Thoughts on the Phone Hacking Scandal

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 20 July 2011


Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov How good are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places Israel? We begin all of our services at Alyth with this proclamation from Parashat Balak.

The commentators ask – What is it that Balaam sees that is so good?  The answer they give is that the tents in the Israelite camp are arranged in such a way that no two entrances face each other – that there is a perfect balance of communal structure and individual privacy.  Society is arranged so that no one is able to peer into the tent of their fellow.

In a week in which peering into the tent of one’s fellow – or rather listening into the voicemail of one’s fellow – has dominated the news, it is interesting to note that Judaism does have this value of privacy.

It is a value expressed also in the Halachah, in the Law around speech – that one does not tale bear or gossip. And it is a value powerfully expressed in a very strong prohibition on snooping.

The 10th-11th century Ashkenazi authority Rabbeinu Gershom, most famous for the takkanah that prohibited polygamy in this part of the Jewish world, ruled that those who might read the letters of another person were punishable with excommunication. He did so to allow the traders of his day, who communicated by letter, to work without snooping.  Mail would be marked with the phrase b’chadrag – b’cherem d’rabbeinu Gershom to indicate that unauthorised reading would be in violation of his edict.  It is a ruling that also applies to e-mail, though the concept of excommunication is no longer the threat it once was.

This is not to say that privacy is an absolute value.  As in most areas in halachah, the common good overrides the individual right – Judaism is the source of probably the earliest example of a public interest defence.  But there is a strong presumption in favour of privacy.

For those of us who are informed by Jewish values, as well as by basic human decency, the behaviour of aspects of our media uncovered this week is appalling.

Ma Tovu ohalecha Yaakov… How good – how safe, how secure from intrusion are our homes – or indeed our computers, or our phones.  Time for the media to get its tent in order.


THE TRAGEDY OF IT ALL – 15 July 2011

I’ve been reflecting more on the events of the last weeks around News International.

Last week I was – for me at least – relatively incensed. This week, my mood has turned to one of disappointment.

Rather than outrage, I am struck by quite what a shame this all is – how different it could be.

Listening to journalists on TV and Radio suggest that the media has to be able to act in its own way because it holds government to account – I have been struck by a remarkable fact… It is not an exaggeration to suggest that a good press, a good media, has the potential to be the prophetic voice in our society.

Who were the Prophets of the bible – they were those who stood outside of the system and pointed out the iniquities – who berated government for bad practice – who revealed the failings of society to the world.  To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel – “The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, its waywardness”. In our society there are very few who are really able to do this – we like to think that we in Liberal religion represent that prophetic tradition, but in truth we do not have that voice – there are few that do.  But our print media can and when they are good, they do – they protect the weak, they unveil injustice.

And so the events of the last weeks are not only horrifying but deeply tragic. Unlike the Prophets of the bible who are unable to reject their mission which is given to them by God, whatever their protests – the print media are able to, and it seems now have fundamentally rejected their rightful role.

To choose earning a profit over being a prophet is a disappointing choice indeed.



The events of the past few weeks have provided a stark reminder, if such were needed, of the strange relationship that the leaders of our society seem to have with the truth.  Spin, obfuscation and straightforward lies are everywhere.

Ours is a world of strange linguistic double standards: “Your boss is in the pocket of the press barons; my boss is engaged in the necessary activities of a democratic society”.  We are surrounded by bizarre euphemisms: one of the weirder moments in the committee hearings this week was when Murdoch Senior reacted to the charge of ‘collective amnesia’ of News International executives.  He said something like, “You use the word amnesia; you really mean they were lying”.  How strange that his primary concern was the use of dishonest language not the dishonesty of his staff.

So, it is worth reminding ourselves that all of this is completely out of step with Jewish values.  That we should speak the truth is part of the fabric of the law and thought of Judaism.   The Bible leaves no doubt about its importance.  Three times the Torah instructs us to tell the truth, to refrain from lying, to keep far from a falsehood.  The book of Proverbs sums up the basic attitude of the bible – “lying lips are an abomination to the Eternal, but those who act truthfully please God”.

Ours being a pragmatic tradition, it recognises that sometimes there are situations in which truth can be bent for a greater good.   Even God is prepared to bend the truth for higher values – in order to preserve peace, not merely on a national level, but between man and wife.  In the Genesis narrative, when Sarah discovers that she is to have a son she laughs to herself, saying… “with my husband so old?”  When God reports this back to Abraham, God spins for the sake of their relationship: “Why did Sarah laugh”, God asks, “saying ‘In truth shall I bear a child, old as I am?’  Hence, the Talmud states: Great is the cause of peace – for its sake even the Holy One bent the truth.   A famous rabbinic dispute between the houses of Hillel and Shammai discusses what one should say to a bride who doesn’t look quite as beautiful as she might think she does.  The House of Shammai says that we should always tell the truth and describe the bride as she is.  But the House of Hillel recommends to always say ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’ to protect her feelings.

Yet it is clear that to tell mistruths is justified only where it is for a significant greater benefit.  If we are to step away from the truth we can do so only after a process of thought and evaluation – only because we have weighed the importance of truth against the possible benefits of lying.  To sell papers, or cover up one’s actions is hardly justification.

The importance of truthfulness is central in our tradition.  Truth is one of the 13 traditional attributes of God.  According to yet another Talmudic saying “the seal of God is truth”.  Yet truthfulness is not just a value in itself.  As our press are now discovering, and our politicians should well know, once trust is lost, it is hard to reclaim.  As the Talmud puts it, “a liar’s punishment is that even when he tells the truth he is not believed”.

However many enquiries there might be.