October 3, 2014
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
There was news a couple of weeks ago that may transform the entire universe. The story is that the term "selfie" has now become an acceptable word in Scrabble, and is also about to enter the holy of holies for neologisms, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Do you all know what a selfie is? Have you ever taken a selfie? Here, I'll show you: Smile, and I'll take one with all of you in it.
That was a selfie. If I were going to do this right, I'd post that shot on Facebook and Instagram, and Tweet it out while we continue the service.
"Selfies" went viral this year. For the uninitiated, selfies are photos we take of ourselves with our iphones or Samsung Galaxies. As Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the plethora of social networks available have exploded, so too has the desire and the ubiquity, the almost animal need people seem to have to take photos of themselves and post them immediately in the most public places possible. Put simply, we love taking pictures of ourselves, and then sharing them with the world. Nowadays, every moment is a Kodak moment.
And so these photos of people staring into their cameras, one arm oustretched in front of them to take the shot, are omnipresent. Selfies, selfies, everywhere. Celebrities in underwear do it, celebrities out of underwear of do it, astronauts on spaceships do it, the pope pauses with worshippers at a mass to do it, President Barack Obama interrupts Nelson Mandela's funeral to do it, baseball star David Ortiz interrupts Barack Obama to do it. Orangutans in zoos do it, birds do it, bees do it, paparazzi hanging from trees do it, let's do it, let's shoot and post a selfie. Well over half of all millenials have posted selfies on social media websites in the past year. And so have lots of non-millenials.
In fact, the most famous selfie this past year took place at the Oscar awards ceremony in Los Angeles, in which a gaggle of beautiful, famous people scooched into the frame, took a selfie, and Tweeted it a moment later, actors Bradley Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, and others all in one photo. In a few moments it was retweeted 2 million times, breaking the old selfie record, held by President Obama after his re-election, by 1.2 million retweets.
2 million. Wow. I guess if you have the right famous people in the selfie, lots of non-selfies are interested in looking at it, too.
Actually, a poll commissioned by Samsung found that selfies now make up 30% of the photos taken by people aged 18–24. Nearly a third of all the pictures they take are of themselves. Ah, the joyous Narcissism of youth.
I did like one millenial's selfie this summer that went viral. It was posted by a half-Lebanese young woman named Sulome Anderson, daughter of American journalist Terry Anderson, if you remember that name, who was once kidnapped and held by Hezbollah for seven years in Lebanon. Anyway, Anderson and her Jewish boyfriend posted a selfie of themselves kissing and holding up a sign that read, "Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies." Now, she is actually Arab-American and he is Jewish-American, but still it's fascinating. He was raised in an Orthodox family and has lived in Israel. No comment on their interreligious relationship, but certainly an interesting use of a selfie, and a great message. "Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies." If only the smartphone camera could transform the world in its own image... at least that image.
In essence, a selfie is just a vastly more ubiquitous form of a very popular form of art, the self-portrait, something painters have been doing regularly for a long time. It is an attempt to memorialize just how we are at that very moment, and some truly great pictures take the form of self-portraiture: from Leonardo da Vinci to Raphael to Velazquez to Rembrandt to Van Gogh to Frieda Kahlo, great painters have rarely resisted the impulse to paint themselves. My friend Howard Salmon of blessed memory, of our own congregation, who passed away this summer created many fascinating self-portraits.
But now, with the invention of the rear-facing cellphone camera, we are all Rembrandts. Or at least we think we are. And if we happen to get lucky we can reach more people in a moment than Rembrandt did in his entire lifetime.
So what's going on here? Why are seemingly rational, well-educated, successful people choosing to decorate the internet with deliberately posed quick photos of themselves at every moment of their lives?
It's a good question. But let's leave it for the moment, because there is more going on in this area of deliberate self-revelation than instant photos.
Take reality TV shows—please. By last count, reality TV shows are now the majority of programming on television, and I am quite certain that there are more entertainment-aimed shows celebrating less-talented people than at any time in human history. There are antecedents in ancient TV shows like Candid Camera, but reality TV got going about 15 years ago, and it has now spawned literally hundreds of shows across all the on-air, cable, and on-line platforms. In these reality shows, non-actor people vie to have TV cameras film their every untalented conversation, meaningless action, and insipid relationship and then broadcast it to the world.
What in the name of Duck Dynasty is going on here?
Even the remarkable movie Boyhood, which if you have not seen it yet you simply must, has a voyeuristic quality to it. Set over the course of eleven years, with filming done annually each of those years using the same actors as they age, we watch a young boy grow to manhood, see his mother and father and sister grow up and older. While the film is fictional and the scenes are scripted, Boyhood nonetheless feels as though you are part of the boy's family for the entire movie. It is extraordinary, and it feels very much like real life. Which is the point, I think, and it illustrates something larger about our society.
What is occurring today is that we have come to a point in our history where the distinction between the public and private realms has broken down completely, and the difference between what is real and what we wish to pretend is real has become very, very blurry. Many—if not most—members of our society are engaged in the propagation of images of ourselves. We have each become our own publicist. And we are pretty close to the point where we feel that only those things that we publicly proclaim—in a blog, on Facebook, in Tweets, in Istagram, on websites—are actually real.
If we ate the best meal, or saw a famous person, or heard a song we loved, or visited a new country, and we didn't yet tell everyone about it, we must instantly send it out to our followers one way or another. The philosophical question is no longer, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to see it, did it really fall? No, the question is, if we see a beautiful sunset, and we don't post it on Facebook, did the sun really set?
This erosion of the distinction we used to have between what was appropriate for everyone to know and what was appropriate only for our families to know, or for no one to know, is approaching totality. It is not global warming: it is global self-revelation. It is becoming a little much. Am I the only one who thinks this? Well, text me then so I know! And post it, too!
We learned this past year that our government has noticed this predilection for exhibitionism, and it is now actively keeping track of all of our emails, Facebook posts, Instagrams, Tweets, selfies, and so on. What the NSA is planning to do with this stupendous quantity of data is not clear. But by golly, they have it, and they are likely trying to figure out how to search it to find out who is really posting those nasty comments about the US government. I mean, besides Congressmen, who likely have immunity from prosecution anyways. I suspect that the NSA is not the only spying organization that has collected this data, nor is our government the only one keeping track of this material. If you are troubled by this obliteration of the sense of privacy that has always been a particular feature of civilization, by all means tweet it out...
Of course, in the case of most of this information, you are also the ones who put it all out there in the first place.
Sometimes, though, it is not we ourselves who put it out there. Just ask Donald Sterling, whose ill-conceived and racist remarks forced him to sell the Los Angeles Clippers for 2 billion dollars when his former mistress recorded him making racist comments and put it on the web for all to hear. Or the similarly Jewish owner of the Atlanta Hawks, who this month decided to sell his team for having sent an email two years ago that might be construed as racist. That email was discovered when he himself called in an investigator to make sure that everything was OK in his own organization. Oops. Nowadays, everything we do is available for the whole world to see, listen to, critique, and flame about.
In other words, we seem to have lost all ability to distinguish between what we should keep to ourselves, and what should be made public. Have we finally come to point in our history when the distinction between the public and private realms has eroded completely?
Judaism has dealt with this question before—long before. Over 1500 years ago, back In the 5th century, the Babylonian Talmud had a way of understanding things that separates the world into two spheres: something called reshut harabim, the public realm, and something called reshut hayachid, the individual or private realm. Certain rules of conduct that apply in reshut harabim, the public realm, do not apply in reshut hayachid, the private realm; and many laws of conduct that apply in reshut hayachid, the private realm, conversely do not apply in reshut harabim, the public realm. For example, on Shabbat, the Sabbath, a person may carry or move objects freely within the private realm, but is not permitted to do so in the public realm; and many actions considered improper and even illegal in the public realm may be freely engaged in within the private realm.
This distinction is an important principle of Jewish law, and it helps to establish what our homes and primary relationships are, as well as what is suitable and legal to reveal, and to do, in public. Our most intimate details are for the private sphere. Our public beliefs and actions are for the public world. What is done in the public square, in the open arena of general attention, is considered to be public. What is done in private is intended to be private.
The ikkar, the essence of the concept is that no one's life is supposed to be a public spectacle. In spite of our current obsession with this trend, nobody needs to have every aspect of her or his existence digitized and forwarded to the entire wired world. We are not the sum of our superficial presentation, whether we are the ones doing the presenting or, God-forbid, TMZ is. And remember, all of this data of our surface images is stored in the cloud—and what could possibly be more ephemeral than a cloud?
Frankly, this is a very hard thing for me to say. After all, my native city is Los Angeles, California, I spent most of my childhood in view of the Hollywood sign, and as I always tell people about LA, surfaces run deep. There are parts of my hometown where the people without plastic surgery are in the distinct minority. And in that car-obsessed culture, what you drive matters infinitely more than what you are.
But life is not about surfaces and superficiality, not about toys and trinkets. Life is about who we are fully, completely.
The High Holy Days arrive each year to teach us, yet again, that we are more than the sum of our public parts. We are in reality—not in reality TV, but you know, actual real reality—we are the sum of our actions, the depth of our emotions, the grandeur of our ideas, the beauty of our creativity, the courage of our convictions. We are something much better and holier than any selfie can capture, or any Facebook post or retweeted quotation can reflect.
We are each fallible human beings, but we are also each created in God's own image. Partially we are the ego-centered, self-serving creatures we appear to be in our posts and webpages. But we are also sacrifice and love, sacredness and service, loyalty and dedication. We are true accomplishment and noble failure. We are holiness and happiness, mourning and remembrance. We are the first cry of a baby and the last sigh of a dying man. We are, each of us, much, much more than electrons displayed on video screens.
And Yom Kippur comes every year to remind us of that fact.
For twenty four hours we are commanded to look inward, to compare our lives with our dreams, to measure our actions against our ideals. We are compelled to look hard at who we are and who we wish to be, our successes and our failures, our bullseyes and our missed targets.
On Yom Kippur we are all, in a way, taking a selfie. But it is not the posed, artificial image we create with a phone for popular consumption. It is not the reshut harabim version of ourselves we are trying to preserve, not the face we place in the public sphere. The image we seek to capture is deeper and more complex than that—it is the whole person, the reality of each of our lives, the person we each meet in the reshut hayachid, the truly private sphere of the soul. That is who we seek to find tonight and tomorrow.
The very real, the very naked you.
What God wants to see tonight and tomorrow is not the selfie—it's the self. It's not the constructed, posed, photoshopped version of you. It's just you. Without makeup. Without pretense. Without shtick. Just you.
You know, the real you. The one who has to apologize directly to the human beings you hurt in the past year. The one who didn't pray enough, study enough, breathe enough, give enough, care enough. That one. The one who was selfish and thoughtless and narcissistic. The one who didn't really work hard but just pretended to, who overcommitted and underperformed, who wishes he or she was a better person but didn't make the effort to actually become that better person. The one who was often passive aggressive, who engaged in gossip, who let anger get the best of him. The one who let helping herself get in the way of helping others. The one who let himself be too busy to help his wife. The one who spent more time on shopping than visiting the sick, more time on sports than supporting friends. The one who gave more money to Amazon than to tzedakah, who pretended he couldn't afford to help when he just didn't want to, even though it was the right thing.
That you. The one in the mirror each morning.
Over this Day of Atonement may we each come to know that person well, and help that person grow in teshuvah and holiness. May we drop our obsession with self-presentation and focus instead on self-awareness. May we shed our preference for self-absorption and remember how to reach out to those we love, to reconnect with them, to help them find their best selves, too.
If we can do that, tonight and tomorrow, if we can find our truest self and resolve to repair it, if we can honestly evaluate our lives and put our moral houses in order, if we can search our souls and seek the spark of divine sanctity implanted within them, then we will need no selfies to remember the moment. We will need no posts to prove our moral merit. We will require no tweets to tell our tales.
Instead, we will find God, who takes no selfies at all. And in that finding we will discover goodness and holiness, comfort and redemption.
May this be our resolve on this Yom Kippur, and may our wills unite with God's own will to make this a day of authentic and very real teshuvah.
Gmar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for an authentically good year.