TORONTO — Full-body scanners are already in some Canadian airports, and more are coming soon. The question for many observant Jews is whether these scanners create a halachic problem (one related to Jewish Law) for Jewish travellers.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka
That is, will these new security measures breach the laws of modesty observed by traditional Jews, both male and female? This may, in fact, be the case, some Canadian rabbis say.
Full-body scans use technology that provides a three-dimensional image of a person’s body underneath the clothing. Transport Canada believes this “virtual strip search” technology will be less objectionable to the majority of Canadians than a physical search.
While those being scanned are not actively revealing themselves, “their dignity is being compromised,” says Ottawa’s Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a rabbinic emissary for Canadian Jewish Congress and an immediate past Congress co-president.
However, that dignity must always be balanced by what he sees as the government’s “right and responsibility to do whatever is necessary in order to protect its citizens.
“It would be wrong for us as a matter of principle to stand in the way of what they’re doing to protect the country,” Rabbi Bulka says.
Several unanswered questions could resolve concerns, he adds. “Who exactly sees it? What exactly does it show?” Without obstructing security, travellers should always have the right to know the answers to those questions, and to “request that their screening be done by someone of the same gender.”
“I don’t understand what the whole fuss is about,” says Rabbi Jay Kelman, founder of Toronto’s Torah in Motion and a CJN columnist, particularly given the government’s reassurances about the type of images that will be available. To save a life, it’s permitted to violate almost every Torah prohibition, he says. “Adultery is an exception… [but] this is not adultery.”
Rabbi Kelman does question whether full-body scanners are the best means of ensuring travellers’ security. “Is this the most effective means of screening terrorists?”
Rabbi Bulka agrees that full-body scans may not be the most effective security measure. “There are people in Israel who have said… what you need is a full body check – you have to be able to have access to every single part of the body, including those we would consider off limits. So what do you do then?”
In that case, he says, the government has a responsibility to ensure that “a woman has the right to request that she be searched by another woman, and the same thing for a man.”
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation says that “the paradigm of forbidden or permitted is probably the wrong paradigm. Technology is innocuous; it’s how it’s utilized that’s the issue.” He cites the examples of computers or cars: “The automobile isn’t prohibited, [but] used improperly it can be a tool for death.
“There’s an entire section of Talmud devoted to laws of privacy [the first chapter of tractate Bava Batra],” Rabbi Strauchler says. “Our tradition requires societies to build fences to prevent people from looking in on one another.
“Likewise, security is the greatest value when it comes to halachic decision-making: security and health [override] all other considerations save three.”
So the only question for Rabbi Strauchler is the specific technology – “how it’s employed to assure the best possible security, but at the same time doesn’t compromise a person’s privacy.”
That might involve “finding ways to set up [security] people in locations where they would not see the person that’s being scanned,” not saving the files and images from the scans. “The system as a whole needs to be created in a way that prevents abuse.
“Halachah always has something to say,” Rabbi Strauchler says, but he also believes the controversy of full-body scans should highlight an important personal issue, given the modern proliferation of information on the Internet and in other media – not all of it appropriate. “Each of us needs to think about what should we see, what should we not see, and decide the ways in which we expose ourselves or we don’t.”