5 Jewish Texts to Balance Civil Liberties and National Security
As debate swirls around how our government can continue to address the threat of terrorism in a way that upholds our civil liberties, it can be difficult to keep track of the many issues this basic question raises. Politicians, experts and advocates continue to spar over the efficacy of torture, the necessity of indefinite detention, bulk data collection, government access to encrypted information and many other tools some say are necessary to prevent attacks against Americans.
Our responsibility as Reform Jews is to take into account both the complexities of this moment and recognize the enduring values our texts have given us. The following five texts can provide some context and framing as we work through these important questions:
- “When one pursues another with intent to kill… every Jew is commanded to save the intended victim, even at the cost of the pursuer’s life” (Maimonides Yad, Rotzeach 1:6). Maimonides’ instruction here echoes the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), an imperative that overrides nearly every commandment. The importance of this precept should not be taken lightly and is a primary text that informs the Jewish commitment to preserving and ensuring national security.
- “Rabbi Akiva said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) is a great principle, so that you must not say, ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor be put to shame, since I have been cursed, let my neighbor be cursed.’ Rabbi Tanhuma said: If you do so, know whom you put to shame, for ‘In the image of God did God make him’ (Genesis 1:27)” (Mishnah, Bereshit Rabbah 24:7). This section of the Mishnah expands on the concept of human dignity, warning us against humiliating another person, even if that person has caused harm. In cases of detainee treatment, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tanhuma remind us that even our enemies should be treated with a basic level of dignity.
- “A person may not incriminate himself” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 9b). The Talmudic injunction against self-incrimination, which parallels the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This text warns us against one of the dangerous outcomes of torture, where a detainee will confess to anything in order to make the pain stop.
- “When a person refrains from speech, the ideas die, the soul stops, and the senses deteriorate” said Moses ibn Ezra, insisting on respect for honest differences of opinion (Moses ibn Ezra, Shirat Yisrael 12c). Ibn Ezra speaks to the necessity of free speech, painting a dystopic vision of social decay when such a right is denied. As we work to maintain a secure society, we must also recognize that curbing rights to free speech may leave our society well-guarded, but at risk of internal deterioration.
- “In a courtyard which he shares with others a man should not open a door facing another person’s door nor a window facing another person’s window” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 60a). This very technical instruction from the Talmud speaks to the importance of protection even from the possibility that someone may see into their neighbor’s private space, resulting in hezek re’iyah (harm caused by seeing), a violation of privacy. It reminds us of the responsibility we have to uphold the rights of privacy for all.
While it is clear that not all of these texts are in agreement, together they communicate the need to pursue policies that balance national security and civil liberties.