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Too Engrossed in Reality TV to Examine Real Life?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013
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BY: Rabbi Eric Yanoff

There is evidently a deep need within all of us to confess and to find absolution for our sins.  “Relief is only a phone call away,” promised the Apology Sound-Off Line in Los Angeles, a 1-900 number that was active in the late '80s where people could call to confess everything from a stolen kiss to a homicide at the reasonable cost of just two dollars for the first minute and forty-five cents for every subsequent minute.

According to a 1988 L.A. Times article, United Communications International, the Encino-based company running the sound-off line, received hundreds of calls a day from people seeking to unburden their guilty feelings. The company also operated another 900 number that got up to 14,000 calls per day where people could listen in to the confessions of OTHER people!

Both phone numbers no longer work and it's not clear what happened to this business. But the chance to peek into someone else’s imperfect life, with all its warts and challenges, remains big business nowadays.

Reality shows have consistently captured the largest percentage of the audience watching the top 10 broadcast programs since the 2002 season, according to the Nielsen market research firm. Television has gone from “pop culture” to “peep culture” – peering in on the lives and misfortunes of others. 

You know, I’m starting to feel left out. Why hasn’t there been a synagogue reality show?  I can see it now: "So You Think You’re Smarter Than a Bar Mitzvah Boy." Or even better: "Bimah Babies." We’ll take eight Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids and give them different challenges (longest Haftorah…), and the winner gets the silver Kiddush cup and a cash prize. But a la "Deal or No Deal," the amount of money is also undetermined: The winner has to choose his prize from 100 unmarked envelopes stuffed in his father’s suit-jacket pocket, all in different multiples of $18 . . .

Would you watch that show? Someone would.

But there can be danger in tuning in to this sort of programming. Even if we know that reality shows are not the full picture of real life; even if we know that the producers are manipulating the stories with creative editing, we "buy" them as reality. The “real” housewives, the “real world….” And somewhere in our psyche, the outlandish behavior becomes part of acceptable reality. 

Worse, looking at these reality television characters enables us to avoid doing something we really need to do: look at ourselves. Watching the purportedly “real lives” of others, exaggerated, shown in gross detail, lets us off the hook from looking at our own lives.  Maybe we say, “at least I’m not them," but we’re so engrossed in the lives of others that we never really look at how we can be better.

On Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur, at this time of year, we are given a unique opportunity to look here, at ourselves, instead of at the television, at someone else’s mishegas. We only become better people if we take a moment not to pretend we are perfect, not to avoid our own “stuff” and make ourselves feel superior to the people we see as caricatures – but to ask ourselves, how can we be better?  How can we be more real – not more of a spectacle, not more extreme – but more honest, more involved in contributing to a more perfect world, in the year to come?

Like the call-in number where we can listen to other people’s confessions instead of confronting our own imperfections, reality TV enables us to avoid those tough questions that Judaism pleads with us to consider.  The truth is, even in Judaism we have plenty of scandalous characters to keep things spicy! Unlike some other religions, we don’t have saints. The key figures in the Torah are not unattainable models of perfection, but real personalities whose imperfections are as compelling as any reality star.

Can’t you just picture the family tension in the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading when Sarah, protective of her son, Isaac, tries to convince Abraham to kick out his concubine Hagar and her son, Ishmael? “This week on Survivor: Who will get kicked out of the Tent – Isaac or Ishmael?” [SURVIVOR: CANAAN sign]

The Torah gives us heroes who are role models because they force us to look in the mirror and learn lessons about how we might live better lives.  We do not aspire for perfection, some saintly model. Rather, we aspire to keep striving, working to be better, nobler, than we previously thought possible.

Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the spiritual leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.

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