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Airport Screenings and Jewish Ethics

Airport Screenings and Jewish Ethics

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

Q. Has airport security crossed the line? Things were far less complicated back when only Superman had X-ray vision. As long as we stayed clear of the Daily Planet, we were in the clear. Now, with the new airport security measures, nothing is hidden anymore – not even our privates are private. Is this a good thing?

A. Stepped up security procedures have caused quite a stir at the nation’s airports recently, in particular the widespread use by the TSA of pat-downs and full body scanners. Polls have indicated support for the procedures, which also include profiling, but the ACLU claims that they are an invasion of privacy, and some cite the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions on unreasonable search.

There are also concerns about radiation levels and potential for the spread of child pornography. Privacy ethics expert Prof. Fred Cate of Indiana says the policy presents a number of serious issues. Would an inspector be able to tell the difference, for example, between breast implants containing silicone or explosives? Are these measures really effective?

Privacy is a prime Jewish concern as well. A commentary on why the Moabite prophet Balaam was so taken by the peacefulness of the Israelite encampment (Numbers 24:5) states that he noticed that the entrance to each tent was situated so that no one could peep into the home of his neighbor. Privacy reinforces dignity, and on the scale of Jewish values, human dignity is right at the top. The Talmud states, "Anyone who shames his fellow in public, it is as if he spilled blood." (Baba Metzia 58b).

But there is still a difference between metaphoric and literal bloodshed, and the preservation of life, (Pikuach Nefesh) trumps everything else, even the Sabbath, even dignity.

There is no question that airport security can save lives, so we need to focus on the effectiveness of these particular methods. If they prove to be effective, then we need to make sure that these undignified life saving methods are delivered in the most dignified manner possible.

When my doctor feels my genitals to check for a hernia, I trust his intent and professionalism enough to not feel violated, and I know that his methods are time tested medical necessities. Were he not a doctor, I could sue the pants off him, but he is a doctor, and his care could be saving my life.

Maybe airport security could be more dignified were we able to see more information about the agent. The TSA requires its agents to be tactful and sensitive, which is a good start, although widespread complaints of rudeness can’t be ignored. We need to be sure that this person patting us down is as professional as the pilot flying the plane.

Anyone who has traveled to and from Israel is used to the strictest security methods, which include extensive profiling. I’ve heard horror stories about innocent people held up unjustifiably for hours or denied the chance to board altogether, but for the most part, the airport security agents are tactful, personable and empathetic (especially when compared to the level of customer service everywhere else in the country). They are also efficient, because they’ve done their homework about us long before we ever got to the airport. It’s understandable why so many Americans are longing for the Israeli system.

Jews, who have all too often been the victims of profiling and other forms of prejudice through our history, need to be at the forefront of defending the dignity of the individual. But the greatest dignity is to be alive. On the grounds of Pikuach Nefesh, a reduction of privacy needs to be tolerated. The dangers of flying these days are all too real.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.

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