The Oxford English Dictionary selected the word “selfie” as its “Word of the Year” for 2013. The selfie, a picture that one takes of oneself and uploads to social media, has become our era’s ubiquitous mode of self-expression. Of course, if you do not know what a selfie is, have never taken one, or have never posted one on the Internet, you are decidedly in the minority. A recent survey of American teenagers found that 91 percent have posted selfies online. I admit to having posted a selfie or two myself. Even Pope Francis and U.S. President Barack Obama take selfies on occasion (at times, some have argued, on inappropriate occasions).
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In a recent Haaretz blog post, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink argues that people take and post selfies for many different reasons. For some, it is kind of like keeping an e-diary or journal, documenting one’s life for memory and self-reflection. For others, it is a way of giving select friends a remote window into what is going on in their lives at any given moment – what they are thinking, what they are doing, how they are feeling – making the practice not much different in purpose than a letter, phone call, or email.
In my experience, however, that is not how most people use selfies, including, if I am truly honest, myself, the few times I have posted them. The primary reason people seem to display selfies is to receive as many thumbs-up signs, comments, heart-shaped emojies, and "likes" as possible. People post selfies not for introspection or for conversation, but rather for validation, as if to say, “Please tell me I’m beautiful. Please let me know that I matter.”
In a sense, this motive makes the selfie an extension of other forms of social media. When one logs onto Facebook, it asks, “What’s on your mind?” Posting a selfie can be a way of showing, rather than telling, the world the answer to that question. Most of us do this regularly: Three-quarters of American adults use social media sites, spending 3.5 hours a day on them. Those already high numbers rise among millennials. Ninety percent of those aged 18-30 use social media, and do so on average for over 4 hours per day.
However, desiring support (or braving rejection) of one’s written thoughts feels different than offering up one’s image for validation. The written word privileges the internal; the selfie only exposes one’s external appearance. In the former, we express the importance of our thoughts. In the latter, we emphasize the primacy of our beauty, reinforcing an already pervasive cultural value that how we look is the prime measure of our worth. When others disagree with, reject, or ignore what one writes on social media, it might sting, but there is a fix: the author can offer a reasoned defense or learn from the criticism and refine the idea. On the other hand, when one’s image is ignored or disparaged, it can be irredeemably damaging. After all, what can one constructively do with that information?
While the selfie has the power to magnify the insecure feeling that our self-worth is tied to others finding us beautiful, it did not create this belief. Many of us struggle to confidently know our own value. As a result, we seek validation. The selfie is but one symptom of this.
Knowing the prevalence and the seriousness of the malady, Jewish tradition responds by insisting that God loves us. Each morning, we pray “You, Eternal, our God, love us with a great love.” By reciting this passage, we affirm that we are truly valuable, for we are important enough to be loved by God. Most importantly, our tradition reminds us that God’s love for us is not linked to our physical appearance. God chooses David to be king of Israel despite the fact that his brothers were more beautiful. “God sees not as man sees – man sees only what is visible, but God sees into the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).
Parents are meant to be partners with God in reinforcing this kind of unconditional love. We are called to raise our children to know that they have infinite value regardless of what others think, and certainly independent of their physical appearance. Similarly, our synagogues, replacements for the ancient Holy Temple, are meant to be a physical manifestation of God’s presence on earth. As such, synagogues have godly charges: To strengthen, empower, and encourage everyone in its jurisdiction with unconditional love.
Rabbi Fink suggested that selfies tend to be innocuous or even good. While at times they certainly can be, they can also be a symptom of a serious malady: the lack of self worth. Parents, religious leaders, and sacred communities have the cure in hand. By loving and showing love strongly and unconditionally, we can encourage others to realize their worth. True, Judaism may not forbid selfies, but it empowers us to make them obsolete.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.