Thursday, 16 Mar 2017

Written by Hannah Kingston

Parashat Ki Tisa: You cannot see my face and live – The selfie as Idolatry


In 2013 the word selfie made it into the Oxford dictionary. Defined as “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” the selfie has taken the world by storm. With an increase in usage of over 17,000% in just one year, 53 million photographs with the corresponding selfie hashtag and 93% of teenagers taking pride in regularly posting these self portraits on their facebook, instagram and twitter accounts, it is clear that the selfie is more than just a phase.

With a cult following and newsfeeds constantly inundated with pictures of people in every location imaginable, the age of the selfie has brought a new subject to the forefront of our lives…ourselves. It could be argued that this is the first time in the course of history that we have had such a widely used form of self worship. Have we entered an age whereby worship and admiration has ultimately been channeled away from the creator and towards the created?

Is this now at the point where our self worship is actually crossing into the realm of idolatry? Have we reached a time where the self is at the forefront of all action and we no longer share ideas, we just share our image.

The legitimacy of representing human figures through both 2D and 3D artwork has long been questioned within our Jewish tradition and is still clearly an issue today. Starting from the second commandment, a well known  prohibition of all types of graven image of the divine, it seems only logical that art depicting humans, created in the divine image, would be profaning this ruling. For representations of humans are surely also depictions of the divine. Yet Talmudic literature only prohibits the construction of images for the purpose of worship and not for other pursuits, like that of the Golden calf seen in this week’s parashah.

The law code of the Shulkhan Arukh takes this a step further. It specifies that any three dimensional representation of humans must be  partially incomplete in order for it to be a halakhically legitimate representation. However there is still no prohibition against the painting, drawing or weaving in tapestry of a figure of a human being. It is clear that this poses no problems to the ancient rabbis, for maybe it has no resemblance to their God.

Perhaps this is understandable, for despite our explicit creation betzelem Elohim, in all honesty we have no idea what that tzelem, image, of Elohim really is…

For in this week’s parashah, following the incident of the Golden Calf, as Moses resumes life in the tent of meeting outside of the camp we hear that he is met by a pillar of cloud through which God would speak to Moses. Here we have described face to face contact between human and divine. Yet it is clear that this meeting is in fact not so personal, for later on in the sidra Moses requests to ‘behold God’s presence’, Moses, who has never seen God’s face, needs something concrete to hold on to, a figure, an image. God’s response is not what Moses wanted as when faced with this request God states: “No one can see my face and live”.

Despite Moses’ clear idolisation of God, God remains humble. The back of God is shown, his presence is felt as it passes by, but God’s face remains a mystery. Perhaps God is shying away from fans, hopeful to keep some privacy. God refrains from showing face to hundreds of followers, needing not to be reduced to a single image suspended in memory. It is doubtful that God would have brandished a #selfie over the internet.

With this in mind, could one even argue that our Jewish tradition is so grounded in the aural that it leaves little room for the visual? Not really…For just last week we read about all the intricacies of the mishkan, to be beautifully decorated and ornate, and the garments of the high priest, made explicitly from the finest materials. Even our creation is one of vision. We are made in God’s image, we are visual, a piece of God’s art work. From this I am left wondering, should the selfie be embraced or vehemently discouraged in Judaism?

Whilst the selfie was not a global phenomenon in the times of Buber and Levinas, our modern Jewish thinkers pondered greatly over the legitimacy of representing humans in  art work, or whether doing so was creating a form of idolatry.

Buber, famous for his teaching of I – thou relationships, where human life finds meaningfulness in relationships, believes that art where the subject is not fixed for the spectator, creates dialogue. Art craves a partner in the process of unending dialogue to uncover its many fluid meanings. It only comes to life, becomes real, when it is in relation to us.

In this sense our selfies with their countless likes and comments could be a forum for dialogue and relationships, ultimately bringing meaning to life. Or rather, more likely, is the selfie not open to any interpretation, is its meaning fixed? Is the selfie devoid of the dialogue of an I – thou relationship? Does the selfie, in fact, create an I – I relationship?

Levinas believes the fixed nature of a portrait, or in this case a selfie, acts as a mask to reality, cheating a person of their life and placing them in an eternally suspended future. The selfie therefore, objectifies a human being, turning them into an object devoid of soul and expression, a caricature. The image is not an image of them, yet it becomes more real than the reality. People are eternally suspended in their perfectly posed smiles, their true emotions never conveyed.

Today I declare the selfie as idolatry. For by declaring this as idolatry we name it to be plastic, unreal and suspended in time with no future. We realise that our worlds are more than the perfectly retouched photos of ourselves, displaying an unreal reality. We instead offer ourselves up to perception, allowing dialogue with a spectator to move our reality from potential, to actual existence.
May we think again before we brandish ourselves on the web. May we share what’s in our heads, our thoughts, our passions and our souls with those around us and not just our posed faces. May we take time to get to know our friends, not just as followers on social media, but as people who impact our lives and whose lives we impact, in a continuous I – thou dialogue. And may our worlds be ever flowing and changing, not held statically as we try to capture the perfect frame.


Student rabbi Hannah Kingston

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.