It’s Wednesday: August 7, 2013

Like clockwork, this column reappears once again on the first Wednesday of August, to continue more or less uninterrupted till next summer. Except this year, in which you got the bonus edition about Jefferson. I have received the requisite corrections about his greatness – he didn’t mind slavery very much, his policies led to the War of 1812, he died in debt – so we need to curb our enthusiasm.

The first column always causes me angst. Not a good column, I say to myself, and nobody will read the rest of them. That paralyzes me. So I beg your indulgence while I get warmed up for greater things by sharing some of my summer reading.

For many of us the main drama of the summer – besides trying to figure out why the same Nats team that was the best in baseball last year can be so ordinary this year – has been the fate of Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on N.S.A. surveillance and was holed up in the Moscow airport seeking asylum. Would he, like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal, “ ever get out of the airport? He did, and now the focus is on what he revealed.  Most of the surveillance that Snowden revealed comes out of a project called Prism, begun in 2007 to help prevent terrorist attacks, tapping into the servers of the nine leading U.S. internet companies, and making many of us and many in Congress nervous and/or upset. Imagine that your email to me about legumes on Passover was being recorded and joked about around the lunchtable at N.S.A. And of course more serious invasions of our privacy are contemplated.

One of the best pieces I saw about this was in the June 24 New Yorker, a piece called “The Prism” by Jill Lepore, a Harvard prof and staff writer at the magazine. It is subtitled “Privacy in an Age of Publicity,”  and  talks about the relationship between those two values.  Late in the 19th century, two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, published an article in the Harvard Law Review called “The Right to Privacy,” arguing for the legal right to be left alone. That right had never been defined before.  (The essay lies at the heart of every legal decision that has been made about privacy ever since.)  While sitting on the Supreme Court ca. 1928, Brandeis expressed the view (minority opinion in Olmstead v. United States) that wiretapping constituted a violation of one’s right to be let alone, and predicted that there would be far more pervasive means of espionage against our citizenry with the progress of science.  Going forward in the 20th century, conversely, we experienced the golden age of public relations, where publicity – the attention of the press – came to be something that many citizens sought out and even paid for.  These two realities provide the background that helps us understand where we now stand, which is face to face with what Lepore characterizes as the paradox of “an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.”

Fascinating take isn’t it?   Lots of people protecting their privacy, Congress investigating how it has been lost, while we at the same time are watching ourselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism [eg. Facebook] of our own design.  What is it exactly that we want?

Ponder that and have a good Wednesday.  Today is the first day of Elul. One month from now is the first day of Tishri, otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah. Use the month to do what you can to make judgment day a good one.

P.S. This Shabbat morning, in the main service, Rabbi Mindy Portnoy will give the sermon, on Elul of all things. Rabbi Portnoy joins Rabbi David Abramson as our Adjunct Rabbis, very part-time positions that enhance our pulpit and teaching capacities. We are fortunate to be able to call upon them to help meet the needs of our growing congregation.