A Dogma for Our Time

For years, I’ve been preaching the unity of humankind based on the concluding verses of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says God. And God creates man and woman in the Divine image and likeness and then tasks these newly minted creatures with stewardship of the earth and all that lives on it.

From this claim, we can draw certain conclusions.

Being created in God’s image, every human (every human!) shares a profound commonality with every other human. Having nothing to do with any particular physical feature, not skin color, nor gender, nor nationality, humans share an essence which the biblical writer sees as the divine similarity of every one to everyone else and then to God. Not only do we possess a basic similarity with everyone else; this similarity is rooted in God.

Our commonality defies any political, religious, or philosophical consideration. I share with every other human a spiritual resemblance, something invisible but real nonetheless. If you think about it, it’s a remarkable claim really. The notion that I possess a spiritual equivalence with someone in some remote village in the center of Africa amazes me every time I think about it. We are all threaded together; a delicate, invisible thread joins you and me and everyone else. What happens over there matters over here. The commonality that threads through the entirety of humankind holds us to a unity that is as undeniable as it is irrevocable. What happens in China matters everywhere.

And so the current crisis. Every day I turn to the Johns Hopkins University website (, which meticulously tracks the course of this bizarre and deadly bug that’s proliferating among us, one human to another; actually one human to eleven others. As I stare at what appears on my screen, the red splashes of color increasing in size each time I look, I inexorably experience a kind of silent horror as the numbers relentlessly climb higher over the course of any day.

But this growing danger shows me something else. For as we do our best to isolate ourselves from one another to prevent the spread of coronavirus, we’re simultaneously drawn together as one humanity sharing in this mammoth struggle with a disease that does not discriminate between communities or individuals. Everyone shares in the possibility of being infected. Everyone is equal in the eyes of this bug. If under ordinary circumstances we do not easily recognize our connectedness with every other man and woman on this planet, this bug certainly does.

Our current situation brings to mind a well-known ethical conundrum found in the in talmudic tractate Baba Mezia. Two men find themselves in the desert with one canteen of water between them. The canteen is the property of one of the two, and there’s just enough water for one to survive. Who gets the water?

Over the years I’ve seen this problem and its resolution in a number of different ways. This time around I’m focused on the desert, the inhospitable desert. Two men with insufficient resources, lost in it, are struggling to survive. Two men are trapped in a hostile environment that’s trying to kill both of them and they possess insufficient resources. Who will live? Who will die? Who by thirst, who by coronavirus?

But they can overcome the challenge posed by the desert, albeit with considerable effort. But for that to happen, the two men must first acknowledge their innate, Divine similarity, and then act on that knowledge to protect each other as needed. It could well turn out that the desert defeats the two. But perhaps not. Perhaps the two can overcome the oppression of the desert, defeat its evil intent, and save both lives. Perhaps only one lives. Perhaps both survive. Perhaps by acknowledging their common Creator and the thread that inexorably conjoins them, they can find their way through the crisis and to the other side, back to civilization and normal times.

And that, friends, is a dogma for our time: The acknowledgment of our divine similarity, the thread the joins us together into one global family, the family we protect and celebrate, because, we realize, those villagers in the middle of Africa, and everyone else, they’re my kin, too.

My daughter, Dr. Elly Cohen of Indiana University and friends, have assembled a creative set of activities for young children up to around age four. You can access this list here:

About the Author
Phil M. Cohen is a rabbi, author, novelist with interests in bioethics, Israel, fiction, Bible, and Jewish thought. His novel Nick Bones Underground won a Finalist award in the category of Debut Novel from the Jewish Book Council..
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