Justice begins next-door with seeing and being seen.
Years ago a bat mitzvah student challenged my then Chicago congregation to consider a twenty-first century question: Does God have a Facebook page? Her contention was that God, as symbolic exemplar, craves real relationships and that Facebook and other social media which have the potential to foster relationships have also become a dangerous proxy for them. The fullest example of a divine-human relationship is God’s with Moses, which the Torah tells us occurred, not through emojis or cat video affinity groups, but “face to face” (Deu. 34:10). God doesn’t have a Facebook page because the Holy One wants to go deeper with us, and consequently encourages us to go deeper with one another, the kind of depth not likely achieved through a screen.
Arthur Aron (who happens to be my cousin) has done research to this effect, suggesting two people, even total strangers, are more likely to fall in love if they spend meaningful time looking into each other’s eyes. In a widely read New York Times piece, writing teacher Mandy Lee Catron describes her attempt to employ Dr. Aron’s technique: “I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in. I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.”
Human beings need to be seen. This is the impulse for social media, of course: if I can acquire enough likes and loves of my kids’ adorable pics on Instagram, then my contribution of them to the world matters. Through the miracle of modern technology anyone, presumably everyone, all over the world can see me. But there’s something risky about this too. Jewish tradition proscribes many sins, but idolatry is considered one of most insidious because it reduces the irreducible, quantifies the infinite and gives substance to the intangible. A video cannot fully capture a human interaction; a photograph isn’t a face, but a two dimensional impression of one.
If images can be misunderstood, words can be too. Twitter is perhaps the ultimate example (thus far) of how brevity is not only the soul of wit but too often of wickedness as well. We have come to see, not least from our cyber-bully-in-chief, the invidious potential unleashed from a mere 140 characters. In an insightful op-ed this past June, Bret Stephens said about Twitter: “Twitter doesn’t merely amplify ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought, turns into a game of “Telephone” in which original meaning becomes hopelessly garbled with every successive re-tweet. It also facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and mob-like behavior that can wreck people’s lives.”
This is why Beth Am’s community work is so relational as is synagogue work in general; we wish for more people to encounter one another, in person and face to face. Our goal isn’t necessarily to get people to fall in love but to see and be seen, to look up from screens into each other’s eyes. Dickens wrote: “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.” It’s a powerful thing for a stranger halfway around the world to like my picture, video or story. But talking to my next-door neighbor, “seeing someone really seeing me,” means I’ve “arrived somewhere unexpected.” Home.
A version of this post appears in the September issue of JMore