Keeping Us Safe, Part 1: Public Safety in Jewish Law

Keeping Us Safe, Part 1: Public Safety in Jewish Law

Jewish law, written in a time very different from our own and continually re-interpreted throughout the centuries, sets forth surprisingly specific parameters in Deuteronomy for building a dwelling that is safe for both yourself and any guests, even detailing how high and strong a parapet roof on a wall should be. How broadly this can all be interpreted has been much discussed, but the modern concepts of responsibility and liability are all there. But can it tell us anything about something as modern and complex as screening travelers and their bags?

This first part of the discussion, with Rabbi Linda Joseph, addresses guidelines in Deuteronomy for building safe houses; the second part explores the critical role x-ray technology plays in maintaining these principles today.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. “Keeping Us Safe” was a discussion at Bet Aviv in Columbia, MD with member Howard Feldmesser, Darla Strouse and Rabbi Linda Joseph on January 6, 2024. Part 2 next week will be Mr. Feldmesser’s presentation.)

Read Transcript

So, now we know what Judaism has to say, and a Jewish point of view about it. I’m going to turn it over to Howie to teach us about the technology at airports – which may be a house or a gateway or a barn, may be a place that our privacy is invaded or not, for the public good, and for us to think about how this works so we can come up with a Jewish answer to this question of is it permissible? Is it not permissible? Is it desirable? Is it not desirable?


So final questions to consider: we may not have understood all of the geek stuff, may or may not have. We may or may not have understood all the Jewish stuff, but I have four questions that are at the bottom of page eight.

The first is, do we want to define an airport as a house? Is it somewhere where people sleep? Is it somewhere where people eat? Is it a residence? Normally, a residence is somewhere where someone’s lived for 30 days. Some people might (laughs). And does it even matter if it’s a residence or not, in coming up with a Jewish point of view. Do we understand x-ray technology as akin to a guardrail on a house? Is it something safety-related? I’m hearing yeses and nods of agreement.

So if we do understand that, do we also understand it as an intrusion of privacy? Or is it not an intrusion of privacy? Obviously, we heard some measures have been taken so people don’t see our naked bodies. But they are looking at our things. And as we just saw, there’s a lot of accuracy in looking at our things. I often say to Richard, “I don’t care if they look at my things, because what have I got to show,” right? But some people might see that as an intrusion of privacy.

And we heard an opinion, but we don’t have any halakhic opinion, on whether x-ray technology is permissible. But if we were to take all the Jewish texts that we looked at and all the information that Howie just gave us, would you – I’m interested to know – make an argument for it being permissible or not permissible? Richard, of course you have something to say.

Richard Madonna: So, many airports, in the United States and around the world, have hotel facilities included or attached or contiguous in some way. Also, many of them have clubs where you can lie in repose, and some of them even have showers, et cetera. And there are people who are stuck in airports through storms and other mishaps. So in a sense, you could know, but you could end up sleeping there. So I would think that part of it would fit in. That would be how I would look at it.

Linda Joseph: So you would argue that it is a house at some time, even if it’s a temporary house.

Richard Madonna: A tent would be a house, at this margin.

Linda Joseph: Right. But remember that a house has to be slept or eaten in for 30 days–

Richard Madonna: Well, that’s is constantly going on at airports!

Linda Joseph: All right, so it’s done in stages. Yes, Sally? Well, excuse me if you come up.

Well, I think that the individual needs are outweighed by the community needs – the needs for safety. And so in that case, I think that the airport needs to provide the safety to the general [public] and not to me as an individual. I’m willing to give up my individual privacy, and I think other people should.

Linda Joseph: So the community need, which we’ve made an argument for in our last text here, outweighs the individual need in this case. So we need a parapet, which is your x-ray technology, just to make sure that it’s safe. That’s your argument. Rich?

Richard Madonna: It seems the hang-up is the word “house.” And so, putting it in the context of when the scripture was written, public buildings per se, like an airport or like a governmental building, probably only amounted to a temple – some sort of public meeting place for services. So I think the idea of “house” has to be extended beyond scripture and traditional reform Judaism to fit with modern times. And therefore, I don’t see a real concern over saying “Is an airport a house?” It’s a public dwelling. It’s a public place, and scripture would seem to indicate that we should protect ourselves and keep them safe.

Linda Joseph: All right, so let me repeat for those that are online, because you are not microphoned. Airports aren’t known in biblical times. They know about a cowshed and they know about a portico and they know about a house. But this is a public building that is not known. So we could expand the concept of house to be any buildings that we are in. And therefore, there is an obligation of the owner of the house, whether that be the state or the government or whatever, to put in public safety, to put in that parapet, right, or that make sure that the ladder is not there or the biting dog or whatever it might be. And we would put things like guns and possible explosives into that category as something dangerous. And so we can enlarge that definition and say that Jewish law would argue that this is necessary, otherwise the person that owns the house, the state or the government, is liable if something is to happen.

Audience member: So you’ve asked us about how these texts – what these texts have to say – but I guess the first thing I would think of is, what else is there that would speak to this issue? And then it gets away from the issue of whether it’s a house. And the second Proverbs text, which says “a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence,”  that takes you to thinking about – you have to decide whether the airport system is trustworthy to keep the confidence. So Howie has certainly kept a lot of confidences in his presentation. So it seems to me that this is another thing that really is related and doesn’t get into whether it’s “house” or not.

Linda Joseph: Right. Okay, so that’s a fantastic point. We assume our TSA agents and the people looking at this technology are not going around saying, “hey, guess what I found today in so-and-so’s bag” – that they do keep a confidence of some kind. So there’s a level of privacy going on, that I’m assuming is part of the ethics [code]. So perhaps our privacy is not being invaded. I think if we were living in another place with different politics, some people might argue that their privacy is being invaded, though.

Well, it’s noon. I hope you learned a lot about privacy and learned about houses and parapets. Make sure your houses are safe, my friends.


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