The Rutgers Webcam Tragedy and The Right to Privacy

In the tragic story of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the former Rutgers student, whose privacy was violated by his roommate, Dharun Ravi1, the need to emphasize the right to privacy becomes ever more pronounced. In a world where leaders of major corporations and trendsetters declare that “privacy is no longer a social norm,2” it is incumbent upon the voice of our religious and ethical traditions to re-assert the inherent dignity of each individual person.

Indeed, privacy has been a hot button topic in the Jewish community since at least the year 1000 when a great rabbi by the name of Rabbeinu Gershom (b. 960 d. 1028, Germany) established several enactments that redefined Jewish life in his era and for all subsequent generations to follow. Among those enactments was one that specifically addressed the changing dynamic in his time of increasing commerce and thus the increase in confidential and sensitive correspondence. The temptation to open up that piece of mail and discover the information therein was tremendous, as it still is today, although the mail has transformed to email and Facebook messages. Rabbeinu Gershom firmly came out against the invasion of privacy and declared that one is absolutely forbidden from opening up anyone else’s mail without their permission. This enactment, while seemingly simple and obvious, was revolutionary, in an era where the rules of long distance commerce were just being established.

The unfortunate and tragic story of the death of Tyler Clementi and the exposing of his private life through the use of modern technology must be a wake up call to our society. The enactment of Rabbeinu Gershom is just as needed now as it was a thousand years ago. It not only preserves the system of commerce but also the value of human life and the dignity of each individual person.

1. New York Times, March 16, 2012
2. Huffington Post, March 18, 2010