such contradicts mandates to respect God’s omniscience, but I won’t belabor the point.

  2. Adam, I greatly appreciate this reflection. I would expect most theological and theo-ethical critiques of such surveillance would focus on justice. It was really interesting to see your focus on omniscience, instead. It gets around an argument over what constitutes justice, as we can always argue that justice is served by the perceived security and legal reach that such surveillance affords. Is there also a critique here that, in the attempt to know everything, or as much as possible, we mistake data for knowledge, texts for wisdom, and end up in our confusing knowing even less?

    1. Hi Joseph – thanks for your comment! I think it’s certainly the case that in diplomacy and in religion, when we obsess over knowledge to the exclusion of wisdom we end up in a very bad spot. Knowledge certainly has it’s benefit, but what inspires wisdom is awe, humility, and wonder. An old ethical text says: “The adornment of wisdom is humility, and the adornment of humility is awe of heaven.” (Derekh Eretz Zuta, 7).

  3. The Beatles never replaced Jesus Christ and I don’t think the National Security Agency will replace God. As a young man in the military I was in a similar “fishbowl” as Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning. I served my country and kept my mouth shut. Chelsea is paying her dues for espionage and Mr. Snowden’s fate remains to be seen.

    Technology has enabled governments to do things undreamed regards protecting national sovereignty and security. But those forces attacking the status quo have their technology also. From the time we grunted like animals and threw rocks at one another to now with our weapons of mass destruction and the Internet to show us how to make them, NOTHING HAS CHANGED!

    A perfect world where all of humanity, despite religious differences or lack thereof, can live in peace

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