CCAR RESPONSA COMMITTEE
Sharing the Synagogue’s Membership List
Jewish organizations often request that a synagogue share its membership list with them, in order that those organizations may reach a wider audience for their work. Is it ethical for the synagogue to provide its membership list to these organizations without the express consent of each member? (Rabbi Larry Englander, Mississauga, ONT)
This she’elah requires that we consider the balance between communal authority and personal privacy. Our tradition bestows upon the community a great deal of power to do good, to see to it that its members perform mitzvot, the duties and obligations of Jewish life. It also evidences deep concern for the dignity of the individual, protecting him or her from the unwarranted interference of the community and the unwanted gaze of the other. When these two values clash, how shall we draw the line between them?
- The Jewish Community and Its Authority. We Jews, in the view of our tradition, find meaning first and foremost not as individuals but as members of am yisrael, the Jewish people. The covenant, the eternal bond between God and Israel, was made with the community as a whole and is expressed in communal language: we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and it is the “entire congregation of Israel” that hears the commandment that “you shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The liturgy of our prayer book (siddur) expresses the essentially corporate nature of our existence and destiny. Our prayers are written in plural language, so that even when a Jew prays privately, he or she speaks of the God “who has sanctified us,” praises the God “who in love has chosen the people Israel” for divine service, and implores God to “heal us and we shall be healed.” The tradition teaches us that it is better to pray in the midst of a congregation than to do so privately and provides that certain parts of the liturgy, those having to do with the sanctification of God, may be recited only in the midst of a congregation, for “I will be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel” (Leviticus 22:32). In other words, we most truly uphold the covenant and sanctify the name of God when we become “Israel,” the Jewish community.
Given its emphasis upon the centrality of community, it is not surprising that Jewish tradition speaks hardly at all about “individual rights.” Jewish law, after all, proceeds from the mitzvot of the Torah, the obligations imposed upon the people by their covenant with God. When we study our sacred texts, we are much more likely to read of “duties” than of “rights.” To put this differently, the Torah does not proclaim a libertarian philosophy. Our lives, our bodies, and our property are not our own, to do with as we please so long as we do not interfere with the rights of others; they belong rather to God, who has given them to us for safe-keeping and to Whom we owe an ultimate account for the way we use them. It follows that when we see another Jew transgressing against the Torah, each of us is entitled (and even required) to take action to insure that he or she abides by the Torah’s dictates. Talmudic law allows the proper authorities to coerce an individual to perform a variety of mitzvot that are incumbent upon him or her: to fulfill a vow, to issue a divorce, to give tzedakah, and others. Indeed, the organized community exercises the same authority as that possessed in Temple times by the Sanhedrin, the great beit din (rabbinical court), to enforce its decrees upon its citizens.
- The Privacy of the Individual. From the foregoing discussion, we might well draw the conclusion that the community, in this case the synagogue, ought to allow other Jewish organizations to solicit its members to participate in and to contribute to their programs. Many of these organizations — local federations, day schools, Zionist groups, facilities for senior citizens, social action agencies, and numerous others — serve vital Jewish purposes, and since the community is traditionally empowered to enforce the performance of mitzvot, it would follow that the synagogue board is authorized to aid these organizations in the achievement of their goals. This, perhaps, is what Hillel had in mind when he instructed us “do not separate from the community” (M. Avot 2:4): when the community is engaged in Torah and mitzvot, “this is truly the crown of God’s glory,” and it is unworthy of any of us to stand aside. One could therefore make a strong argument that the synagogue, the present-day embodiment of the Jewish community of old, ought to provide its membership list to these organizations, for to do so would strengthen and enrich the community as a whole.
Against this argument, however, stands our concern for the privacy and the dignity of the individual synagogue member. Although, to repeat, Jewish tradition does not speak in terms of “rights,” including a “right” to privacy, it does impose upon us the corresponding duty to refrain from infringing upon a person’s essential dignity. A homeowner, for example, may take action to protect the household against the prying eyes of neighbors, for “damage caused by visibility” (hezek re’iyah) is an actionable tort under Jewish law. The Torah and halakhah forbid gossip and slander (rekhilut) as damaging to a person’s reputation, and they prohibit us from saying or doing anything that causes embarrassment (halbanat panim) to others. Significantly, although as we have seen the halakhah allows the community to coerce individuals to give tzedakah, we are forbidden to shame them in public. Taken together, these and other provisions of Jewish law proclaim that the life of the individual is not a completely open book, that at some point the community must cease their efforts to intervene into what are, at bottom, matters that are none of its business. As we have written in another context: “There are aspects of our existence which are and must remain off-limits to the eyes and tongues of those among whom we live, and we are therefore under no moral or religious obligation to share with them information about ourselves that they have no legitimate reason to know. This conclusion drawn from our law may not be the exact equivalent of the ‘right to privacy’ in other legal systems. But it does express, in language too clear to permit of misunderstanding, a commitment to the proposition that all of us, created in the divine image, are possessed of a dignity which at some critical point requires that all others leave us be and let us alone.”
This concern for individual privacy counsels against a synagogue’s sharing its membership list with other agencies in the absence of the individual’s express consent, or in the absence of a duly-adopted provision in the synagogue’s bylaws permitting such an action. The question has to do with what lawyers would call a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” In our day, when the Jewish community no longer enjoys the coercive powers described above, individuals who join our synagogues expect that their membership information will remain the confidential property of the synagogue. To act in a manner contrary to that expectation, to grant other organizations access to membership information without the member’s consent, would be a violation of the halakhic prohibition of fraud and deception (geneivat da`at). True, our tradition has permitted the rare act of deception for the sake of a “higher” purpose, and the organizations that seek our mailing lists undoubtedly believe that they represent such purposes. We think, however, that they face a high burden of proof if they wish to set aside Judaism’s protection of individual privacy and prohibition of deceptive conduct.
Conclusion. The community enjoys a high standing in Jewish law, particularly as an agency for aiding (or even coercing) individuals to do that which is right and good. In our own time, the community does not enjoy the coercive powers it once possessed. It still has the duty, however, to encourage its members to perform mitzvot. On the other hand, Jewish tradition shows a deep regard for the dignity and privacy of the individual. In our case, individual members of a synagogue have a reasonable expectation that the synagogue will not share their names and other personal information with other organizations without the express consent of the member or in the absence of a clear statement in the congregation’s bylaws permitting the sharing of this information. Whether the synagogue should adopt such a policy is a decision for its members to make.
- See Jeffrey Rosen, The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (New York: Random House, 2000).
- See Rashi ad loc., quoting the Sifra to Lev. 19:2: the mitzvot in this section of the Torah were spoken in the presence of the entire community because they contain the essence of the Torah itself.
- BT Berakhot 7b:8a. As Maimonides expresses the idea: “The prayer of the community is always accepted… Therefore, one should strive to join the community, and one should not pray privately if one is able to pray with a congregation” (Yad, Tefilah 8:1).
- See Megilah 4:3, BT Megilah 23b, Yad, Tefilah 8:5-6, and Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 69:1: “matters having to do with sanctification” (kol davar shebikedushah) must be recited in the presence of a congregation (edah) consisting of no less than ten adult Jews. These “matters” include the liturgical rubrics kaddish, kedushah, barekhu, and the reading of the Torah (Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chayim 55, no. 2).
- See Haim Cohn, Human Rights in Jewish Law (New York: Ktav, 1984), 18: “the particular structure of Jewish law qua religious law–with God as the central object of love and veneration, and the worship and service of God as the overriding purpose of all law–postulates a system of duties rather than a system of rights.” See also R. Elliot N. Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002), 17-26.
- This idea, found throughout our sources, is perhaps best expressed in the traditional prohibitions against suicide and against doing physical harm to our bodies. Jewish tradition is not neutral when it comes to these so-called “victimless” crimes, for the individual is not the owner of his or her own life and body to do with them as he or she pleases. For sources and discussion, see Teshuvot for the Nineties (TFN), no. 5754.14, “On the Treatment of the Terminally Ill,” pp. 337-363, especially at 3 and 4, and no. 5752.7, “Cosmetic Surgery,” pp.127-132. See also our responsum no. 5759.4, “Tattooing, Body-Piercing, and Jewish Tradition,” .
- For example, Leviticus 19:17 enjoins us to “reprove your kinsman, so that you not incur guilt on his account,”and our tradition adds that “whosoever has it in his power to protest against sin and does not do so is implicated in that very sin, inasmuch as he could have issued a rebuke” (Yad, De`ot 6:7, from BT Arakhin 16b).The well-known Talmudic saying kol yisrael arevim zeh bezeh, which is usually translated as “all Jews are responsible for one another,” in fact declares that each of us bears a duty to intervene when we see a fellow Jew committing a sin; BT Shevu`ot 39a and Sanhedrin
- BT Bava Batra 48a and Arakhin 21a; Yad, Ma`aseh Hakorbanot14:16.
- BT Bava Batra 48a and Arakhin 21a; Yad, Gerushin 2:20; Shulchan Arukh Even Ha`ezer 134:5 and 154:21. See, in general, Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5754.6, pp. 209-216.
- BT Bava Batra 8b (and Tosafot ad loc., v. akhpeh); Yad, Matanot Aniyim 7:10; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 248:1.
- For example, should a mohel refuse to circumcise a baby boy, the beit din may coerce him to do so if there is no other mohel available ( Rashba 1:472; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 461). How, precisely, could such “coercion” take place in a way that is safe for the child? See Pitchey Teshuvah, Yoreh De`ah 261, no. 4: the beit din is permitted to trick the recalcitrant mohel, to promise him an exorbitant fee and to renege on the offer following the circumcision.
- Although the Talmud never states that the community (kahal) may employ coercion to enforce its decrees, the medieval authorities recognized such a power. The equation of the kahal to the Sanhedrin is most associated with R. Shelomo b. Adret (Rashba; d. 1310) of Barcelona; see his Responsa 5:126, 1:729, 3:411 and 3:417. See also R. Asher b. Yechiel (d. 1327), HaRosh 6:5, 7, who extends the “majority rule principle” (acharei rabim lehatot) from its original context (i.e., that a court’s verdict is determined by the majority of its judges) to apply to all matters of public (rabim, i.e., community) concern. Other scholars derived this communal power from other sources. See our responsum 5758.1, “The Reform Rabbi’s Obligations Toward the UAHC,”.
- See the commentary of R. Yonah Gerondi to Avot 2:4, included in the standard printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud.
- Bava Batra 3:7; B. Bava Batra 2b-3a; Yad, Shekhenim 2:14; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 54.
- Leviticus 19:16; Yad, De`ot 7:1-2. For sources and discussion on the prohibition of gossip in general, see our responsum “Gossip Between Husband and Wife,” TFN, no. 5750.4, pp. 187-190 ( ).
- The prohibition is derived from Leviticus 19:17; see Sifra to the verse and Arakhin 16b. See also Yad, De`ot 6:8, and Sefer Havhinukh, mitzvah 240.
- Bava Batra 8b; Yad, Matanot Aniyim 7:11; Tur, Yoreh De`ah 248; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 248:7.
- CCAR Responsum no. 5756.2, “Privacy and the Disclosure of Personal Medical Information,” , section 2.
- BT Chulin 94a; Yad, De`ot 2:6 and Mekhirah 18:1ff; and SA CM 228:6.
- For example, in Genesis 18:13 God intentionally misquotes to Abraham Sarah’s remark in verse 12, in order to spare him embarrassment and to preserve peace between husband and wife. See BT Bava Metzi`a 87a and the final chapter of tractate Derekh Eretz Zuta. See Nachmanides to Gen. 18:13 for a less daring but essentially similar evaluation of God’s report. In addition, see at note 11, above.