The Danger of Being Seen (Bava Batra 2a-b)

Can catching a glimpse of another person cause damage? Is there a danger to being seen? Would the world be a better place if we could all put on invisibility cloaks once in a while? This is an issue that occupies the early pages of Masechet Bava Batra, which we recently began in Daf Yomi. The very first Mishnah is about two neighbors who share a yard, and wish to build a fence to divide their property. The Gemara goes on to ask about the case where one of the neighbors would like to build a fence so that the other cannot look into his yard; but the other neighbor would not like to have the yard divided. Is the first neighbor legally authorized to force the second to agree to the building of the fence? The answer to this question turns upon the matter of Hezek Re’iya, a phrase I had never formerly encountered, though the concept is all too close to heart.

Hezek Re’iya literally means “the damage of seeing,” and refers to the notion that the invasion of privacy caused by looking at someone else’s property is tantamount to physical damage. Those rabbis who support this notion believe that a person can legally prevent a neighbor from gazing into his property by forcing his neighbor to assist in the expenses of building a fence. On the opposite side of the fence are those rabbis who argue that “Hezek Re’iya la shma Hezek” – that is, the damage of being seen is not real damage, and therefore the neighbor who desires privacy cannot force his neighbor to join in the expenses of building a wall. The Talmud proceeds to consider how to interpret the mishnah first if there is indeed a concept of Hezek Re’iya, and then, in the next sugya, if there is in fact no such concept. These two sugyot are mirror images of one another, as symmetrical as the two halves of a divided courtyard.

The Talmud’s conclusion is that yes, there is indeed a notion of Hezek Re’iya – the damage of a being seen constitutes a very real form of a damage, and people have the right to protect their own privacy. I relate to this concept very deeply because I live in a small neighborhood with overlapping social circles in which people talk freely about one another. The street where I work is lined by nearly a dozen small cafes with glass storefronts, and anyone who walks by can see everyone inside. On each of the many times I walk down that street every day, I am conscious of all the pairs of eyes that could possibly be upon me at any moment. When I go out to restaurants with friends, I always insist that we sit at the very back table, furthest from the street, in an effort to avoid being seen. And, lacking an invisibility cloak, every so often I leave my house with a big sun hat that covers my eyes, reasoning that if I cannot avoid being seen, at least I can avoid the uncomfortable and tortured awareness that I have been seen.

Friends who know about my hypersensitivity to Hezek Re’iya have accused me of being paranoid, melodramatic, or uncharacteristically egotistical–do I really think that everyone is looking at me? I trace my condition (if I may call it that) back to my childhood, where I grew up as a rabbi’s daughter in a house on the synagogue property. We were neighbors with the shul, you might say, and although we had a fence separating our part of the yard from the synagogue’s, anyone who drove into the shul parking lot could always look into our windows. My parents were vigilant about drawing the shades at night and keeping the front yard neat. In shul, too, my siblings and I always had to be on our best behavior, because we were conscious that our actions set an example for others. We grew up feeling the eyes of the community upon us at all times, an experience epitomized by one unforgettable weekend in which my parents declared that we were having a “Shabbat in.” My father had the Shabbat off, but my parents did not feel like traveling. Nor did they want anyone to know that we were home. So we drew the shades, pulled the cars into the garage, and spent Shabbat in Secret Annex mode, davening and eating together while never leaving the house.

Now I live in an apartment in which no one can peer into my windows because they look out onto a concrete wall — and yet I still remain painstakingly protective of my privacy. As per my last count, I now have three ex-boyfriends living within a two-kilometer radius – most of whom I deeply respect and care for, but none of whom I could run into without “the poor treason / of my stout blood against my staggering brain” (Millay). At present I feel like I spend my life dodging their gazes, even as I recognize (or hope) that they have moved on. Moreover, any time I enter into a new relationship, I feel the need to keep it secret for as long as possible (sometimes at the expense of honesty, I am ashamed to admit) – both because of the unparalleled thrill of getting to know someone intimately first on their own terms, without other people’s approving or disapproving gazes; and because of the terrified, trauma-induced conviction that this, too, shall pass.

I retain this fierce desire to protect myself from the gaze of others even as I expose my soul shamelessly on this blog, an irony that is never lost on me. (Ktiva shaney.) But in this season of Tshuva, I think about how I can mend my ways. This phrase reminds me of “Mending Wall,” and I tell myself that while good fences make good neighbors, they do not necessarily make good friends. Honesty and transparency are inherent values, as is learning to see ourselves as others see us. Because I live with the fear that others will speak about me, I have recently adopted a new policy: Any time I am walking down the street with a friend and we run into a third party, I make sure to bring up a new topic of conversation as soon as we part ways from that third party, lest I be tempted to say anything about the person we just met. I hope that others do the same when they run into me. This is, after all, a time of year when we are all being seen, as we pass under the proverbial staff one by one like sheep, with no one escaping the divine gaze. I pray that for all of us, this gaze will be a source not of damage, but of blessing for the year that lies ahead.

3 thoughts on “The Danger of Being Seen (Bava Batra 2a-b)

  1. ask says:

    Beautiful post!

    I think you should wear sunglasses. As a person who also hates to be watched, I can guarantee that sunglasses do magical things.


  2. R says:

    Your sun hat theory reminded me of when I was an early teen at summer camp. Mortified by the group shower house, I somehow convinced myself that since, without my glasses, I couldn't see the other girls, they couldn't see early-adolescent me.
    More seriously, your last paragraph suggested a great solution to a problem that I was really feeling this weekend. From now on, when tempted to talk about someone I've just run into, I too will try to change the topic. Or I'll at least aim for that as a goal:)


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