The Selfie: A Rosh Hashanah Reflection by Rabbi Joshua Caruso – September 13, 2015

Rabbi CarusoThis post to “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Joshua Caruso at Rosh Hashanah Contemporary Worship of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, on Sunday, September 13, 2015. We invite you to respond by making comments below, or to share this post widely on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, to continue the important conversation it engenders.

The selfie. It’s that thing you do when you take a picture of yourself –with or without others – by simply extending your arm, and making sure you fit in the picture. What more can I say…we have become obsessed with taking the selfie. The selfie is something that really didn’t exist in the days before the personal cell phone. Nowadays, the selfie has captured our lives. I must confess that I have jumped in and am now part of the craze. I even make it a practice to take a selfie with each bar and bat mitzvah student before or after the service. How did this happen? Well, there is usually a lot of joy in the selfie. It’s an opportunity for each one of us to “photo-bomb” or star in a picture of our choosing. The selfie, though, is only a very superficial snapshot of the self.

At this time of year, the rabbis charge us to take a selfie of sorts – a cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of the soul –one might say an internal selfie. If executed right, this is probably the hardest thing we can do. It requires a deep look inside the psyche.

A peek within can reveal some very jarring insights.

Dr. Alan Morinis, a leading figure in the contemporary revival of mussar – the Jewish ethical movement, says,

“The central point [of cheshbon ha-nefesh – the accounting of the soul] is really to reveal to consciousness the contents of the unconscious mind. These are, by definition, hidden from us…But because the contents of our unconscious are perfectly reflected in the patterns of our deeds, certain …patterns become unmistakable. We need this truth about ourselves to guide our steps on the path to deep, lasting, fulfilling transformation…This new awareness is crucial for the inner journey of the Days of Awe…[1]

So, let me give this practice a try…

I remember when I met one of the kindest people you will ever find. Andreas Schultz, a young man studying for ministry in the Lutheran church in Germany. I met him in Israel where we were both studying for the year. Andreas and I became close friends and we even roomed together in Jerusalem. He and I partnered to head up a series of programs aimed at creating greater understanding between Jews and Germans 50 years after the Holocaust. He and I were the faces of peace and reconciliation; symbols of love and understanding. And yet, there was this gnawing part of me – deep in my soul – that couldn’t get an image out of my head. The photo in my mind – and I am embarrassed to say this out loud – was of my dear and sweet friend, Andreas, dressed up in a Nazi uniform, replete with jackboots and Third Reich regalia. Oh, yeah…he was giving the “Heil Hitler” salute, too!

My history as a Jew, and the psyche of my people that I inherited, created a lens through which, like it or not, I viewed my friend. It is fascinating how we can simultaneously hold different conceptual imaginings of others – and of ourselves. While I can now laugh at my hidden thoughts of my good friend Andreas, the clear discrepancy between my historical references and the reality of our friendship did not sit well on my heart.

A parable: A disciple once asked his rebbe: “Why does the Torah tell us to place these words UPON your hearts al levavecha – (Deut. 11:18)? Why does it not tell us to place these words IN our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”[2]

This teaching, so tender, reminds us of the internal “selfie” we all are charged to examine during this time of year. To recognize that we are both whole and, in some ways, broken. It is in seeing – truly seeing – our brokenness that we can open our heart to these words of Torah that define our congregation – Anshe Chesed…People of Loving-Kindness – and the way we want to live.

We see the world through a limited lens, and that lens is filtered with the experiences of an imperfect life, our history, and the influence of an imperfect society. So we project things. Onto our experiences. Onto other people. Like when the cashier puts the “This Register Closed” sign up just as we have been patiently waiting our turn in line, and we think, “How rude she is!” And then we might create a story for her…all sorts of pre-conceived notions about her work ethic, lack of education, and family life may crowd into our minds unbidden, despite not knowing a single thing about that cashier’s challenges or burdens.

These are all judgments I have made at one time or another, despite my conscious wish to give others the benefit of the doubt. In these moments I was not able to see my own selfie, and recognize my own brokenness, and open my heart to Lovingkindness. Sometimes my internal “Selfies” conflict with each other- just like my views of my friend Andreas. Although I am not proud of it, if I am to be honest in this season of internal selfies, I’ve judged people based on their jobs, their presentation, and yes, even their color.

A black colleague once told me that, after the Trayvon Martin ruling, he walked into a restaurant and suddenly felt “conspicuous”. I wonder what that must be like – to immediately feel like someone is writing your resume before ever knowing you – and your blackness only “colors” the details of that resume. What would it be like to know that people assume things about you because of your color? Are suspicious of you? Perhaps even afraid—without knowing a single thing about who you are?

A friend, who will be speaking at GW Hillel for Yom Kippur, recently posted on Facebook this query:

WHITE FB FRIENDS– Please do not be silent. Talk to me–even a few sentences or send me a longer message- about how the term “white privilege” makes you feel. Does it fit you? Are you guilty? Ashamed? Determined? Angry? Wrongly labeled? Scared? Helpless? What? 

The jarring words, “White Facebook Friends”, made me shudder. I immediately wondered, was this aimed at me? Am I representative of “White America”? Am I a “White Facebook Friend”? I look at my selfie – of course I am.

Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Brooklyn, Sandra Bland in Texas, a group of peaceful black worshippers killed in Charleston, and, of course, the shooting death of 12-year old Tamir Rice here in Cleveland – all of these travesties have raised the level of rhetoric and conversation about race in this country. Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates have written jarring books, indicting the policies and laws of the white establishment that have put a stranglehold on the ability of blacks to advance in this country.

Many of my Reform colleagues and I have taken notice, and have begun to strategize about what we, Reform Jews, can do.

I had the privilege, just a few weeks ago, of marching with the NAACP in America’s Journey for Justice in rural South Carolina. The Journey, aimed at raising awareness of issues connected to racial justice, is a more than 40-day walk from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC. The full distance is more than 860 miles, and I am proud to say that for every day of the march there was at least one Reform rabbi marching in step. The journey was an opportunity for us to show solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters. Along for the ride was a Torah scroll (outfitted with its own waterproof backpack), borrowed from a colleague’s congregation in Chicago.

The concept of the Journey for Justice initiative was an awakening for me. This wasn’t just any walk designed to raise awareness – it was about the very real loss of black lives. There was a sense of urgency, a feeling that things need to change – now. As Shelia from Detroit put it, “I want them to stop killing my babies”. It was the “them” in that sentence that still tugs at me today. What did that mean? Was she talking about law enforcement in America, or the elected public officials who have issued policies that hamper African-American advancement, or random killers like Dylann Roof, who slaughtered innocents when they were in prayer at church in Charleston? Was she talking about the white establishment? Was she talking about me?

The answer to all of these questions is yes.

My mind goes to 50 years ago, and the Freedom Summer of 1964. If Facebook existed, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld would post from Hattiesburg, where he registered blacks to vote, and we would see the picture of him beaten up with a tire iron by white supremacists. On our newsfeed we would see Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in a gesture of solidarity with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. We would read Rabbi Heschel’s post, saying that “we were praying with our feet”. If Instagram existed, we would see a photo of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the then-president of the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations who marched with MLK in the 1960’s, holding our sacred Torah scroll and speaking truth to power.

While I was not carrying the same Torah held by Rabbi Eisendrath, the scroll I embraced contains the same Hebrew letters found in any Torah, which are formed into the same words in every Torah in every generation. The words that should sit upon our hearts. The Jewish blueprint for living.

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor”

“Love the neighbor as yourself”.

The words our congregation embodies, and that Rabbi Lelyveld exemplified.

Indeed, Jews have always been in the forefront of the struggle for racial justice. We take for granted that Jews and blacks share the same master story of slavery and eventual freedom. We share a history of being oppressed time and again. It is this history, and our commitment to seek freedom for all, that has led to Jews standing arm-in-arm in solidarity with the civil rights struggle of our brothers and sisters of color. We can relate to that oppression and that struggle, right?

For an overwhelming part of Jewish history we have been treated like the stranger, as different, tainted; even sub-human. And even today, there are many who disguise their anti-Semitism – and many who don’t – by spewing forth vitriol towards Jews all over the world, the State of Israel and dispute the right of every Jew to live there. We understand what it feels like to be treated as second-class citizens.

Yes, we have a shared past. But do we have a shared present and future?

The hard truth is that, in 2015, our experience as Jews in America is not the same as that of people of color.

In the last 100 years Jews on these shores have largely overcome the major obstacles of bigotry. We’ve seen quotas repealed, Christian-only places of employment open up to others, many prejudices overcome. Today, completely out of proportion to our numbers, Jews influence the American landscape like never before. Jews have filled almost every public position of influence in this country save for the presidency. Our philanthropy lines the walls of some of the most prominent institutions on this continent. We participate in the most relevant expressions of culture in just about every modality available.

This is simply not the case for people of color. I used to wonder why the African-American community did not rise up the ranks of American life like we Jews did. For years, I believed that the Jewish ascension in this country was due primarily to the magic of our people. I used to believe that we were more organized, more resourceful, more focused on the education of our children, more involved in civic life.

But is that a fair assessment? I look at my internal selfie and say “No”.

While many strides were made in the struggle for civil rights in the 60’s and 70’s, with the successes came a backlash of private and institutionalized racism that was sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is currently being eroded. This law banned discriminatory policies towards any American who wished to vote. Unfortunately, those rights are systematically being taken away.

University of Massachusetts at Boston sociologist Keith Bentele and political scientist Erin O’Brien studied the issue of restrictive voting policies. They write in the Washington post that they found that “restrictive proposals were more likely to be introduced in states with larger African-American and non-citizen populations and with higher minority turnout in the previous presidential election. These proposals were also more likely to be introduced in states where both minority and low-income turnout had increased in recent elections. A similar picture emerged for the actual passage of these proposals. States in which minority turnout had increased since the previous presidential election were more likely to pass restrictive legislation.”[3]

When a white person is stopped for a routine traffic offense, he typically does not worry that the stop will be fatal – or even land him in jail. I’m thinking about the Sefie of the person of color who sees the flashing lights of the squad car in his rearview mirror.

Today there are more African Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. Is this because African Americans commit more violent crimes than white citizens? No. Two thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population is due to drug offenses, mostly minor and nonviolent ones. Although people of ALL colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates, when white people are arrested for this, most are sent to rehab. When black people are arrested for this, most are sent to prison and labeled a felon and legally denied basic public benefits and rights, for life. This has had a devastating effect on black families.

As Michelle Alexander states it, “In this way, a new racial under-caste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time — a new Jim Crow system.  Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.”[4]

On that Journey for Justice – while I was carrying the Torah, or, perhaps, while the Torah was carrying me – I thought about what the Torah represents to me. Foundationally, the Torah reveals the sacredness of every single creation of God…and yet our world – our country – does not reflect this fact.

So what do we do?

I am not going to charge you to make more friends who look different form you. I am not going to tell you that you should join an issue action team with Greater Cleveland Congregations. I am not going to suggest you read more books about race in America. I am not going to assert that we are all made in the image of God. And I am not going to say “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

No, I’m not going to say those things, because you already know all that. We can start by letting the words of Torah sit upon our hearts. We must let them sit there for a long time- the duration of a sermon is not long enough. We must take an internal selfie- and be honest with ourselves about what we see. Let the words sit there, and while they are on your heart, feel the heaviness of them. the heaviness of what it must be like to be the “other.” Can you feel the weight right now? I’m gong to do it, too. I am going to let that Torah sit right there on my heart until my heart breaks enough to let in the words that have guided us for thousands of years.

Let us pray:

Avinu Malkenu, Creator of words, guide our speech, teach us words of love and respect, remove from our mouths words of hate and degradation…

Avinu Malkenu, creator of courage, help us speak out against hateful speech, help us stand on the front lines with those who speak out for justice, help us work within our privileged lives to create new privilege for those who are left out…

Avinu Malkenu, creator of humanity, let us hear in others’ strident cries, the voice of their humanity, let others hear in our forcefulness the voice of OUR humanity…

Avinu malkenu, choneinu va-aneinu , ki ain banu ma-asim. Aseh imanu tzedakah va-chesed, v’hoshieinu.

Avinu Malkenu, show us grace and respond to us…even when we are unworthy. Make for us justice and love, and deliver us.



[1] Alan Morinis,

[2] Chasidic